At the turn of the 20th century there were three main rivals fighting it out in the new world of automobiles… electric, petrol and of course steam powered cars. In my latest feature film I talk to vintage car enthusiast Bryan about his 1908 Stanley Model K steam car. You may remember Bryan from my other film last year where I went for a drive in his two vintage electric cars (you can watch that here). It is rather obvious then that Bryan is a big veteran car fan. And when you watch his film, you can see why.
By the early 1900s steam technology had been around for roughly 300 years. The idea of using steam to provide power first appeared in the 17th century and it was of course the key technology behind the industrial revolution of the 19th century. So by the 1900s, steam power as a form of propulsion was advanced and well understood. That advancement allowed pioneering individuals like the Stanley brothers to develop a whole series of steam powered cars. And the Stanley Model K was one of their designs.
The entrepreneurial twins Francis E. Stanley and Feelan O. Stanley built steam cars from 1902 until 1924. The Massachusetts based Stanley Motor Carriage Company enjoyed much success in its early years. In 1903 a Stanley Steamer set a new record at the Daytona Beach Road Course, reaching 127mph. Another speed record was set in 1906 by the Stanley Rocket at Ormond Beach in Florida. It was these speed records that demonstrated the power a steam car could deliver. And Bryan’s light weight Stanley Model K was no slouch.
One of the things that struck me the most about the Stanley Model K was the sense of theatre. The hiss, pop and crackle made the car sound alive. And in a way it was. The steaming up procedure itself was not what you would call turn key by today’s standards. Indeed the slow start up of a steam car was one of the contributing factors in the demise of steam powered cars. But with the Model K, it really did feel like a return to the good old days, when the pace of life was a little bit slower. With a start up time of 20-30mins, this isn’t a car for a quick run to the shops. If you were going to take the car out then one had to get the car ready first. Hence the sense of theatre and occasion.
With procedures like turning the gas on to switching on the sparker, releasing excess water from the boilers front valves, to waiting for the burner temperature to reach above 600 degrees, to cranking the fuel pressure pump, it is a lot to remember. All these steps also have to be taken in the correct order. As Bryan says in the film you have to know what you are doing. But with practice it is something you can easily get used too. The irony is that the slow startup doesn’t give any clues to the fact that the Stanley Model K was indeed a sports car in its day, or Semi-Racer as it was known.
Once the boiler was up to temperature and the clouds of steam around the car had dissipated, Bryan took me out for a drive. One thing that is immediately obvious is that the Model K looks like an atypical brass car of the period. Dubbed the Coffin Nose thanks to its long bonnet, the Stanley was well appointed for its time with wonderfully detailed dials and gauges to a pair of leather seats that would not have looked out of place at a well to do gentleman’s club.
On the mechanical side the car has no clutch or transmission and it’s 2 cylinder 25HP engine runs at round 600psi. As a result the Model K is both light and very quick. Pulling away the steamer makes that characteristic chug chug sound that you can only get from a steam engine. What really surprised me was how rapid its acceleration was. When Bryan opened the regulator the car shot forward at a pace that puts a smile on your face, all whilst billowing large amounts of steam out the back. The only thing holding back the cars true performance is its brakes. The Stanley has no front brakes!
Apart from the sound of the engine chugging away, the Model K is relatively quiet on the open road and cruises along very happily. An old vehicle like this isn’t really meant for rushing about but the bags of torque that the Stanley has on offer does mean it can mix it up with modern traffic. And sitting up high on those armchair like seats gives you a commanding position of the road. The height also increases the sense of speed as you steam along.
What I enjoyed most about Bryan’s Stanley Model K was the huge amounts of character it has. With the brightly painted body and pin stripe detailing, the big wheels and all the brass and steam, it is a car that makes you smile. And as we sit at a crossroads in the journey of the automobile, it is fascinating to look back at the early days of the car and the use of steam as a form of propulsion. Will the steam car make a comeback as we move away from the internal combustion engine? Probably not. But old veteran cars like the Stanley Model K remind us of where the automobile has come from. And what better way to enjoy an old car than to leave a big cloud of steam in your wake.