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In 1900, more half the cars on the road were powered by steam, and by 1902, Stanley was outselling every gasoline-fueled car in America.
Steam power was a no-brainer around the turn of the century. You could use anything that would burn as fuel; the steam 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. By 1900, there were about 100 firms building steam cars in the United States. Half of the 2000 cars on the road were powered by steam, and the most popular of the American steam cars was the Stanley Steamer.
The Stanley Steamer was the brainchild of inventors Francis Edgar and Freelan O. Stanley, identical twin brothers who dressed alike and wore their beards in the same style. After making their fortune from the development of the airbrush and a dry photographic plate process upon which Eastman Kodak would build an empire, the brothers retired early, and began building a horseless carriage for personal use. Completed in 1897, the first Stanley steam car had the advantage of simplicity over most other cars of the day. The frame was constructed of tubular steel and supported a wooden body, with a boiler mounted below the seat. The engine contained 13 moving parts; it was light, quiet and easy to drive; but most importantly, it was more fast and powerful than almost any other car on the road. Orders began pouring in, and by 1899 the brothers sold their flourishing autoworks to Locomobile.
Instead of retiring, the Stanleys spent the two years required by their non-compete agreement with Locomobile designing a new steamer. By 1901, they opened a shop in Newton, Massachusetts and the golden era of Stanley was set to begin. In order to prove the car's mettle, the Stanleys took to the race track, and their Steamer set several enduring world speed records. Between 1902 and 1917, Stanley outsold every gasoline-fueled car in America, and became the premiere steam car to own, especially for the wealthy.
But the Stanley twins weren't particularly interested in mass production or advertising. When the electric starter was introduced in 1912, enabling cars with internal combustion engines to start instantly, the steam cars days were numbered. After all, there was no waiting 20 minutes to heat up the boiler, gas was plentiful and cheap, and Henry Ford's Model T could be had for a fraction of the Stanley's price. In 1917, the twins sold their company to Prescott Warren, who continued to operate under the Stanley name until 1924, adding little in the way of technological development. According to Jay, his 1922 model has a virtually identical engine to his 1910 model, but the car is much heavier, thanks to the addition of a condenser to improve range. All the extra weight makes the 1922 Steamer much slower than earlier models, but it's still great fun to drive, and stands as a grand example of American automotive ingenuity.