1906 Stanley Steamer
March 30, 2007 5:48 PM
The wind swept along the east coast of Florida on that 1906 day, carrying the smell of sea-salt air and the squawking of the gulls swooping indelicately through the winter sky. It was the town of Ormond Beach, home of the Daytona Beach Road Course, the birthplace of car racing; and a crowd was gathered to watch Ormond's annual speed tournament where a Stanley Steam Rocket, driven by one Fred Marriott, took the top prize. When the dust and sand and gravel settled, the steam car clocked in at a whopping 127.6 miles per hour. The age of speed had begun.
While Jay Leno's 1906 Stanley Steam racecar was not the one to compete on that day, the model was designed for the long-haul Vanderbilt Cup Race held in 1907. And though the Stanley Motor Carriage Company survived for another ten years, and steam technology limped along for an additional nine, give or take, steam cars like the Stanley and the Doble were overtaken by gas-powered engines and the much more affordable Ford Model T.
The Stanley Steamer was the brainchild of twin brothers Francis Edgar Stanley and Freelan O. Stanley, who got into the car racket in 1897 after selling their photographic plate business to Eastman Kodak. The early models had wooden bodies and vertical, fire-tube boiler mounted beneath the seat. Later models featured improved engines that provided power directly to the back axels and better coachwork.
For steam aficionados, these cars remain pure automotive magic, even if that magic is cast by technological wizard still apprenticing at his game. Before you can start a Stanley, you have to heat up 15 gallons of water. Then you have to light the pilot, a process that accounted for more hair loss in the age of steam than male-pattern baldness. Worse, if you're not careful, you can start the whole car on fire.
The whole process from heating the water, to lighting the pilot light, to pulling out of the garage, can take up to 20 minutes. Of course, once you're on the road the dangers don't stop since you're driving around with an open fire and the boiling-hot fuel that that powers it.
Yet still, this "train without tracks" that's powered by a two cylinder, 20 horsepower engine is one of Jay's favorite cars, and he can often be seen tooling around in it on the weekends or driving it to his day job on weekdays, water leak and all.