This 1920 Stanley Steamer Is Proof That The Steam Car Had A Pretty Amazing Lifespan – You Could Have Bought This One!

This 1920 Stanley Steamer Is Proof That The Steam Car Had A Pretty Amazing Lifespan – You Could Have Bought This One!

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.

This car was purchased in 1951 and has been lovingly restored and maintained since that time.  It is a very unusual body style, as it has a fabric covered aluminum body which was factory installed.  All seats have been reupholstered and it has a new top and bows.  



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6 thoughts on “This 1920 Stanley Steamer Is Proof That The Steam Car Had A Pretty Amazing Lifespan – You Could Have Bought This One!

  1. DanStokes

    Interesting comment on the passing of stem.

    Jay Leno managed to track down Mr. Doble (Google Doble Stem Car if you want more info) who was by then in his 90’s. Jay allowed as to how hie Doble had solved the issues with steam and asked Mr. Doble why the steam car went away given how wonderful his car was. Mr. Doble looked at Jay like he was an idiot and said “water freezes”. ‘Nuff said.


    1. Whelk

      An apocryphal story as Abner Doble died in 1961 still maintaining that steam powered cars were the equal if not superior to gasoline powered cars. Water freezing didn’t seem to be much of a barrier for the century or so that steam dominated. Interestingly steam trucks operated in the UK until the 50s when they were finally taxed out of existence.

      1. Gump

        Horse dominated for longer than a century… The water freezing is a pretty big drawback. It would have to be kept warm all the time which would be expensive, and difficult in the northern climates. Why are steam locomotives no longer used? Too expensive and laborious to maintain.

  2. Bow tie Guy

    I actually know where another one of these is in Michigan. I’ve saw it years ago and I don’t think the gentleman has finished his restoration yet… but seriously cool car!

    1 thing you don’t get from the pictures is how freaking huge these things are!!! These cars are about the size of a modern Tahoe.

    Also my favorite feature was the rear axle mounted engine… the boiler was under the hood and a big pipe ran under the car like a drive shaft to a small-ish 2 cylinder engine that’s mounted directly to the center section

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