- Historic Sites
The Stanleys and their Steamer
Teetotaling twin brothers built the most wonderful car of their era, and its day of glory may not be over yet
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
This by no means meant that the Steamers were turned out on anything resembling a mass-production basis. On the contrary, the mechanics—all hand-picked by the Stanleys and all highly skilled it somewhat temperamental craftsmen—were encouraged to assemble the cars as they thought best. Consequently, each craftsman put into his cars something of himself as an individual, and, unlike the twins, no two Stanley Steamers were ever exactly alike. One mechanic even insisted on putting in the engine upside down, a principle he claimed was better than the Stanleys’. This was too much for F. E., who, after fruitless argument, went to F. O. and complained about the stubborn mechanic. “Better let him have his way,” F. O. advised. “He’s just as cussed as we are.”
And the Stanleys were “cussed” indeed. A customer simply couldn’t walk in and buy a Stanley Steamer. He had to be “screened,” like a candidate for an exclusive club. If the Stanleys decided he didn’t have the right personality for their car, they wouldn’t even take his order. Even when a customer’s order was accepted, this didn’t necessarily mean he would get a Steamer. If he did or said anything to displease the Stanleys between the time of placing the order and the actual production of the car, he would be refused delivery. This happened to a customer who asked for a written guarantee. The Stanleys, who figured their word was guarantee enough, showed the gentleman to the door.
This was hardly the way to build a business, let alone sell cars, and a modern automobile salesman would blanch at such treatment of a customer. It is a measure of the Stanley Steamer’s worth that it continued to sell as well and as long as it did, especially since one never left the factory until it had been paid for in hard cash. The Stanleys just didn’t believe in credit or installment buying, which they regarded as somewhat immoral.
The price of a Steamer was high for its day—in 1917, about $2,500—and there weren’t many people around who had that kind of cash. Sales were steady but never spectacular. The Stanley was a prestige car, and although many people would have liked one, they simply couldn’t afford it. If the car had been sold on credit, and more people had gotten to own one and know its wonderful qualities, it is possible the Steamer would never have been allowed to pass away.
However, there were other matters that contributed to its death. The Stanleys didn’t believe in advertising. They figured that it was a waste of money that should go into the improvement of their product. In later years, when the Stanley Steamer was suffering from all sorts of rumors, some judicious advertising might have saved the firm. Instead, the Stanleys stubbornly stuck by their policy of letting the Steamer “advertise itself.”
Nor would they give in to the demands of style and mass production, which would have increased the popularity of the car and brought its price down. Except for a few streamlined racers and an early rakish model known as the Gentlemen’s Speedy Roadster, the lofty, solid, individually-created Stanleys bore a resemblance to a prairie schooner. Almost always painted black, they had long, rounded hoods, which added to their funereal aspect. They looked like coffins.
Beneath that dark, gaunt exterior, however, beat a heart of mechanical ingenuity. The Stanley Steamer was—and still is—a model of engineering skill, combining comiort and economy with almost unbelievable speed and power. Yet with all this, it was surprisingly simple. The 1916 model, lor example, had only 32 moving parts, including the wheels and the steering wheel.
George Woodbury, a New Hampshire sawmill owner who reconstructed a 1917 Steamer, wrote a book about his experiences. The source of the car’s power, Woodbury wrote in The Story of a Stanley Steamer , was a twenty-gallon water tank set under the floor boards. The water was pumped into a small, drumlike boiler—23 inches in diameter and 18 inches highlocated under the hood. This boiler, bound with three layers of fine, high-grade steel wire, could easily take the 600 pounds of pressure considered necessary lor ordinary driving. Actually it was virtually impossible to burst the boiler, as the Stanleys once proved. They dug a hole in a field, placed a boiler in it, and pumped steam pressure up to 1,500 pounds. At that point, instead of exploding, the tubes within the boiler began to leak, allowing the steam to escape.
Inside the boiler were 751 small, seamless steel tubes, looking somewhat like metallic spaghetti in a big pot. In effect, they were tiny chimneys, conveying heat through the boiler from the pressure burner beneath and turning the water to steam. The cheaply operated kerosene burner—its jets fed from a twentygallon tank safely situated at the extreme rear of the car—worked on the blowtorch principle. Although small, the burner could generate intense heat.