You’ve heard of steam trains, steam fire engines, steam trams and maybe even steam wagons but what about steam cars. Not many people realise it but up until 1908 there were more steam cars being produced than internal combustion engine cars. The Museum has a touring car in its collection which hides a secret under its bonnet. Instead of a petrol engine there’s a kerosene-fired water tube boiler. It’s a 20 hp Stanley steam car built in about 1922 by the Stanley Motor Carriage Company of Newton, Massachusetts, with a body made by Currier and Cameron of Amesbury, Massachusetts.
Steam cars were popular in Australia during the first decade of the 20th century, but fell from favour before having a brief resurgence in the 1920s. This Stanley steam car is especially interesting and unusual as it features aspects of ‘bush plumbing’ which indicate that the maintenance on the car was probably undertaken in isolation from other steam car owners.
The world’s first steam car was built in France by Nicholas Cugnot between 1760 and 1770. Steam cars were later built in England, Germany and the United States. The Stanley steamers were the most popular steam car. Motorists were impressed with their quiet running, power and acceleration, but they didn’t like the inconvenience of having to wait at least 20 minutes while a cold boiler built up a sufficient head of steam to get the car moving.
Apparently, the Stanley brothers refused to spend money on advertising for their steam cars. As a consequence, they had trouble competing with the petrol car companies, which did advertise. Some car enthusiasts say that petrol companies even bought out steam car patents to prevent their further development. Also, rumours were spread that steam cars were “killing machines” and that if they were driven too hard they might explode. This was a gross misconception, but a powerful shock story. As cars with internal combustion engines gained the upper hand, garage staff serviced steam cars less frequently and found them more difficult to deal with. This all added to their demise and disappearance from the roads. For those of you who like specifications, here they are for our Stanley steam car:
Serial No. 22367
Body No. 1277
H.P.: 20 horsepower
Bore: 102 mm
Stroke: 127 mm
No. of cylinders: 2
Treasury H.P. rating: 16.5 h.p.
Chassis price: 1,100 pounds
Top gear ratio: 1.5 to 1
Wheels size: 34 x 4½
Weight: 2 tons (approx).
Boiler pressure: 600 p.s.i.
Tubes and boiler originally tested to 1,800 p.s.i.
Safety valve set to blow at 750 p.s.i.
Boiler capacity: 23 gallons
Normal water level of boiler: 16 gallons
Amount of water carried: 20 gallons
Pressure in main fuel tank: 100 p.s.i.
Amount of fuel carried: 28 gallons (127.3 litres)
Original No. of fire tubes in boiler: 640
Modified No. of fire tubes in boiler: 248
Original outside diameter of fire tubes in boiler: 33/64 ths
Modified outside diameter of fire tubes in boiler: ¾ inch
Diameter of boiler: 23 inches
Length of fire tubes: 18 inches
Speed of engine: 924 r.p.m.
Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, June 2014