By Ron Scopelliti
“Full steam ahead.”
“Just blowing off steam.”
“Building up a full head of steam.”
For most of us, those are just old clichés of unknown origin. But for Smithfield resident Tom Laferriere, they’re a very real part of every drive in his vintage Stanley steamer.
Those who attended the Smithfield holiday parade last December may remember the car either because of its shiny red bodywork, or because of the harmonized steam whistles that take the place of a more conventional car’s horn. But whatever the reason, it’s a hard car to forget.
“I’d just gotten it, and I wanted to use it as much as I could before it got totally cold,” Tom said of his decision to drive the steam-powered car in the parade.
Instead of igniting fuel inside a cylinder, like a typical car’s internal combustion engine, steam engines like the one in the Stanley use an external boiler to turn water into pressurized steam, which is then plumbed into the engine’s cylinders to produce power.
Stanley is a familiar name among auto enthusiasts. The Stanley Motor Carriage Company, based in Newton, Mass., produced cars from 1902 to 1924, and all of them were powered by steam engines. In 1906, Fred Marriott set a land speed record of 127.55 mph in a Stanley called the Rocket.
So when Tom invited me for a ride when he took the car out of winter storage, there was no hesitation on my part.
Tom’s car was patterned after two racers that Stanley built for the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup Race on Long Island. Neither of the cars got to compete in the race, and the original two no longer survive. But there are a number of Stanleys that were built based on the design of the original racers, including one owned by Jay Leno, which has been featured on TV shows such as “Jay Leno’s Garage,” and “My Classic Car.”
Having a lifelong fascination with steam power, Tom originally bought a Stanley with a more elaborate body style. But as a fan of “speedsters” – early performance cars typified by their minimal bodywork, and rearward driving position – his ultimate desire was a 1906 Vanderbilt Cup Racer.
“I wanted one of these, but they’re just impossible to find,” he said. When he unexpectedly did find one, he snapped it up and put the other Stanley up for sale.
The car’s elegantly-rounded hood covers its water tank and boiler – the two largest parts of the power system. The two-cylinder engine is under the floor of the car. Out back, there’s a cylindrical brass tank that holds kerosene fuel for the burner, and hexane fuel for the pilot.
The Vanderbilt Cup Racers were built for speed, with few amenities. There’s no windshield or top of any sort, and there are also no fenders, doors, or lights. So when we met up at the storage facility where the car spent the winter, Tom had no problem pushing the lightweight racer out of the building single-handedly.
Then the elaborate procedure of starting a steam car began. Period brochures from Stanley claim their cars can be started in 10 to 12 minutes, but stanleymotorcarriage.com acknowledges that 20 to 25 minutes is more typical.
Though I took careful notes and did my own research on the start-up procedure, the technical details don’t capture the true spirit of the ritual. Watching Tom in action as he filled the car’s water tank, then balanced the complex interactions required to turn cold water into horsepower, was like watching one of those artists who starts with a blank canvas, begins splattering paint, and within 10 minutes has a portrait of Jimi Hendrix.
Gauges were checked; valves were turned; levers were pumped. The plumbing was carefully warmed up to make sure the kerosene that fuels the boiler was properly vaporized.
“If we don’t have the fuel going in hot, it will backfire,” Tom noted. A video of Jay Leno making that mistake ends with the comedian showing how smooth his arms were after the backfire singed off all the hair.
Tom put all his senses (except, presumably, taste) to work during the start-up procedure, sniffing the air for unburned kerosene, holding his hand over the boiler to feel the heat building up, checking the fuel pressure gauge to see if he had to manually pump it up, and listening for the unmistakable howl as the burner came to life.
“You are a boiler tender,” he said of the attitude needed to operate the car. “This is not for the faint of heart.” Letting the boiler run dry, he noted, would result in a melt-down that would cost $10,000 to repair.
Drivers were willing to put up with the long start-up procedures in 1906 because steam engines were tried and true – a technology that powered everything from ships to trains to factories. But as engineers worked the bugs out of internal combustion engines, people began to see how they would be a more convenient option. Many auto historians point to the long start-up as a key element in the demise of the steam car, particularly after electric starters were introduced.
“The payoff to all this,” Tom said with a smile as the steam came up to pressure, “is when I get to take it out for a ride. Are you coming along?” With that, we hopped in.
I expected the ride to either be jarring or under-damped and bouncy, but it was actually very smooth and controlled. The seats are comfortable, and even though you’re sitting “on” the car more than “in” it, the shape of the seats kept me securely planted even over tight curves and heavy bumps.
To my surprise and delight, after a couple of tours through a lightly-occupied industrial park, Tom offered me the chance to drive.
“It’s the same thing as a steam train,” he said of the controls. “There’s no transmission and no clutch.” The steam engine’s torque characteristics make them unnecessary.
There’s also no gas pedal – instead there’s a hand throttle mounted on the steering column. Moving it upward feeds steam to the engine’s cylinders, moving the car forward with the familiar chugging sound of a steam train. Once power is applied, speed builds steadily, and there’s a distinct sense that the engine is hardly putting out an effort.
“It’ll just keep going and going,” Tom said of the engine’s eagerness to propel the car. Having him on board as an expert riding-mechanic meant I could ignore the fine points of maintaining the proper steam and fuel pressure, and concentrate on driving.
And driving the Stanley was an elemental experience. Being that the bodywork ends below the shoulders and all four wheels are out in the open, visibility was not a problem. The lack of a windshield puts the wind directly in your face, and the kerosene burns so cleanly that there was never a whiff of fuel or exhaust. Steering was very direct and not particularly heavy, despite a relatively small-diameter steering wheel. The skinny tires and rear-wheel-only brakes of the period mean that you have to leave a bit more room for stopping than you would in a modern car.
My stint behind the wheel of the Stanley put me back in touch with the elements of driving that get lost in a modern car. Having GPS navigation and every Bowie album available on a flash drive can’t make up for the feeling of those narrow tires feeding back bumps through the steering wheel, the force of the wind tugging at my beard, and the pent-up power of 400 psi of steam available at the tips of my fingers.
As with the Ford Model T speedster that he has driven around town for many years, Tom doesn’t plan to let the Stanley sit in a garage. “People will see it around town this year a lot,” he said.
So if you hear a suspiciously train-like chugging behind you at a stop light, take a look in your mirror, and don’t be surprised to see a big smile on the driver’s face – the Stanley just seems to have that effect on its drivers.