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The Stanley Motor Carriage Company was an American manufacturer of steam-engine vehicles; it operated from 1902 to 1924. The cars made by the company were colloquially called Stanley Steamers, although several different models were produced.
Twins Francis E. Stanley (1849–1918) and Freelan O. Stanley (1849–1940) founded the company after selling their photographic dry plate business to Eastman Kodak. They produced their first car in 1897. During 1898 and 1899, they produced and sold over 200 cars, more than any other U.S. maker. In 1899, Freelan and his wife Flora drove one of their cars to the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the highest peak in the north-eastern United States. The ascent took more than two hours and was notable as being the first time a car had climbed the 7.6 miles (12.2 km) long Mount Washington Carriage Road; the descent was accomplished by putting the engine in low gear and braking extensively. The twins later sold the rights to this early design to Locomobile, and in 1902 they formed the Stanley Motor Carriage Company.
Early Stanley cars had light wooden bodies mounted on tubular steel frames by means of full-elliptic springs. Steam was generated in a vertical fire-tube boiler, mounted beneath the seat, with a vaporizing gasoline (later, kerosene) burner underneath. The boiler was reinforced by several layers of piano wire wound around it, which gave it a strong, yet relatively light-weight, shell. In early models, the vertical fire-tubes were made of copper, and were expanded into holes in the upper and lower crown sheets. In later models, the installation of a condenser caused oil-fouling of the expansion joints, and welded steel fire-tubes were used instead. The boilers were safer than one might expect – they were fitted with safety valves, and even if these failed, a dangerous overpressure would rupture one of the many joints long before the boiler shell was in danger of bursting, and the resulting leak would relieve the boiler pressure and douse the burner with little risk to the occupants of the car. There has never been a documented case of a Stanley boiler exploding in use.
The engine had two double-acting cylinders side-by-side, equipped with slide-valves, and was of the simple-expansion type. Drive was transmitted directly from the engine crankshaft to a rear-mounted differential by means of a chain. Locomobiles were often modified by their owners, who added third-party accessories, e.g. improved lubricators, condensers, and devices which mitigated the laborious starting procedure, and so forth.
Later, the Stanley brothers, to overcome patent difficulties with the design they had sold to Locomobile, developed a new automobile model with twin-cylinder engines geared directly to the back axle. Later models had aluminium coachwork that resembled internal combustion cars of the time but retained the many steam-car features such as no transmission, clutch, or driveshaft. They also had a fully sprung tubular steel frame.
When they later shifted the steam boiler to the front of the vehicle, the resulting feature was called by owners the "coffin nose." The compact engine ran at considerable steam pressure, with the 10HP boiler described in 1912 at having the safety valve set at "650 pounds" (psi), with the burner set to automatically cut back when pressure reached "500 pounds". The twin cylinder steam engines were at that time 10HP, with 3.25inch bore and 4.25inch stroke, and 20HP with 4inch bore and 5inch stroke, and made extensive use of ball bearings. In order to improve range, condensers were added from 1915.
For 1903, the body was redesigned, the front compartment given a more gradual slope on its leading edge with a sultry curve that created a conveniently located toeboard when lowered. It was not until 1904, however, that Stanley adopted model designations, A, B and C, depending on the seat configuration. A car with a solid panel driver’s seat and an open front seat was given the name “Type (or Model) B,” and this is usually retroactively applied to 1903 cars.
The iconic Stanley Steamers from the coffin-nose era are without doubt the 20-horsepower Model H Gentleman’s Speedy Roadster and the 30-horsepower Model K Semi-Racer. During this era, however, the Stanley Motor Carriage Company’s bread-and-butter line comprised mostly 10-horsepower cars, including the long-running Model E variations of 1905–1909 and the 60-series cars built from 1910 to 1914. Although they weren’t as fast as the 20- and 30-horsepower cars, let alone the streamlined Rocket that set the world land speed record in January 1906, they encompass the same technology and are every bit as roadworthy and enjoyable.
The Model R roadster was one of five models listed in the 1909 Stanley catalogue, selling for $1,440 with an optional convertible top. Its 20 horsepower twin-piston engine is a model of simplicity, with just thirteen moving parts. It can easily cruise at 40 mph or climb steep grades with ease.
From 1910 to 1913, 60-series cars totalled to 1,165 units, handily outselling the 70-series 20-horsepower cars, which managed just 877.
A Stanley Steamer set the world record for the fastest mile in an automobile (28.2 seconds) in 1906. This record (127 mph (204 km/h)) was not broken by any automobile until 1911, although Glen Curtiss beat the record in 1907 with a V-8 powered motorcycle at 136 mph (219 km/h). The record for steam-powered automobiles was not broken until 2009.
Production rose to 500 cars in 1917.
During the mid to late 1910s, the fuel efficiency and power delivery of internal combustion engines improved dramatically and the usage of an electric starter rather than a crank, which was notorious for injury to its operators, led to the rise of the gasoline-powered automobile (which eventually was much cheaper). The Stanley Company produced a series of advertising campaigns trying to woo the car-buying public away from the "internal explosion engine," to little effect. An advertising slogan for these campaigns was, "Power – Correctly Generated, Correctly Controlled, Correctly Applied to the Rear Axle." These campaigns are early examples of a fear, uncertainty and doubt type advertising campaign, as their purpose was not so much to convince the audience of the benefits of the Stanley Steamer car as to plant the notion an internal combustion automobile could explode.
In 1918, after F.E. Stanley's accidental death, F.O. Stanley sold the interests to Prescott Warren. The company then endured a period of decline and technological stagnation. As the production specifications show, no models with a power output higher than 20hp (15 kW) were produced after 1918. Far better cars were available at much lower cost – for example, a 1924 Stanley 740D sedan cost $3950, compared to under $500 for a Ford Model T. Widespread use of electric starters in internal combustion cars, starting in 1912, eroded the greatest remaining technological advantages of the steam car.
Efficiencies of scale, a lack of effective advertising and general public desire for higher speeds and less fussy starting than were possible with the Stanley technology were the primary causes of the company's demise and the factory closed permanently in 1924.
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