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article number 148
article date 07-24-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Fastest Thing on Wheels, the 1898 Stanley Steamer
by M. M. Musselman

From the book, Get a Horse. Author’s book dedication: To my mother and father in memory of those days when a Marmon touring car was their pride and joy.

For some reason the men with the money were usually wrong about the automobile business. About 1898 Wall Street money started the Electric Vehicle Company. The financiers had it figured out that electricity was the coming rage in the horseless carriage game. Electric carriages were clean and quiet and simple to operate. Obviously a gentleman would have nothing to do with a noisy, greasy, bucking, gasoline buggy.

Then along came the Stanley brothers with their steam car. In 1899 they had one model car, orders for two hundred, some patents and were about to manufacture cars in an old bicycle factory when a syndicate of wealthy men bought them out for $250,000.

That was the smart money, the hard-to-fool money. But when the monkey-wrench engineers in Detroit tried to raise capital, Boston bankers sniffed audibly and looked out the window, while the Wall Street crowd gave them the bum’s rush. So Detroit’s young inventors had to get dumb money from the ‘local yokels’, who weren’t bright enough to realize that electricity and steam, not gasoline, were the coming things.

This stylish equipage was an electric carriage of about 1901-05. It could be rented complete with chauffeur, for $180 a month.

The electric auto never had a chance. Its radius of operation was far too limited; it carried too much weight per horsepower; and it required special, rather expensive equipment to keep the batteries charged.

But the Stanley Steamer was a dilly of a car and in the early days of the horseless carriage the average layman believed implicitly that steam engines would never be surpassed as a means of power. They were quiet, fast, and powerful. They needed no cranking, and kerosene, which was their fuel, was safer and cheaper than gasoline. The only drawback to a steamer, according to the drugstore wiseacres and the curbstone critics, was the boiler. Yes, sir! That was something you had to look out for. If you didn’t watch the pressure gauge like a hawk the goddam thing would explode and blow you to kingdom come!

Of course, even the early steamers had safety devices to keep the boiler pressure from rising too high, but nevertheless people were suspicious of them, and the explosion bugaboo was something the Stanleys always had to fight.

Doubtless, a good many boiler explosions in the past had created this latent fear of steam, for steam engines antedated all others by over a hundred years. A Frenchman built the first steam road vehicle about 1770 for the French army. It hauled a cannon at the rate of two and a half miles per hour. The vehicle is still in existence and may be seen at the Museum of Arts and Trades in Paris.

After James Watt invented his more efficient steam engine, British experimenters built several steam stage coaches and it looked as though this new form of transportation might displace horse-drawn coaches, which were slower and more costly to operate.

But the stagecoach operators of England lobbied a law through Parliament that successfully killed steam coaches and all types of automobiles for the next sixty-five years.

The “red flag law” (explained previously) forced the steam engine enthusiasts to buy their own rights of way, on which they laid rails to operate their steam vehicles; thus the railroads were born and the stagecoaches were driven out of business anyway.

French Steam Bus from the 1870’s.

Oliver Evans, a builder of steam engines in Philadelphia, is credited with operating the first steam road vehicle in America in 1805. This ingenious gentleman had a contract to build a steam scow which was to ply the Delaware River. It happened that his plant was across town from the river so when he began to build the scow in his factory yard, the neighbors thought he had gone daffy. When the steam scow with its big walking beam was finally ready to sail, Evans attached wheels to it; then the neighbors were sure that he was off his rocker.

On the day that Evans got up a head of steam, half of Philadelphia turned out to see the fun. Everybody said he must be crazy as a bedbug. But when Evans opened the steam engine’s throttle, the walking beam started seesawing, the wheels began turning and the damn-fool contraption headed out of the yard and down the street toward the Delaware River. When he arrived there, Mr. Evans ran his amphibian monstrosity into the water, removed the wheels and collected his money. The neighbors went home shaking their heads and talking to themselves.

Light steam road cars were made as early as 1863, and in the 1880’s quite a few inventors were making homemade steam buggies. As has been mentioned, R. E. Olds built his first steam machine in 1887 and in 1893 his second, which he sold to a firm in India. By 1895 the French were building steam cars commercially. But it was a few years after that, probably about 1899, before any American steam cars were regularly offered for sale.

R. E. Olds drives a racing version of his steam car. Later, Oldsmobile would continue his name.

The Stanley brothers, who became the big shots of the steam car business, first saw a horseless carriage in 1896 at a county fair at Brockton, Massachusetts. It was a steamer, of such inefficient construction that it could not make a complete circuit of the half-mile track without stopping to build up steam pressure.

The Stanley brothers were identical twins. They wore identical clothes, and even kept their flowing beards trimmed to identical shape and length. It was also said that their penmanship was identical and some friends insisted that they thought the same thoughts at the same moment.

At the time they saw their first steam buggy, they had already made a modest fortune manufacturing photographic dry plates under a process for which they held a joint patent. On the way back from the Brockton Fair, the brothers decided, practically simultaneously, to try their hand at making a steam car … one that would go around the race track not only once but several times, without stopping to build up a new head of steam. They completed their blueprints for this car late in 1896.

Neither of the brothers knew anything about steam engines, so they did what seemed like the smart thing: they ordered a manufacturer of steam engines to build them an engine suitable for a road wagon. Then they went to a boiler factory and ordered a boiler.

To their dismay, when the boiler and the engine arrived at their shop in Newton, Massachusetts, they found the combined weight to be seven hundred fifty pounds. The brothers realized that it was somewhat ridiculous to place all this machinery in the light two-seater buggy they had designed to hold it. But they had bought and paid for the damned engine so they went ahead and installed it. Neither one had ever driven an automobile, but they fired up, climbed in and opened the throttle. The date was September, 1897.

“I shall never forget our first ride,” one of the Stanleys wrote later. “We went out our alley way onto Maple Street, and turned toward Galen Street. A horse hitched to a produce wagon was standing headed toward Galen Street. He heard the car coming, turned his head around, took a look, gave a snort, and jumped so quickly that he broke the whiffletree, but did not move the wagon, ran out to Galen Street, turned around, took one more look, and then ran up Galen Street, through Newton Square and did not stop running till he reached Newtonville Square.”

The Stanley brothers were identical twins. For twenty years they made the famous Stanley Steamer and refused to spend a penny for advertising.

Next day they tried it again and another horse ran away. The brothers didn’t take their steam buggy out much after that. They realized that it was cumbersome and slow, and they were afraid that the heavy engine was too much for the light buggy.

They went back to their friends, the steam engine people, and asked them to make an engine that weighed not more than a hundred pounds and a boiler that weighed maybe one hundred fifty pounds. “Couldn’t be done”, the steam engine people said.

The Stanleys got some books and read up on steam engines. But the books didn’t help much, so they hired a young engineer to help them and together they designed an engine that was not intended to push a ship across the ocean, or move a loaded freight train, but only to roll a two-seated buggy along the streets of Newton.

The Stanleys next took the precaution of avoiding their friends, the steam engine people. Instead they went to a brass foundry and a machine shop that knew practically nothing about steam engines. Between the two they managed to get an engine made that weighed only thirty-five pounds, and a boiler that weighed ninety pounds.

Six horsepower Stanley Steamer engine, date unknown. Charles Atwood Collection. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Author Daderot.

Of course the steam engine experts said that their engine was no good. It would probably shake apart, burst, burn out, melt, disintegrate, blow up, or just go phttt!

It did none of these things. It ran like a charm. So the Stanleys built another one, identical with the first and drove around Newton, one behind the other, or sometimes abreast, frightening skittish horses and local inebriates.

The brothers had no intention of going into the automobile business. The two steamers were just a hobby. So when anybody came along and offered to buy one of the cars they turned him down. But one of the brothers had an idea that he could make a still better car, so finally he yielded to temptation and sold his car for $600. That was in 1898.

A month or so after that, the brothers went into Boston to see the first automobile show held in New England. It was staged at Mechanics Hall. On exhibition were four cars. The classiest was a De Dion from Paris, which was a low- slung racing car, with the engine in front. The others were American cars and all resembled buggies. There was a Haynes-Apperson gasoline car, a Whitney steam car, and a Riker electric car.

Following the indoor exhibition, an open air meet was to be held at Charles River Park, Cambridge, with speed and hill-climbing contests. The Stanley brothers were invited to participate in this meet.

They protested that they were not making cars for sale and therefore weren’t interested in competing with the others. However, they were persuaded by the sports editor of the Boston Herald that these were purely sporting events and the more the merrier. So F. E. Stanley drove his car to Cambridge for the meet.

These gentleman racers of 1900 all appear to be driving steam cars. At the tiller of the car on the extreme left is John Jacob Astor. The race was held at Newport, Rhode Island. Brown brothers photo.

There was some talk of turning the contestants loose to race around the bicycle track at the Park, but on second thought this was vetoed as being dangerous and undignified. Instead, each contestant was timed separately as he drove three laps to complete a mile. The three American cars that had been exhibited in Boston were timed first. Then came the De Dion racer from France. It beat the hell out of the first three American cars, negotiating the three laps in two minutes and fifty-eight seconds. The crowd went wild.

Then Mr. Stanley, his whiskers jutting out at a defiant angle, drove his little steamer to the starting line. There, his brother held the car in check as it tried to get away under a terrific head of steam. At a signal from Stanley No. 1, Stanley No. 2 turned the car loose and it shot away from the starting line with a terrific whoosh!

The fans in the grandstand oh-ed and ah-ed, then shouted excitedly, for the little Stanley was surely beating the be- jesus out of that damned frog car from Paris. And they were right. Two minutes and eleven seconds for the mile! A newwww worrrrld’s rrrrecord! So in 1898, the Stanleys won their first race.

Then came the hill-climbing contest. An incline had been built with five, ten, fifteen, twenty and thirty per cent grades. The gasoline cars hadn’t a chance. They balked on the fifteen per cent grade. Even the Whitney steamer could only get part way up the twenty per cent grade. But our hero opened wide the throttle of his little Stanley Steamer and shot to the top of the thirty per cent grade in the twinkling of an eye.

“Never, before or since,” wrote Mr. Stanley, “have I seen such enthusiasm as was created by these two performances of this little car. This was the last event of the day, but we were kept there over an hour answering questions and explaining the construction of the car. And in less than two weeks from this event we had received orders for over two hundred cars similar to the one shown there. It was then, for the first time, we decided to engage in the manufacture of automobiles.”

Next door to the Stanleys’ dry plate factory was an abandoned bicycle plant owned by the American Bicycle Company. The Stanleys purchased this factory for peanuts, put in the necessary machinery and prepared to make Stanley Steamers.

They had made one car when news reached New York about the wonderful performance of the Stanley Steamer and the backlog of orders the Stanleys had in their little ex-bicycle factory.

People with money to invest in 1899 seldom knew anything about automobiles, but they knew what a backlog was. That was what Mr. John B. Walker wanted to buy—a backlog. The Stanley Steamer was okay, too, he guessed, but you couldn’t go wrong on a backlog.

Walker was the owner of the Cosmopolitan magazine. He wanted to sell the Stanleys some advertising and he was hoping to trade advertising for a half-interest in the automobile. But the Stanleys were true Yankees; anything they sold they sold for cash. Besides they didn’t believe in advertising. Never bought a penny’s worth as long as they were in business. So Walker went back to New York without an advertising contract and without any share of the Stanley Steamer Company. But a couple of months later he was back in Newton and this time he said he wanted to buy the company outright.

The Stanleys went home to think it over; they only had $20,000 tied up in their steamer, so far, but they felt they had a good thing and if they were going to sell, they decided to get a whopping big profit. Next morning they met Walker at their office and told him their price was $250,000.

Walker took them up so fast they knew they should have asked for more. He gave them a check to bind the deal and rushed back to New York to dig up the rest of the cash.

A few days later, Walker wired the Stanleys asking them to bring their automobile to New York to demonstrate to his millionaire friends. F. 0. Stanley drove to Providence and caught the night boat to New York.

Next morning he drove his car off the steamboat at Pier 18 where a friend met him. He described the arrival as follows: “The street in front of the wharf was crowded with trucks and conveyances of all sizes and dimensions, all drawn by horses. The horses were frightened and the drivers hostile, and apparently bent on our destruction. How we ever succeeded in running such a gauntlet without a smash-up, I have never been able to figure out. But we did, and we soon found ourselves well up on Broadway, where traffic was light and conditions apparently safe. But we learned what every automobile driver soon learns: that one is not safe when riding in an automobile. For a girl riding a bicycle, coming down a cross street, and looking over her shoulder, ran plump into the side of our car. The girl was thrown bodily into the arms of Mr. Elliott and was uninjured, but the bicycle was a wreck. A policeman was standing quite near and saw the whole incident. A crowd soon gathered. The girl was much excited and the crowd threatening. But the policeman came to our rescue. He severely criticized the girl for being so careless, and drove the crowd out of the way, and we went on without caring to discuss the matter further.”

During the next week or so, Mr. Stanley took various millionaires joy riding in his car, including two sons of Jay Gould and a Rockefeller, who took two cautious rides before deciding not to invest.

But finally the money was raised and the wily Stanleys turned their factory, patents and backlog over to Mr. Walker and his partners for a quarter of a million dollars. These gentlemen formed the Locomobile Company of America, which was to be one of the leading automobile companies of the country for many years to come. The Mobile Company was also organized to manufacture automobiles under the Stanley patents, but the Mobile car was never successful.

Locomobile ad.

Only a year or so after it went into business, the Locomobile Company moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, changed its policy completely and started making gasoline cars exclusively. So the two country boys, who had sold out to the smart New York crowd offered to buy back their patents as well as the little factory at Newton. But not for a quarter of a million. Oh no! The Stanleys were Maine Yankees. They got their factory and their patents back for $20,000!

Then, a few months later, the White Sewing Machine Company, which was making steamers in Cleveland, wanted to use some of the Stanley patents; they bought a license for $15,000. So the Stanleys got their business back at a net cost of $5,000.

For a number of years steamers were more satisfactory than gasoline cars and they predominated in numbers. In 1902, for instance, automobile registrations for the state of New York totaled 909. Of this number 485 were steam cars. Among the hundred or more steamers of that time were the Grout, the Tractobile, the Toledo, the Skene, the Waltham, the Prescott, the Lane, the Stearns, the Ross, the Mobile, the Locomobile and the White Steamer.

Boston cops were first with the latest. This Stanley Steamer squad car, about 1900, was the pride of the force.

The Stanley engine consisted of two cylinders, which was all that was necessary to give continuous torque to the crankshaft. It had, according to the Stanley catalogue, only thirteen moving parts. The engine was geared direct to the rear axle. No transmission or gearshift was necessary, for the power could be applied as slowly as desired; and the engine always turned over at the same rate as the wheels. Instead of ignition and carburetor, a steamer had a boiler and a kerosene burner, neither of which had any moving parts. The engine gave out no violent explosions or vibrations; the car was faster than any gasoline car and apparently climbed hills without effort.

The Stanleys for many years averaged about six hundred to one thousand cars a year and never spent a dime for advertising. On the other hand, the White Company, their principal rival, advertised extensively and for a while sold more cars than Stanley.

The White Company spent good money on advertising their steamer car.

The price of Stanley Steamers was moderate. The early ones sold for under a thousand dollars. In 1909 the famous Stanley Mountain Wagon, which carried twelve passengers sold for $2,300. The family touring car was only $1,300.

The Stanley Mountain Wagon could climb like a goat. It was designed to travel from Loveland, Colorado, to the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. This same chassis was also used for the Stanley express truck and the Stanley racing cars.

The Stanleys thought any form of advertising was just a way of cheating the customer out of dollars that should be spent on the product. But they spent a lot of money on racing, hill-climbing and endurance contests.

The first Stanley racing car was shaped like a cigar to reduce wind resistance and was painted red. It was given a number of nicknames by newspaper writers of the period. They called it the “Bug,” the “Teakettle,” “Whistling Billy” and the “Torpedo.” It was first entered in a Memorial Day race at the Readville Track near Boston, in 1903.

Racer, Louis Ross had fun racing his Stanley Woggle-Bug steamer. Steam coming out the rear must have been a sight.

The only two cars that F. E. Stanley, the driver, considered serious competitors were a Grout steamer, which reputedly had run a mile in less than a minute, and the “Cannon Ball,” a steamer owned by George C. Cannon, a sports- minded Harvard student. The Cannon car was a curiosity in that it required two men to operate it. One handled the steam engine and the other steered.

A Boston paper described the event as follows: “A trail of steam followed the red-painted machine as it skimmed around the Readville Race Track and overhauled and passed other larger and seemingly more powerful automobiles. The machine resembled somewhat an inverted boat. The top was rounded and from the center could be seen the head of its operator, F. E. Stanley.”

The article forgets to mention that Mr. Stanley was wearing a yachting cap and his usual flowing whiskers. It must have been a cheering sight to residents of South Boston, if any were in the grandstand, to have watched Mr. Stanley and his handsome beaver beating the pants off the Harvard youth whose mustache was doubtless both skimpy and blond.

For Mr. Stanley created a new record that day, driving the mile in one minute two and four-fifths seconds.

Stanley’s triumph was short-lived, however, for an hour or two later, newspapermen told him that word had been flashed from the Empire City Track near Yonkers, New York, that a fellow named Barney Oldfield had just driven a mile in one minute one and three-fifths seconds. And that the big 8o-horsepower gasoline car in which he had turned the trick had been built in Detroit by an engineer named Ford.

Famous “999”, the first car in America to travel over a mile a minute. On the right stands the designer, Henry Ford. At the steering lever is Barney Oldfield. In 1904, Ford drove over a mile straightaway for a new record of 93 miles per hour.

But the Stanleys were sure they could build a car that would travel faster than anything on wheels. They completed this car in 1905 and took it to Florida to try for the world’s speed record on the sand of Daytona Beach. Fred H. Marriott, a young mechanic working for the Stanleys, said he would bust the record or bust the car trying.

The straight-away, one-mile record was held at the time by a Ross steamer which had used Stanley boilers and two Stanley engines, so after a fashion the Stanleys already held a leg on the record. Now they hoped to make a new one that was all theirs.

Fred Marriott kept his promise and broke the record by something like seven seconds for the mile, traveling the distance at the rate of 127.66 miles per hour. Marriott thereby became the first man to travel faster than two miles a minute.

Fred Marriott in his Stanley Steamer record setter.

The 1906 catalogue of the Stanley Motor Carriage Company claimed world’s records for one kilometer, one mile, one mile in competition, five miles, and five miles in competition.

The following year another Stanley racer with an improved engine and boiler was sent to Daytona Beach. Again Fred Marriott, the Newton mechanic, was scheduled to break the record. They had geared up the machine so that they figured a speed of three miles a minute was easily possible.

Unfortunately, when it came time for the speed trial, the beach was in bad condition. But Marriott was determined to break the record. In Mr. Stanley’s own words, “The crowd was anxious and Fred was desirous of owning the record. Fred went up about nine miles beyond the starting line. He set the automatic so as to raise the steam pressure to 1,300 pounds. When he crossed the starting line he was going at a rate of speed never before seen. But when he reached the bad place in the course the car left the ground completely for a distance of nearly 100 feet, and it turned slightly in the air and struck at an angle, and of course was instantly smashed. The boiler was torn out, and with a tremendous roar of steam from the broken pipe, rolled several hundred feet down the beach. When first reached, Fred was unconscious. He had several broken ribs, a bad cut on his head, and one eye hanging out of the socket, which, had it not been for Dr. Parks of South Boston, would have been removed. But it was put back and later perfect sight was restored.

A crowd gathers around the wrecked Stanley racer, Fred Marriott survived.

“When that accident happened, the car was traveling at nearly three miles a minute . . . the most valuable lesson learned, was the great danger such terrific speed incurs. So we decided never again to risk the life of a courageous man for such a small return.”

Which they never did. That was the last record the Stanleys ever tried for. During the next ten years they continued to do business without advertising or promotion of any kind. They were the leaders in their field and all the business they wanted came to them without solicitation.

In 1917 F. E. Stanley was killed in an automobile accident. His brother, who had been in ill health much of his life, survived him, but he had no more interest in automobiles. The company was sold to Chicago financiers and not until then did an advertisement for Stanley Steamers appear in a magazine.

But apparently it was not advertising or promotion that the Stanley Steamer needed, but the care and devotion of the twin brothers who believed so implicitly in the superiority of their car. By 1925 the Stanley Motor Carriage Company was out of business.

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