I have been turning into a bit of a steam freak lately and that’s because of a larger story I am working on that’ll hopefully be fired up next week. The one thing I keep coming back to is how incredible a “thing” steam is and how when man learned to apply its strength for his own good, the world changed forever. From locomotives to submarines, and cars, steam has been used (in one form or another) to move people, things, and nuclear weapons for more than a century now. While it seems arcane and hilarious to think about, steam cars were among the highest performance automobiles of their day and “their day” actually lasted a pretty long time. Think of it this way, the Stanley car company was in business from 1902 to 1924 and they produced between 1,000 and 1,500 cars each year. This wasn’t some miniscule niche, it was a real business for decades.
While the production numbers pale in comparison to the Ford Model T and other “everyman” cars of the day, these behemoths were not intended to be “everyman” cars. When you see the 1920 Stanley that was recently put up on eBay for sale, you’ll get what we mean. The cars were huge, had luxurious appointments, and frankly were complicated enough that anyone who bought one likely had a driver that was in charge of making sure he didn’t blow his passengers to smithereens because of a boiler explosion. Tricky business, that.
Jay Leno is probably the single most famous steam car enthusiast in the world but there are lots of steam heads out there that love the cars, trucks, and tractors of this era. As the seller noted in the ad (the text of which has been copied below) the car was an oddball even by the standards of 1920 as the body was actually made of aluminum and then covered in fabric! This had to have been massively expensive for the time.
By the middle 1920s, internal combustion engines that made as much and more power than the big steam boilers that provided the motivation for the Stanleys made these cars look their age. The company tried scare tactics to keep people away from gasoline engines by calling them “internal explosion engines” and also commenting on how smooth and controlled the power delivery was from their steam vehicles. They did not talk about the amount of time to get the steam built up and all of the other inherent flaws that a steam car has in a rush about world, but they were grasping at straws.
There are many reasons why few of these cars survived but as we all know, copper and other non-ferrous metals have been valuable throughout time which meant that scrappers would be salivating when one of these rolled into a junkyard. They were built of valuable bones and thusly were cannibalized quickly.
We’d love to someday ride shotgun in a steam car like this one to see what they’re all about.
Here’s the text of the eBay ad: (the auction is over so we copied the text)
Up for sale is our long-time family owned 1920 Model 735-B, 7 passenger touring car; ‘Old Copper Top’. It is chassis number 20037. It had a new boiler installed in 2009 and it now has less than 50 hours of steaming on it. The engine was recently rebuilt, as was the feed water heater. The car has 4-wheel mechanical brakes, the front being an aftermarket add-on. The car steams well and is ready to fire up and run.