The Stanleys And Their Steamer

At the turn of the twentieth century, the American automobile industry was in a stage of youthful indecision. Two courses lay open to it: to follow the already well-defined path of steam propulsion, or to explore the lesser-known byway of gasoline power. Steam seemed to have the brighter future and, at this point, was heavily favored by the early auto makers. In the year 1900 more than 1,600 steam cars were produced, compared to only goo driven by gas.

The course of an industry, however—like that of an individual or an entire nation—is sometimes influenced by isolated incidents. Such an incident occurred in 1907 at Ormond Beach, Florida, where a crowd had gathered to watch the annual automobile speed trials. After a number of gasoline cars had made their runs, none reaching the 100 m.p.h. mark, the Stanley Steamer entry appeared. It was a frail vehicle that looked like a canoe turned upside down and mounted on spindly wheels. The press of the day had dubbed it “The Flying Teapot.”

As the Steamer started its run, it was silent except for a low, soft whistle. This rose to a faint whine, and a jetlike white stream flowed from the tail of the car. Soon the head of the driver could hardly be seen in the blur of speed. The car passed the 100 m.p.h. mark and surged up to 197 m.p.h. As it was about to touch 200 m.p.h., however, the racer hit a slight bump on the beach. The light car took off like a wingless glider, soared for about 100 feet at a height of 10 feet, then crashed to the cement-hard sand in an explosion of steam and flames. The driver was flung clear, badly injured but not dead.

Out of the flaming wreckage was born another of the legends surrounding the Stanley Steamer, the best car of its era but also the most misunderstood and maligned. No man, it was said, could open the throttle and stay with the Steamer. Anyone who could even hold the throttle open for three minutes, went another story, would be rewarded by the company with a prize of $1,000. Rumors went the rounds about men who had been blown to bits trying to win this prize.

These stories persist to this day, although all are false. The truth is that the Stanley Steamer was constructed in such a way that it was impossible for it to blow up. Early models, however, did have a tendency to let off steam in a noisy manner. One time in Boston, for example, a man drove up to a tavern, parked his Stanley Steamer at the curb, and went inside, forgetting to turn off a valve. The Stanley Steamer, in protest, gave off a thunderous blast of steam. The tavern windows rattled, glasses danced on shelves, and several startled patrons fell to the floor. The Stanley Steamer owner glanced at the prostrate patrons, remarked to the bartender, “Mighty powerful stuff you’re serving here these days,” and calmly walked out to his car.

This savoir-faire was typical of adventurous Stanley Steamer owners, who, according to a company announcement of 1916, had “the courage to buy the house they want, or the overcoat they want, or the automobile they want, even though their neighbors advise them not to.” They had to have courage of another kind, too. The fuel burners of the early Stanleys used to “flood,” shooting out sheets of smoke and flame. This looked a lot more dangerous than it actually was, since the front part of the car was virtually a fireproof compartment and the flames would go out of their own accord. Experienced drivers simply ignored the blaze and continued on their way, much to the consternation of all human and animal life in the vicinity. They did not always escape unscathed, however. One of them was driving a flaming Steamer through the streets one day, when a hastily summoned horse-drawn fire engine clattered around a corner, pulled alongside, and doused both vehicle and driver.

Incidents such as this—and the tales that grew out of them—eventually contributed to the death of the Stanley Steamer in 1925. This was a sad passing, for the Stanley Steamer was more than an automobile. It was the symbol of an era, an era of individuality and independence—an era that has been replaced, for better or worse, by standardization and conformity.

 
 

Appropriately, the highly individualistic Steamer was the brain child of two of the most rugged individuals in American industrial history—the Stanley twins, Francis E. and Freeland O., better known as “F. E.” and “F. O.” They were born in 1849 into a particularly large family in Kingfield, Maine—where, according to a local historian, “you couldn’t throw an apple without hitting a Stanley.”

F. E. and F. O. were identical twins. One was seldom seen without the other, and both were always whittling. This led them into their first enterprise, the carving and making of fine violins. Such an artistic beginning for a pair of auto makers is not as incongruous as it may seem. The Stanley Steamer, when it was produced, was as much a work of art as it was of mechanics. For instance, instead of employing patternmakers, the Stanleys themselves whittled the precise wooden forms required for casting machinery.