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Auto Progress: The Steam Car
March 1955 Air Trails Hobbies for Young Men

March 1955 Air Trails

March 1955 Air Trails Cover - Airplanes and RocketsTable of Contents

These pages from vintage modeling magazines like Flying Aces, Air Trails, American Modeler, American Aircraft Modeler, Young Men, Flying Models, Model Airplane News, R/C Modeler, captured the era. All copyrights acknowledged.

Steam-powered cars of yesteryear were the equivalent of today's electric cars - they reached fairly respectable speeds, but the range between refills wasn't very far. Side note: There were actually electric cars in the early 1900s, but their underperformance made the steamers look like marathoners. The Stanley Steamer is probably the most recognized steam-powered car. Late night host and automobile aficionado Jay Leno features his totally restored Jay Leno's 1906 Stanley Steamer - Airplanes and RocketsStanley Steamer on his Jay Leno's Garage website (click on thumbnail to visit his website). In an edition of Popular Science a couple years ago, Jay reported on another of his steam cars: The 1925 Doble once owned by Howard Hughes. Advantages of steam power were many, including quite operation, no gear box, very few moving parts in the engine, ease of manufacturing, great acceleration, and an operational efficiency of around 90%. If OM (Obama Motors, formerly GM) gets wind of this, next year's top tax-payer-subsidized car could be a steamer called the BTU*.

See Auto Progress Memory Lane #1, #2, #3, #4, #5

* BTU = British Thermal Unit, standard unit of heat energy.

Star Performer: Stanley's Famous Steamer

Auto Progress: Stanley Steamer, March 1955 Air Progress - Airplanes and Rockets

By Douglas Rolfe

Back in the days when 50 mph was considered high speed, the steam automobile built by the Stanley brothers had no trouble topping the 100 mark.

First Stanley steamer was this starkly simple powered buggy. Produced in 1897, it was priced at a modest $700 and, like all early Stanleys, had a braced wooden chassis and chain drive.

Redesigned steamer of 1900, after original patents had been sold, still retained chain drive but patent suits forced Stanley brothers to further changes, with engine geared directly to rear axle.

1903 Model was first to employ direct gear drive. It was also first U.S. police prowl car and first automobile adopted by a U.S. fire department.

Vanderbilt Cup Racer appeared in 1905 but did not participate in this old auto classic. It did easily defeat fastest U.S. gear car, the front-drive Christie. But this Stanley was geared up, not down.

The compact, light and completely encased 2-cylinder Stanley engine was a model of simplicity - had only 13 moving parts!

Model FX was second production Stanley to wear the hood which is most commonly associated with the early models. Engine and chassis details remain virtually unchanged. Produced in 1907.

1911 touring car looked practically the same as the 1907 runabout but had aluminum body with side doors, windshield and top.

Auto Progress: Steam-Powered Cars, March 1955 Air Progress - Airplanes and RocketsHuge vee-type radiator was feature of 1916 model. Actually radiator was steam condenser. This was second Stanley to employ an all-steel chassis in place of earlier wood job. First came out in 1915.

By 1919 Stanley steam cars were hard to distinguish from conventional cars except when in motion: the tell-tale steam exhaust immediately identified them.

Last Stanley steamer was this 1925 luxury touring car. Despite its close resemblance to conventional gas cars, it got few buyers.

One of the major mysteries in the history of the automobile is why did the steam-powered car drop out of the race when it was one of the first really successful automobiles and had many qualities which made it for many years quite superior to the gas-powered car? Consider the steam car: It is completely silent, requires no gear box, has remarkable pick-up and its power-plant gives 90 percent efficiency for the fuel burned as against approximately 35 percent for the best cars produced today!

The Stanley brothers offered their first steam automobile in 1897. It was an immediate success but the brothers soon sold their patents to another firm. Desiring to get back into the field they redesigned their original model but ran into patent difficulties on some details of the drive system. Undiscouraged, they completely redesigned the power-plant and transmission and in 1902 introduced this completely new model with direct-gear drive from the engine to rear axle. This design remained virtually unchanged for many years and a modification was first automobile in the world to exceed two miles a minute. Actually it hit 127 mph.  ... But the gas-powered car finally crowded it out of existence. The company folded in 1925.



Posted March 14, 2022
(updated from original post on 9/28/2013)

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