H   I   S   T   O   R   Y   
Stanley Steamer


F.E. Stanley at the tiller
of his 1903 Stanley.
When most people think of the Stanley Steamer, they picture a huge, hulking hot water heater on wheels. In reality, the car looked no different than any other. The difference was on the inside: the motor had only fifteen moving parts. There were no spark plugs, no transmission, no clutch, no gearshift. Because there was no internal combustion, there was also no noise. Anything that burned could be used for fuel - gas, coal, wood, even paraffin.

The only real problem with the car was that it was painfully slow to start; it took twenty minutes to heat up the boiler. But once it got going there was nothing slow about a Stanley. A standard car could exceed 150 mph - in forward or reverse. It was a Steamer that held the official speed record of 127 mph in 1906, and another was estimated to have been traveling nearly 190 mph before hitting a bump and disintegrating, nearly killing the driver. After that, the Stanley brothers forever gave up on racing! But - not before they had made their mark on Mt. Washington’s Carriage Road.

Old-timer’s in the North Country referred to the road up Mount Washington as the Carriage Road, named because of the horse-drawn carriages which conveyed people to the summit of the northeast’s highest peak since 1861. Just at the turn of the century, the first “horseless carriage” - a Steamer - climbed the Mountain in 1899, and by 1912 the Road’s “stages” became automobiles. So eventually people came to call it the Auto Road.

The Stanley brothers, whose company developed that “horseless carriage”, loved a challenge - including racing. They headed the Stanley Steamer Company, which was decidedly low-key. In fact, their entire advertising campaign consisted of identical twins Francis E. and Freelan O., dressed the same from socks to derbies to long, flowing beards, driving side by side into one end of town, through the middle, and out the other end. The sight alone piqued the curiosity of locals. There were no contracts, no guarantees and no credit. If you had $2,000, you might get to buy a Stanley, but only if the brothers thought you ought to have one. On the other hand, if anything went wrong with your car - ever - they fixed it free.

To satisfy the racing urge among motorized vehicles, in 1904, a race was organized and named “The Climb to the Clouds”. Twin brother F.E.Stanley sat at the tiller of his 1903 Stanley and managed to take 2nd place in the first official race up Mt. Washington. He had a passenger with him who was his stop-watch attendant. Accounts of the race, held on July 12, 1904 included the following descriptions.

“In a chill driving mist that would compel cautious running even on a wide level road, Harry Harkness rushed Mount Washington in the Climb to the Clouds today and placed the record figures for this year at 24(minutes)37 3/5 seconds. Something more than the achievements of the drivers of American stock cars was to be expected from the 60-horsepower $18,000 Mercedes, and from this comparative view the performance was not extraordinary. As a feat of driving, however, it was remarkable. To guide 2,200 pounds of mechanism up an 8-mile narrow mountain road, and to pull up just 4,600 feet above the starting point after averaging 20 miles an hour without a stop is a sure enough test of man and machine.

“Steam upheld its reputation for mastering grades when on the second day F.E. Stanley dashed up to the line in 28 minutes 19 2/5 seconds, showing what seven (sic) horsepower can accomplish when it is put where it will do the most good. Before Mr. Harkness had a try at the climb Mr. Stanley had set the record at a point where it appeared to be safe for some time to come. Mr. Stanley had been quoted as saying that a half hour was about the right time for his car, so when he stripped it for the open event today his trial was looked forward to with much interest. Leaving the base at 9:21 o’clock he was only 6:30 making the first two miles. In 13:00 he had reached the half-way house, bettering his previous record to that point by 2:00. Six miles, two-thirds of the climb, were covered in 22:00, and the last two miles were reeled off in 6:19 2-5, making his elapsed time 28:19 2-5, a cut of 3:44 in his record made Monday.

“Mr. Stanley got a splendid welcome and was induced to run his car up skids to the platform of the Summit Hotel where it was photographed repeatedly with one of the rack railroad locomotives as a background. Mr. Stanley had stripped his car even of the seat cushions, and was rather used up with the jolting he got on the way. Both today and yesterday he was accompanied by a youth, who, with a stop-watch in hand checked the time at the two-mile marks on the way up, so that they had a line on their performance.”*

The Climb to the Clouds race was run again in 1905. F. E. Stanley and Joe Crowley, his “mechanician” made the ascent in a 1905 15 HP Stanley. It did not quite beat the powerful 60 HP Napier’s winning time of 20 minutes, 58 & 2/5 seconds, driven later that day, Tuesday, July 18, by Bert Holland. But the Stanley’s time of 22 minutes, 17 3/5 seconds set the record for steam car ascents.

So why is the Stanley but a museum piece today? Because the Stanley brothers were crusty and stubborn. They could have been giants in the industry, but they didn’t feel like it, producing a self-imposed 1,000 a year. At the same time, Henry Ford, a marketing whiz and a staunch supporter of internal combustion, was gearing up his plant for mass production and mass appeal. The Steamer, which could easily have been the car of the future, became a thing of the past.

*Reprinted from The Automobile Weekly • Saturday, July 16, 1904

Stanley Steamer Home Page
Main Home Page