- 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
The steam drove a two-cylinder horizontal engine, geared directly to the rear axle, which almost literally had the power of a locomotive, although its horsepower rating was low. Its tremendous performance sprang mainly from the peculiar nature of steam. This is best described by John Bentley, who states in Oldtime Steam Cars: “At best, the thermal efficiency of the internal-combustion engine may reach 35 per cent, whereas that of the steam engine tops 90 per cent.”
The Stanley Steamer also benefited from its single gear. In other words, when the engine turned over once, the rear wheels also turned once. This means that in a mile the simple Stanley engine turned only 980 times, compared to the 4,000 or 5,000 times of a complicated internal-combustion engine. No wonder the Stanleys asserted that their engine could “last forever.”
When the live steam had accomplished its job at the rear of the Stanley, it was piped back to a condenser in the nose. Here it was cooled to water and returned to the water tank, where it could be used again on an endless circuit. In this way, a Steamer could go for more than 200 miles before taking on a fresh supply of water. This was not so with the early Stanleys, which had no condenser arid could manage only one mile on a gallon of water, requiring so many stops at horse troughs that an outraged legislator in Vermont once demanded that “these vile, smelly, snorting steam demons be barred by law from facilities set out for the comfort and well-being of man’s noble friend and helper, the horse.”
The actual driving of a Stanley Steamer was simplicity itself. In fact, the Stanley anticipated modern automatic transmission by nearly half a century. A touch of the throttle—a sliding lever conveniently located just beneath the steering wheel—set the Steamer into silent motion. There was no clutch, and no gears to shift, which meant that a speed as low as 1 m.p.h. could be maintained all day without shaking, shuddering, rattling, overheating, or stalling. Another touch of the throttle would accelerate the car instantly.
There were two loot-pedals on the floor. The right one was for the brake, the left for reverse. The Stanley, incidentally, could go as fast backward as forward —and Stanley pranksters sometimes passed gasolinedriven cars in that manner.
The Steamer could also be thrown into reverse even while it was going ahead at speed. Since the old-time rear-wheel brakes were none too efficient anyway, this quick reverse action was helpful in times of emergency. During one race in New York State, a Stanley whirled around a corner just as a group of spectators was straggling across the road. The driver threw the Steamer into reverse, even though it was doing better than 60 m.p.h. With a shriek the tires tore loose, and then the body, which slid along the road and came to rest a few inches from the spectators, the driver draped over the windshield. The chassis, meanwhile, was obediently going backward. It slanted off the road, bumped across a field, and disappeared into a forest; finally it encountered a solid line of trees, and only then did it grind to a halt.
On another occasion, a brick wall failed to stop a Stanley. It happened in a garage in Chicago, where a mechanic was tinkering with a Steamer. He “fired up” all right and opened the throttle, but still the car wouldn’t go—for the simple reason that the emergency brake was on. After steam pressure had been building up for some time, the mechanic finally remembered the emergency brake. As soon as he released it, the Stanley rammed through the wall of the garage and emerged into the street, leaving a trail of bricks behind it.
This trick of building up steam with the emergency brake on was used by racing drivers to get greater acceleration out of a Stanley. The Steamer, in its heyday, was limited in acceleration only by the amount of strain its old-type wheels and structure could stand. As early as 1914, however, a Stanley went from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in 11 seconds. This compares with the 11.7 seconds it takes a 1958, 310-horsepower Cadillac to go from 0 to 60 m.p.h. At a recent sports-car meet in California, this writer did 0 to 60 m.p.h. in 9 seconds in a reconstructed and improved Stanley, which put the old Steamer right up there with such modern speedsters as a British-made Triumph and a Studebaker Golden Hawk.
The accelerating action of a Steamer is different from that of a gasoline car. Instead of a grabbing, jerking, neck-snapping forward lunge, the motion is smooth and gliding, strangely rubbery, like being flung out of a slingshot. Out on the highway, at speed, it is the ground, rather than the Steamer, that seems to be moving. With the silence, one has the feeling of forever coasting down a hill—even when the car is going up a hill.