- 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
In 1906, at Ormond Beach, driving a streamlined but otherwise stock-model Steamer, Fred Marriott set a world speed record of 127.66 m.p.h. and became the first human to travel two miles a minute. This record was set by a car weighing only 1,600 pounds. Actually, it was lack of weight that hurled the little “Flying Teapot” to its doom in 1907 on the same track. In that year, so fateful to the Steamer, Fred Marriott brought the racer back to Ormond Beach. Piling the pressure up to 1,300 pounds, Fred opened the throttle and sent the car speeding down the beach. Nearly fifty years later, Marriott was still around to describe what happened next:
I quickly got up to 197 miles an hour and the speed was rising fast when the car hit a slight bump. I felt it lift and then rise clear off the ground and twist a little in the air. It took off like an airplane, rose about 10 feet off the beach and traveled 100 feet before it struck. I was thrown clear and pretty badly smashed up. The machine broke in two and was bashed to kindling wood. The boiler rolled, blowing steam like a meteor, for a mile down the beach.
The cause of the crash was a simple one, although few could understand it at the time. In designing the streamlined body of the car, the Stanleys had left the underside flat. When the wind got under this at high speed, it lifted the light car and made it air-borne, creating the myth that a Steamer was just too fast to stay on the ground. It is interesting to note that the 200 m.p.h. mark touched by the 1,600-pound Stanley was not bettered by a gasoline car until 1927, and then only by a four-ton monster powered by two twelvecylinder airplane engines.
The Stanley twins were badly shaken by the near disaster at Ormond Beach. They never built another racer and, in fact, tried to play down the speed potential of the Steamer. This, then, brings up the natural question: What about that well-known and widely believed story that the Stanleys would pay $1,000 to anyone who could hold the throttle open for three minutes? Fred Marriott had a definite answer:
I’ll tell you what’s in that yarn— nothing . We did our best to kill it, but it always kept coming back. It used to make the Stanleys sore—and kind of sad, too. I guess they could see the way things were going.
In 1918, F. E. Stanley started out on a trip in his Steamer. Coming up over the crest of a hill, he found the road blocked by two farm wagons. Rather than hit them and possibly kill the drivers and horses, he turned off the road and crashed into a ditch. He was killed instantly.
F. O., heartbroken over the tragedy, retired. (He eventually died of a heart attack in 1940.) The Stanley Motor Company passed into other hands. It lingered on for a few years, out of tune with the fastchanging times, lost without those “cussed” dreamers and craftsmen, the Stanley twins. In 1925, the firm went out of business. In its last full year of production it turned out only 65 cars. Ford alone was producing more than that in a single day. Mass production and the internal-combustion engine had won out over steam and individuality.
Today there are many automobile experts who cannot understand why the Steamer was allowed to pass away. They argue that with modern improvementssuch as a boiler capable of a quick start—the Steamer would be a far better car than the present gasoline auto. And who can deny that our cities would be finer, pleasanter places if we all had silent Steamers, rather than the noisy, fumes-belching gasoline cars that now pollute the air?
There is also the matter of economy. During World War II, with gas rationing, many old Stanley Steamers were brought out of barns or rescued from junk yards. Aside from the low cost of operation, the gallant Stanleys brought back to many motoring enthusiasts the thrill of driving a truly outstanding and individual car. This set off a revival of interest in steam autos that is still growing. The era of the Stanley Steamer is gone, but the spirit of the time and the car has not perished.
Not long ago a petroleum engineer, who improved an old Stanley, drove from Los Angeles to New York on $4.50 worth of furnace oil. Another engineer designed and built a steam car capable of taking off from a cold start in one minute and maintaining a steady seventy or eighty m.p.h. on the open road. Some steam fans, like Charles Keen, a Wisconsin businessman, hide their silent secret under the modern exterior of a reconverted gas car. Others, like Hollywood writer Nick Beiden, take their improved Stanleys to sportscar meets and beat some of the latest models from the Detroit assembly lines.