1906 Stanley Steamer Clocked Incredible 127 mph Speed

by Vern Parker
Motor Matters

The Stanley twin brothers built their first light steam-powered car in 1897 in Newton, Mass. There were more than 200 customers for that model, so more sophisticated, stylish and powerful cars soon followed.

Steam cars could out-accelerate gasoline-powered cars. In 1906, on the beach at Daytona, a specially equipped Stanley was clocked at an incredible 127 miles per hour. Top speed in a steamer seemed to be limited only by the bravery -- or foolhardiness -- of the driver.

In 1908, the Stanley brothers produced and sold (for about $2,500) a Gentleman's 30-horsepower Speedy Roadster capable of 60 miles per hour that could run more than 50 miles on a single tank of water. Since these almost 13-foot-long models were the sporty/racing cars of 1908, most were driven into the ground.

Jim Keith, a Virginia real estate agent, believes only four of the 1908 Stanley Model K semi-racers survived. There are two in museums, one is in Massachusetts, and is one in his garage.

He bought his 1908 Stanley in April 1992 from a man in St. Thomas, Pa., who had the garage, but not the time or patience to restore the car.

``It was a challenge,'' Keith admits. For two years, every free moment was spent in the shop in Pennsylvania working on the Stanley. ``I took it apart up there,'' Keith said. Once his treasure was disassembled, Keith could determine what, indeed, he had or didn't have. Unfortunately, he discovered the wood frame and wood body were rotted and the original dry-running engine was missing.

Using the rotted wood parts as patterns, Keith fabricated a new white ash frame and a poplar body. A 12-piece, wooden, four-spoke steering wheel caps the nickel-plated steering column. A 1916-vintage 20-horsepower engine was located which, by the way, is wet-running, meaning it runs on oil and does not have to be lubricated at each fuel stop. The engine may be 20 horsepower, but the boiler's 30 horsepower generates tremendous power. Keith says such a setup was available only in 1907 and early 1908.

Although the car came with a 60 mile-per-hour speedometer, ``it'll do 80,'' Keith said. Under the hood is the boiler, and the brass-shrouded engine is mounted under the car at the rear.

A spur gear on the crankshaft meshes with the gears in the differential. Consequently, when drivers of other cars of that era start, they must slow to shift gears. All the Stanley driver must do to accelerate is keep advancing the throttle lever on the right side of the steering column.

The roads in 1908 were not congested, so braking wasn't a major concern. Two-wheel mechanical brakes did the job. As a concession to modern times, however, Keith installed a pair of hydraulic brakes. ``It's capable of going so fast,'' he said, ``I couldn't operate it safely in traffic.''

Behind the two seats is a brass cap on the 35-gallon water tank. Behind that tank is an 11 1/2-gallon kerosene tank. ``I love the sporty rear-end,'' Keith said. A two-gallon hexane tank (used as pilot fuel) is on the left running board. Keith said he's able to buy the clean-burning hexane from Exxon.

In normal modern-day driving, Keith reports mileage figures of one mile per gallon of water, seven and a half miles per gallon of kerosene, and one gallon a day of hexane.

The side lamps, as well as the single taillamp, are fueled by kerosene and must be lit and the wicks adjusted. The handsome, brass headlamps, however, are acetylene -- but only temporarily. Keith, citing safety, plans to electrify the headlamps.

``I had a terrible time putting the car together,'' Keith said. ``It was painful fitting all the parts.'' Now the red car with black trim and yellow stripes is as it was when new. All a motorist has to keep in mind if he should want to drive the Stanley is to keep the fuel tank pressurized, and to mind the drip valve, air pressure control for main fuel system valve and the blow down tank valve -- all on the outside of the car on the driver's (right) side.

The six valves on the dashboard control the main engine firing, the hexane, air to the fuel tank, the pilot light and the air valve. In addition, Keith made the boa constrictor horn that snakes up the right front fender. He has a steam line running to the mouth and a ``venom'' valve to spew steam from the snake's mouth. ``You should see the children's eyes pop,'' he said.

The front water pump is regulated by a control on the left side of the steering column.

The main fuel pressure tank gauges are on the dashboard as well as the water sight gauge. ``That's the most important gauge on the car,'' Keith said.

On the floor are two sets of two pedals. Reversing is accomplished with the left set of pedals while braking is done with the right pair. A brass pedal protruding through the floor operates the earsplitting steam whistle.

Once the car was restored and reassembled, Keith had the seemingly endless miles of yellow pin striping done by a Pennsylvania man.He also had a musical instrument restorer treat as much brass as possible on the car with the same preservative used on brass musical instruments to reduce the polishing time.``It's a sporty-looking animal,'' he said with pride.

Keith said that only a few Stanleys were equipped with 40-spoke wire wheels. Mounted on the wheels are 4.00x36-inch tires.

When Keith steps up to the 21-inch-high running board to climb into his sporty Stanley, he is reassured by the three tool boxes on the running boards.``You can't have enough tools when you break down,'' he said, echoing a fact of life to the 1908 motorist.

``I really like early cars,'' Keith said. ``I'm charmed by the brass era.''

Not all creatures share in Keith's fondness of steam cars. ``The car has a nice voice,'' Keith said, ``but the neighborhood dogs don't like it.''

Copyright 1994, Motor Matters

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