Skip to main content

1915 Stanley Wagon Model 820

Fall 2009 | Volume 24 |  Issue 3

Tom Marshall Jr. will never forget the first time he "steamed up," or started, the Stanley Motor Carriage Company's rare 1915 five-seat Mountain Wagon. The year was 1946, Marshall a 22-year-old recently discharged as a lieutenant from the Army Air Forces. His father, a collector of Stanley Steamer vehicles, had roped him into a 300-mile road trip from Yorklyn, Delaware, to Cochituate, Massachusetts, to pick up the wagon that the Litchfield Stage Company had used to haul firewood.

"I had no idea what I was doing," says Tom, but his father showed him how to open the pilot gas valve on the dashboard. The flame ignited under the hood and burned for several minutes, heating the steel vaporizing coil directly below the boiler. Next, Tom released the liquid kerosene from the tank at the car's rear by pressing the lever valve at the base of the steering wheel. As the kerosene traveled through the burner grate and the vaporizing coil, it became a gas fire burning below the 22-gallon boiler.

Twenty minutes later, the wagon was ready to drive—and, for only the second time, his father let Tom take the wheel of one of his Stanleys. Unlike with internal combustion vehicles, there was no clutch. Power, torque, and speed depended on the level of steam driving the engine's two pistons, located beneath the hood, allowing maximum torque to be achieved from a standstill. Tom quickly got the hang of it and was hooked.

For a little while, the nation, too, adored Stanley Steamers, buying more of them between 1900 and 1904 than it did internal combustion engine cars. Stanleys were comparatively simple, featuring only 34 moving parts compared with 20 times as many in a Model T. Steam provided a faster pickup and smoother ride. Later, during World War I rationing, kerosene cost less than gasoline. By the later 1910s, however, innovations in internal combustion fuel efficiency and power delivery, as well as the development of the electric starter, made steam engine cars obsolete.

Tom and his father made it back to Yorklyn without a hitch but were shocked when they examined the wagon more carefully. "When we looked at the burner, we didn't know how we got home," says the now 85-year-old Tom, recalling the eight inches of carbon and dust coating the badly scorched vaporizing coil. The heads of the copper boiler flues, grouped vertically within the boiler, had also contracted under the high heat. Stanley Steam engineers had reduced the weight of the 30-horsepower boiler by building it with relatively thin %- inch steel walls and wrapping it in three layers of high-tensile, 340-1b, 0.005-inch¬diameter spring wire, which made it capable of holding pressures up to 600 psi. Even so, it still weighed 500 pounds.

Tom and his father spent a year in the old carriage building behind the main house, which Marshall Sr. had converted into a garage in 1914, resizing the copper flues around the boiler and cleaning up the vehicle. A year after his father died in 1970, Tom opened a full-time business repairing original Stanley Steam Car boilers. Although retired now, he teaches classes on steam car maintenance at Auburn Heights, the museum operating on his family's former estate that houses his father's collection of Stanleys. "I still really enjoy tinkering with the boilers," he reports.

Steam still yields some surprises. Just this past August, English-born American Charles Burnett III broke the steam speed record in his British steam car Inspiration, reaching 151 mph and beating Fred Marriott's 127-mph record set by a Stanley Steamer in 1906.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

Please support America's only magazine of the history of engineering and innovation, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to Invention & Technology.


Stay informed - subscribe to our newsletter.
The subscriber's email address.