Curbside Classic: 1911 Stanley Steamer – Once America’s Best Selling Car

Stanley 1911 steamer

It’s easy to forget that in the early years of the automobile, the internal combustion engine was not universally accepted as the way forward. Both steam and electric propulsion were popular, the main reason being that early IC engines were still rather cantankerous, and could be hard (and dangerous) to start with their hand cranks. Electrics were very popular as city cars, for obvious reasons. But when it came to over-the road performance, the steam engine was quite compelling, especially the ones built by the twins Francis O. and Freelan E. Stanley. When I saw this fine 1911 Stanley posted at the Cohort by monteverde3, I got fired up to tell the short story of its day in the sun.

Stanley 1898image via Wikipedia

The Stanley twins started their company in 1897 after selling their photographic dry plate business to Kodak. In 1899, F.O. Stanley and his wife Flora set a world record for driving the first self-propelled vehicle up the brutal 7.6 mile Mount Washington, N.H. carriage road in one of their early steamers. Undoubtedly, they had to stop and refill the water tank a few times along the way, one of the biggest shortcomings of steamers (car and locomotives), until a condenser was fitted in 1915. In 1898 and 1899 they sold 200 cars, making Stanley the best selling automobile in those years.

Stanley boiler-automnatics

The vertical boilers (mounted in the front on later Stanleys, like the 1911) were fired by gasoline, and later kerosene, which was substantially cheaper. They were quite light, yet could reach 650 psi, although the burner would automatically cut out at 500 psi. There was of course a safety valve, and there is no documented boiler explosion on a Stanley.

Stanley Steam_Engine,_6_horsepower

The engine was a simple (non-compound) twin cylinder, working directly on the rear axle on later models. Since steam engines make their greatest torque at starting speed, there was no need for a transmission. Horsepower output increased steadily to at least 20, although it was their silent and powerful starting torque that really gave them an advantage over the gasoline engine. That horsepower rating is actually for the boiler, what its continuous output is capable of generating. The engine could produce up to 100-125 hp for short bursts, before boiler pressure dropped. Fuel economy is about 10 mpg on kerosene, with gas used as the pilot burner.


That’s not to say they couldn’t be fast either. In 1906 a streamlined Stanley set the world land speed record for the fastest mile in 28.2 seconds (127.66 mph). This was not topped by an automobile until 1911, and by another steam-powered car until 2009.

stanley hotel 1

My first exposure to Stanley Steamers was at the picturesque Hotel Stanley in Estes Park, Colorado, which F.O. Stanley built and opened in 1909 after spending a few summers in the clean, dry air of the Rocky Mountains due to tuberculosis. There are several Stanleys on display, and one summer they fired one up. Memorable, especially the gentle chuffing sound of the engine as it moved off.

Stanley 1911 steamer ff

Stanleys were favored in mountain settings, as one never had to worry about down-shifting, which was often very difficult to accomplish on the go in early automobiles with their crude transmissions. And there is usually plenty of water to be had in the mountains.

Stanley 1913 bus

The hotel had several Stanley 12 passenger buses to ferry guests. These were very effective in their role, and some ended up in the Alps doing similar hard work.

Stanley 1924 Model-750

F.O. Stanley sold his interest in the company in 1918 after F.E.Stanley’s death. That turned out to be good timing, as the company entered a terminal decline about then. The electric self-starter, driver’s impatience with firing up the boiler, and Henry Ford’s cheap Model T combined to make the steamer irrelevant. The Stanleys were expensive; this last year 1924 Model 740D (above) cost $3950 compared to less than $500 for a Ford. The steamer’s days were effectively over, although Doble, the most advanced steamer, kept at it until 1931. But that’s another story.

This site offers a wealth of detailed information on the Stanley Steamer:

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