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The Stanley Steamer was the brainchild of twin brothers Francis Edgar Stanley and Freelan O. Stanley, who began building steam cars as a hobby in 1897, after selling their photographic plate business to Eastman Kodak. Steam power was a no-brainer at the turn of the century. You could use anything that would burn as fuel; the engine was purely mechanical and had few moving parts; and steam power provided instantaneous torque, eliminating the need for gears, and allowing a vehicle to climb hills in a snap. Around 1900, there were about 100 firms building steam cars in the United States, and half of the 2000 cars on the road were powered by steam. Between 1902 and 1917, Stanley outsold every gasoline-fueled car.
The Stanley’s engine has two double-acting side-by-side cylinders, equipped with slide valves. In order to overcome patent difficulties in later models like Jay’s R, the Stanley brothers enclosed the engine in a dustproof case and geared it directly to the back axle, rather than using the crude train drive of earlier models. The boiler was moved under the hood and became known as the “coffin nose.” This main burner was kept operating by a separate pilot burner. Once the boiler was lit and able to build up a proper head of steam, a risky exercise which could take up to twenty minutes, driving was easy. A lever near the steering wheel adjusted the amount of steam sent to the engine, while another lever controlled the amount of fuel flowing to the main burner.
Although Jay claims that the Stanley is one of few cars where you can be scalded and burned to death at the same time, the boilers are theoretically quite safe. They were fitted with safety valves, and if those failed, overpressure would rupture a joint before the boiler burst. The resulting leak would ease boiler pressure and douse the burner. Supposedly, there has never been a documented case of a Stanley exploding while in use.