Auto Trivia: Stanley Steamer was a family affair

By Jil McIntosh Wheels.ca

Feb 20, 2013 4 min. read

Article was updated 10 years ago

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Although the Stanley Steamer wasn?t the top-selling steam car in its day, it?s the name most likely to be recognized today when steam-powered vehicles are mentioned.

It was named for Francis and Freelan Stanley, twin brothers born in Maine in 1849. Indistinguishable from each other, the two always wore identical clothes and beards, and had matching handwriting. As children, they were constantly building and experimenting, and made and sold maple syrup to pay for their school supplies.

Francis spent his spare time painting portraits with an unusual device he would eventually patent: a controllable atomizer now recognized as the first airbrush. He sold his portraits door-to-door, and his work was so popular that he hired photographers to take pictures of his subjects so he could paint from them.

He eventually bought a camera, but didn?t like the quality of the dry plates ? the emulsion-covered glass used as film ? that were available. He and Freelan patented a machine to mass-produce a far better plate, and their company became one of the most successful in the U.S., branching out with a factory in Montreal. They would later sell it to Eastman Kodak.

They produced their first steam car in 1897, apparently more as a hobby than to get into automaking. Boston held its first auto show in 1898 and the brothers were invited to the show?s speed and hill-climbing trials. Their car easily defeated the four others entered, and they received so many orders that they bought the building next to their dry-plate factory and began production.

The brothers initially didn?t advertise, didn?t sell on credit, and didn?t set out terms of warranty. If your Stanley Steamer broke, they simply fixed it for free.

Freelan had poor health, and in 1903, his doctor suggested the mountain air in Colorado would be good for him. It was, and Freelan liked the place so much that he built a luxury resort, the Stanley Hotel, in Estes Park. It had the country?s first all-electric hotel kitchen, and its guests included Teddy Roosevelt. Supposedly haunted, it inspired Stephen King to write The Shining after staying there (another hotel was used in the original movie, but a later TV version was filmed in it).

Frank turned the company over to his sons-in-law in 1917. He died the following year in a car crash at age 69, while the frail Freelan lived to be 91. Steam car sales declined as gasoline cars improved, and the last Stanley Steamer was built in 1925.

War forced gas rations

Along with food, the U.S. government rationed gasoline during the Second World War. It wasn?t to save fuel, but to make tires last longer, since rubber was essential to the war effort.

Rationing began in the northeastern U.S. in May 1942, after drivers ignored requests to voluntarily limit their trips, and was nationwide by December. Each car was limited to five tires, and drivers had to hand in any extras and prove they needed to drive before they were issued ration tickets that allowed them to buy gas.

Most got four gallons a week, with essential people such as war workers, doctors, railway employees and mail carriers eligible for more. If a tire wore out, you had to apply to get a new one, and they were among the most popular items on the black market. Gasoline rationing ended five days after Japan?s surrender in 1945.

Props for BMW?s logo

BMW?s beginnings consist of interwoven aircraft companies, one started by the son of the man who patented the first internal combustion engine, and another by a former Daimler engineer. The name Bayerische Motoren Werke, or Bavarian Motor Works, first appeared in 1917, along with the logo still used today, which represents a spinning propeller.

German companies weren?t permitted to build planes right after the First World War, and BMW didn?t restart aircraft engine production until 1922. In 1923, it launched its first motorcycle, and in 1928, began making the Dixi, a British Austin Seven built under license. The company?s first original car, the 3/20, appeared in 1932.
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