Sunday, June 2, 2013

Steam Power: How The Stanley Steamer Destroyed the Speed Records, And Nearly Changed the World.

Seven feet of sand changed the world.

That's the length of uneven beach that caught the momentum of a Stanley steamer heading towards 200mph, and flipped it in the air like a piece of driftwood, destroying the hope of a steam-car prismed society.

The wreckage of the 1907 Stanley steam-powered race car at Daytona Beach

It had all started so promisingly. 
The Stanley brothers were identical twins, down to the same clothes, beard lengths, and genius IQs. They had become rich selling the dry photographic plate treatment process to Eastman Kodak, and one casual afternoon,  had happened upon a race featuring an early steam car racer.
Exasperated by the constant stopping and re-filling of the boiler by the driver, the brothers simultaneously were impressed and inspired. Why not use their twin-brainpower to develop a steam vehicle with more efficiency, and thus much more range and speed?

After a couple of false starts involving outsize and cumbersome technology, the men devised a slick combination of brute power and simple design. They put together a custom boiler with an automobile consisting of less than 40 parts, and business boomed.

The Stanley Brothers, 1898
 Soon they had more orders than could fill. They purchased a bicycle factory, and eventually produced 11,000 steamers (500 of which are still around). They wouldn't put a nickel into advertising, but they loved to race, and put time and money into high-performance cars.

They would run their little "Woggle Bug" in open races against all comers, and any race under three miles they dominated.

1903 Cyclone Mark V Engine-powered Stanley, piloted by Louis Ross
They were one of the first race cars to incorporate "streamlining", shaping their bodies to lower air resistance. It upped their speed but, in the end, they paid dearly for it.

Although their cost was high (four times what you would pay for a Ford), the cars were dependable, cheap to operate and very simple to maintain and run. 
But the early 1900's was a time of shoddy workmanship and cutting corners for those who wanted to make a quick buck in the new steam industry. There were several catastrophic boiler explosions in factories, and in the public's mind, it was a powerful but risky technology.
The Stanley had no such problems, but the guilt-by-association hung in the air over every steam car on the road. The brothers sought to defuse that public fear by running races.

1906 Vanderbilt race model

They were successful, piling up so many victories without dangerous mechanical issues, that they decided to press their technology to the edge.
In 1906, they built a beach racer out of their most powerful boiler (800 pounds per square inch) and an upside down canoe, and recruited novice driver Fred Marriott to pilot the beast. He didn't know any better, and "accidentally" ended up behind the wheel at Daytona Beach on August 25th, 1906.
You see, the Brothers had sent him measurements of a man requesting a cockpit and dash design to fit; it was only later that he realized they were his measurements!

He destroyed the world speed record that day, flying along the sand at over 127 miles-an-hour. The effect on sales was dramatic. Everyone wanted the fastest car in the world, and that day in 1897 when the Stanley Brothers attended that obscure race was looking more and more providential.

The next year was to be their crowning glory. They were primed to break an unthinkable record; the three-miles-a-minute barrier.
Once again, Fred Marriott was at the helm, confident and careful. He had skimmed along the route earlier, and noticed there were a couple of rough spots, both areas where the surface dipped an inch or so for a short span of six or seven feet. He wasn't overly concerned.
He fired up the boiler, (a massive 1300psi tank), and settled in, ready to roar down the track. He got the signal, and two MIT faculty were waiting at the end, there to officiate and confirm the expected records.

Fred Marriott, ready to race, 1907 at Daytona Beach

He immediately felt the surge of unbridled power as the thin wheels whipped along the wet surface.

Then it happened.

 Halfway through the course, at a speed the MIT boys estimated approaching 190mph, the light-canoe body hit the second slight berm, and launched like a rocket into the surf.
According to interviews with Fred, at just under 200 mph the car lifted about ten feet in the air and carried him about 100 feet, before crashing down again.
The car split in two, and the boiler tore loose and rolled a thousand feet down the beach. Fred was tossed like a doll, the splinters of the car breaking his ribs, feet, and laying his eye out on his cheek like a small dangling egg. 
Fortunately, a doctor was on scene, and put the eye back, and Fred later never had any issue with it. He was going to be okay, but the future of steam had taken a dark turn.

The wreckage of the 1907 Stanley steamer beach racer

The Stanley Brothers were so horrified at the disaster that they never raced their vehicles again, and so the public was left with this image as the final picture of the Stanley race cars; the wooden body torn asunder, laying upside down in the gentle waves of Daytona. It was enough to seal the fate of steam as an alternative to gasoline-powered cars.
There were other factors as well. The steam car took up to half-an-hour to warm up, they were more costly initially, gasoline was cheap and plentiful. It all combined to put the company out of business by 1924.
But until that moment, we were on the verge of a seismic shift in transportation, and for other functional uses, all in the name of water-power. Would we have fought as many wars, lost as many lives, polluted as much air and water if we had stuck to steam? We'll never know. But it could be a very different present, if seven feet of sand hadn't intervened in 1907.

Sources: , Daytona Beach Sunday News Journal, February 22nd, 1959, Eugene Register Guard, April 17th, 1957, Meriden Journal, October 3rd, 1963, Miami News , May 3rd, 1959

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the Stanley article. Can't get enough of Stanleys....