- 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
It was at hill climbing, in fact, that the Stanley Steamer first attracted nationwide notice. In 1899 F. O. Stanley, with his wife as a passenger, drove a Steamer to the top of 6,288-foot Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England. The rugged dirt wagontrack wound for ten miles at a twelve per cent grade, but the Stanley made it in two hours and ten minutes —a remarkable feat for its day and the first time a motor vehicle had accomplished anything like it. It was not until three years later that the first gasolinepowered car managed to struggle up Mount Washington in a little less than two hours. F. E. promptly took a new model Stanley up the mountain in only 27 minutes.
This showed how much the Steamer had been improved—and, incidentally, stopped any argument as to which was the best car on the road in those days. One proud Stanley owner even boasted that his Steamer could “climb a tree if it could catch ahold.” There was more than a little truth in the boast, for a Stanley once literally climbed a tree—in fact, two trees. The car had been left standing at the foot of a bank of earth, which was topped by a grove of young birch trees. A boy, playing around the car, opened the throttle wide. The Steamer threw the boy aside, plunged up the bank, and slammed into two trees growing close together. The pliant trees bent back nearly to the ground, and the Steamer stopped only when it became entangled in the branches. A few minutes later the birch trees, noted for their elasticity, rose into the air again, carrying the car with them. There it was eventually found, suspended about ten feet from the ground.
This was the sort of incident that wove an almost mystic aura around the Stanley Steamer. Owners of the car were not above thickening the mystery. One of their favorite tricks was to walk down the road about a dozen yards ahead of a parked Steamer, then turn and whistle. The car, responding like an alert and well-trained dog, would roll down the road to its master.
The explanation for the trick was simple enough. The Steamer, after standing for half an hour or more, would “cool off.” If the throttle was open very, very slightly, there would be a space of some seconds before the engine took hold. This would give the owner time to walk down the road and “whistle” his car to him. The effect on a group of spectators can easily be imagined.
Another trick was more nerve-racking. F. O., who once accompanied a Stanley Steamer shipped to New Orleans, assembled the car in a field near the Mississippi River. Every day a crowd gathered to watch the vehicle taking shape. When the Steamer was ready to roll, F. O. began “firing up.” The crowd stared in tense apprehension. Up and up went the steam pressure—100 pounds, 200 pounds, 400 pounds, 600 pounds. Suddenly there was a terrific explosion.
F. O., not too concerned, turned to reassure the crowd. There was nobody to reassure. Everyone had scuttled out of sight. F. O. turned back to the car and examined it. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong. Perplexed, F. O. finally heard a snicker in some bushes behind him. Turning, he saw a couple of kids trying to hold back their mirth. One pointed beneath the Steamer, where F. O. spotted the remains of a big firecracker.
F. O. enjoyed this joke so much he took to carrying firecrackers around himself. When a crowd gathered to watch him “fire up,” he would wait till a particularly suspenseful moment, then drop a firecracker beneath the car.
These pranks—which, of course, added to the wild tales about the Stanley Steamer—also obscured many practical (although unusual) uses of the car. For instance, it made a fine peanut roaster. Before starting on a trip, a bag of peanuts could be placed on top of the boiler. By the end of the journey, the peanuts would be done to a turn.
A Stanley’s steam pressure was also excellent for blowing out clogged drains. In addition, several cities used Steamers to thaw out frozen fire hydrants in winter. A Stanley itself, of course, would never freeze as long as the burner was going.
On the other hand, there were a number of drawbacks to the old Stanley. It sometimes took up to half an hour to get up steam in a cold boiler. Although driving the car was easy enough, the “firing up” process was complicated and cumbersome, calling more for a plumber than a mechanic. The driver’s seat, faced with a bewildering array of gauges, valves, and pump controls, looked something like a boiler room. In fact, one of the most persistent canards about the Stanley was that a driver needed a steam engineer’s license, as well as a regular driver’s license, to operate it competently.
There was also the matter of smell. Kerosene, although cheap, has a pungent, penetrating odor. An old saying went, “You can see a Stanley Steamer before you hear it—and you can smell its owner before you see him.”
The Stanley twins and the head of their maintenance department, Fred Marriott, raced Steamers all over the country, particularly at fairs. Nothing on wheels could stand up to the Stanley, which usually beat its nearest opponent by as much as five minutes in a twenty-mile race.