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 1899 - 1927

The Most Successful Steam Car of all Time

To our mind, Stanley built the most successful steam car of all time. Its production life of over a quarter of a century was at least a decade longer than that of any other external combustion car: and even after its demise there were attempts to revive the marque. Francis E. Stanley and Freelan O. Stanley were identical twins, born in 1849 in Kingsland, Maine, whose principal boyhood hobby seems to have been making violins. They turned this hobby into a business, mass-producing violins which, while a little roughly finished, were acceptable musically.

Though they came of farming stock, the Stanleys' interests were more technical than agricultural; they had a natural talent for mathematics, and taught this subject in school when they were young men, all the while picking up sufficient scientific knowledge to be able to invent and patent an early type of X-Ray apparatus. Their first patent, however, was for a new type of photographic dry plate, and they established a photographic factory in the 1890s at Newton, Mass.

The Stanley Dry Plate

The Stanley Dry Plate proved so successful that eventually the Stanleys were able to sell the business to the Eastman Kodak Company at a handsome profit. One day in the autumn of 1896 the brothers attended the Fall Fair at Brockton, Massachussetts, where the star attraction was a demonstration run by a 'horseless carriage'. However, the carriage proved so unreliable that it was unable to complete even one lap of the track.

The Stanleys were convinced that they could do better, and Francis E. Stanley is reported to have told his friends: 'Well, boys, before another fall I will show you a self-propelled carriage that will go around that track not only once but several times without stopping.' The Stanleys reckoned that the entire car should weigh no more than 500 lb: but when the engine arrived from the Mason Regulator Company of Milton, Mass., it weighed more than 400 lb. And the boiler, made by the Roberts Iron Works Company, scaled over 200 lb. So the finished car was grossly over its design weight: but, apart from a tendency to frighten the local horses, it ran well.

Newton to Newtonville

The first trial run, from Newton to Newtonville, took place in September 1897, easily meeting Francis E. Stanley's deadline. Next they designed a lightweight firetube boiler capable of withstanding pressures of 2000 lb yet weighing only 90 lb: its strength was imparted by three layers of steel wire wound round the exterior of the boiler shell. And J. W. Penny & Sons, of Mechanic Falls, Maine, supplied an engine which weighed only 35lb. During the winter of 1897, the Stanleys built three more cars - two Runabouts and a Surrey. They dismantled the Surrey, but each took a runabout and used them for the next year, refusing all offers for the vehicles.

The Stanley brothers still considered automobiles as only a hobby. One would-be-buyer, a Bostonian named Methot, was more persistent than the rest, and eventually persuaded Freelan O. Stanley to part with his car for $600: Stanley, knowing full well that he and his brother could easily build a better machine, was not unduly perturbed at parting with the car. Then Francis E. entered his steamer for a race held on the Charles River cycle track in connection with New England's first motor show and outran the other competitors (a De Dion, a Haynes-Apperson, a Whitney steamer and a Riker electric) so convincingly that within a fortnight the brothers were inundated with orders for 200 cars.

John Brisben Walker

The Stanleys' friend, Sterling Elliott, offered his bicycle factory and the brothers bought the premises, installed machinery, and began manufacture. In February 1899 one car was completed and the other 199 were in varying stages of manufacture when, arriving at work around 7am one morning, the Stanleys found a stranger sitting in their office. He was John Brisben Walker, publisher of the Cosmopolitan magazine, and he wanted to buy half the Stanley automobile business .. The brothers did not want to take on a partner: but a few weeks later Walker was back with another offer. This time he wanted to buy the entire operation.

1898 Stanley two-seater
1898 Stanley two-seater.

1904 Stanley Steamer
1904 Stanley Steamer.

Stanley Wogglebug
In 1906 Fred Marriott set the Land Speed Record of 127.66 mph the famous Stanley Wogglebug. He also drove a different steam car over 150 mph the following year, but the vehicle crashed before the official speed was recorded.
To scare him off, the Stanleys thought up an outrageous price. 'We want $250,000-cash,' they told him, knowing that the entire operation to date had cost them under $20,000. 'Exactly the figure I had in mind, a quarter of a million,' replied Walker, and wrote out a $500 cheque as a deposit. Walker in fact did not have the $250,000, but aimed to raise it by interesting wealthy men in the business, and eventually sold a half share to one Amzi Lorenzo Barber. The conditions of the sale included an agreement not to make cars for a year. Recalled F. O. Stanley: 'We found it difficult to understand, and quite ambiguous. But on the whole safer for us than for him, so both parties signed it' - agreeing that the Stanleys should not engage in the manufacture of steam cars for one year from 1 May 1899.

Nominally they were on the board of the new company, but that was the limit of their involvement. Within a fortnight the alliance between Walker and Barber had gone asunder: Walker began manufacture of the Mobile steam car at Tarrytown, N.Y., while Barber built the Locomobile of almost identical design at Westboro, Massachussetts. The Stanleys began developing a superior steam car which circumvented all their old patents, ready to go into production when the year's suspension came to an end. In fact, they didn't begin manufacture under their own name again until 1901, when Locomobile moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, and sold the Stanleys their old factory - and the patents - for a mere $20,000.

The New Stanley Steamer

Within a few months, the Stanleys had sold the rights to use two of their patents to the White Company for $15,000, ending the venture a healthy $245,000 to the good. The new Stanley steamer had its twin-cylinder engine geared directly to the back axle, a layout which would characterise this marque for the rest of its life. At first the cars were typical buggies, but by 1904 the boiler was at the front under the easily reconizable famous 'coffin-nose' bonnet. Right from the start, the Stanleys placed a premium on performance. They claimed that their fire-tube boiler gave a greater reserve of power than flash boilers, and remained faithful to this design throughout the production life of the Stanley Steamer.

The Stanleys rarely indulged in paid advertising for their products; they could be assured of around 1000 customers every year on word-of-mouth recommendation, and did not see why they should put themselves out to increase or cheapen production. Unfortunately, Freelan O. Stanley had little part in this revival of the Stanley, as ill-health had compelled him to move to Colorado where he eventually built a home and the Stanley Hotel at Estes Park, a noted beauty spot. Francis E., on the other hand, threw himself into the activities of the company with gusto: in 1903 he drove the first streamlined Stanley racing car at Readville, a town just outside Boston.

The Stanley Beetle 'Wogglebug'

But it was Fred Marriott who drove the most famous Stanley, the Beetle (alias Wogglebug), which exceeded 127 mph on Ormond Beach, Daytona, Florida, on 27 January 1906. With a standard engine, but increased boiler capacity, this car had a long, low, streamlined body, probably the first to be developed by wind-tunnel tests. Unfortunately, even the underside of the car had been faired in to decrease windage, and when the front wheels of the car bucked off the ground in a subsequent speed record attempt, Beetle became a 150 mph aerofoil and took off. The car was destroyed and Marriott seriously injured.

The Gentleman's Speedy Roadster

The Stanleys never raced again, though both brothers retained their love of high speed. Their 1907 range introduced the most coverable of Stanleys, the Gentleman's Speedy Roadster, available with three different engine sizes, and was easily capable of over 75 mph in short bursts. It was a car ideally suited to the driving habits of the Stanley twins, who enjoyed driving in tandem through the countryside in identical steam cars, a ploy which often caused confused double-takes by policemen attempting to operate timed speed traps. But it was his love of speed which killed Francis E. Stanley at the age of 69, in 1918. Breasting a hill at speed, he found two farm carts blocking the road and swerved to his death.

Coffin-nose Stanleys

Fashion demanded that steam cars should look as much like petrol cars as possible. In addition foot and mouth disease, which broke out in New England in 1914, caused the removal of many of the roadside watering troughs on which the old non-condensing Stanleys had depended, and made the use of a condensor, which upped the range between water refills to 150-200 miles, imperative. The condensor model Stanleys, however, were a rearguard action by a firm already on the decline, thanks to its seat-of-the-pants marketing strategies, since about 1903. A total of 743 Coffin-nose Stanleys was built in 1914, but only 126 of the more expensive and complicated condensor models appeared the following year, as the company had gobbled up all its surplus capital in development costs.

Some 250 cars were built in 1916, and 500 in 1917. The 1918 output might have been boosted by an order for 160 mobile military shower-baths mounted on Mack truck chassis, but the war ended before more than a prototype could be constructed, and the order was cancelled. The brothers had retired from the business by May 1918, and a new management, led by Prescott Warren, took over. Prices were raised in the hope of increased profits, and for a short time it looked as though the fortunes of Stanley were about to change, with 1920 seeing the biggest backlog of orders, in money terms, of its entire history.

But the sudden recession in the car industry caused the cancellation of many of those orders, and left the company with a lot of expensive orphans on its hands. Now no-one, save a handful of dedicated enthusiasts, wanted steam cars. The virtues of steam propulsion were lost on a generation which had been brought up to believe that steam was synonymous with complication of operation and required special driving skills. The Chicago investment group of Prescott Warren controlled the company's ailing fortunes until 1924, when the Stanley Motor Carriage Company was sold to the newly formed Steam Vehicle Corporation of America, which sold the Newton factory and transferred the corporate headquarters to Allentown, Pennsylvania, but it seems that no cars were ever built there, and the company ceased trading in 1927.

There was a brief attempt to revive the Stanley Steamer in the middle of the 1930s which from the beginning was fraught with difficulties and soon came to nothing. The surviving Stanley twin, Frelan 0., was active in his retirement at Estes Park right up until the day of his death in 1940 at the ripe old age of ninety-one - nearly half a century after the first Stanley Steamer.
1920 Stanley model 735
1920 Stanley model 735, powered by a double-acting twin-cylinder engine driving the back wheels. It has a top speed just over 50 mph.
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