Boiler vroom — When steam power conquered the sands

It's 100 years since Stanley broke the Land Speed Record with steam power. Leigh Dorrington relates the story behind the unlikely bid and attempts to repeat it in '06

5 Stanley Steamer driven by Louis S. Ross

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Bonneville and the Black Rock Desert; before Daytona Beach or Pendine Sands in Wales, the Land Speed Record belonged to an exclusive turn-of-the-century holiday resort — Ormond Beach, Florida.

Ormond Beach is located on a barrier island separating the Halifax River from the Atlantic Ocean north of Daytona Beach. The grand Ormond Hotel opened in 1888 and, by the beginning of the 20th century, Ormond Beach was a popular winter resort for some of the wealthiest and most powerful families in America. The wide and hard-packed sands stretched 27 miles south from Ormond to the Ponce Inlet below Daytona Beach. Just a half-mile from the hotel, the sands made for a natural racetrack.

There were no paved roads: visitors to Ormond travelled on a railroad, built by Henry Flagler, that ran from St Augustine to the Florida Keys and made possible the development of Florida’s east coast. Along with trunks and household staff, winter visitors also brought amusements to fill the balmy, breezy Florida days. One of these was the automobile.

Stanley Steamer driven by Louis S. Ross

Early Ross steamer

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The first motor car was reputedly brought to Ormond Beach in 1900. Bicycle racer William J ‘Senator’ Morgan was the organiser of annual automobile races from 1903 to 1910 that quickly drew international attention. Some of the earliest cars raced on the beach included the Winton ‘Bullet’ and the Oldsmobile ‘Pirate’, as well as an American 70hp Peerless racer driven by Joe Tracy that was designed to participate in the Gordon Bennett race. Twenty-five-year-old William K Vanderbilt Jnr drove a 90hp Mercedes.

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The most revolutionary car to race at Ormond Beach in 1905 was a steam-powered device called the ‘Wogglebug’ that was built and driven by Louis Ross, an employee of the Stanley Motor Carriage Co.

Stanley — whose cars were widely known as ‘Stanley Steamers’ — was one of many manufacturers of steam cars in the US at the beginning of the 20th century. Stanley was not the largest producer of steam cars, but its machines were designed to be lighter and faster than those of rival companies.

Brothers FE and FO Stanley were identical twins who developed a dry-plate photography technique that was eventually sold off to Eastman-Kodak. Their interest in steam began as a hobby, and they built their first car near their Massachusetts home in 1897.

The Stanleys sold their first steam car in 1899, and almost immediately the company was acquired by investors who changed the name to the Locomobile Company of America. Production soon moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where Locomobile turned to building gasoline-powered cars in 1905.

2 Stanley Steamer driven by Louis S. Ross

Ross with his steamer in 1905

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FE and FO re-entered the steam car business in 1901. Between 1901 and ’25 Stanley built a confusing array of steam cars that ultimately totalled over 60 different models. The earliest cars resembled the buggies they were based on with the steam boiler, water tank and engine mounted under the seat. Beginning in 1905, Stanley introduced a new car that became the classic Stanley style: the boiler moved to the front of the car and was covered by a distinctive rounded bonnet. These ‘coffin-nose’ Stanleys remained in production until 1915.

One of the early advantages of steam cars was their simplicity. Steam power — for railroads, ships and production of electricity — was a highly developed and familiar technology, while the internal combustion engine was not. A steam engine is an external combustion engine; power is produced as steam in a boiler and transported by a steam line to a simple engine that is little more than a pair of pistons attached to connecting rods that transfer power to a rotating shaft.

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Starting a steam car required only pumping up fuel pressure to light the boiler, waiting for the steam pressure to come up to operating level and motoring off. Another substantial advantage of a steam car was the tremendous amount of torque the engine produced compared to an internal combustion unit. While horsepower ratings for steam engines were always questionably low, torque was another matter. Modern tests have shown over 6751b ft of torque at 800rpm from a Stanley steam engine rated at 20hp.

The process of starting a steamer could take 20 minutes, but this was not particularly onerous compared with the preparation and hand cranking required for a gasoline car at the time. The invention of the electric starter for petrol engines in 1911 changed this, however.

With a simpler starting procedure for gasoline cars, drivers became more aware of other drawbacks of steam cars in comparison. One problem was that oil mixed with exhaust steam could make it unpleasant to follow behind a steam car. The solution to this problem was to fit a condenser to the boiler, creating a closed system, which Stanley did beginning in 1915. Another was weight and power. With ongoing refinement and development Stanleys became heavier and lost much of their early power advantage. The era of the steam car was already ending by 1915, although Stanley production continued for another 10 years.

3 Stanley Steamer driven by Louis S. Ross

Marriott with the car that set a land speed record of 127.659 mph in 1906

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At Ormond Beach in 1905, Louis Ross and the Wogglebug found themselves matched against new 90hp Mercedes for WK Vanderbilt and New York stockbroker ER Thomas, and a 90hp Napier owned by SF Edge and driven by Arthur MacDonald. The four competed in a series of three heat races for the ‘one-mile championship of the world’ and the Dewar Trophy. Ross’s car was powered by two Stanley steam engines. Some reports describe that each engine was connected to a rear wheel, with throttles that were operated separately. This resulted in the car proceeding down the course in an erratic line that gave the Wogglebug its name. Ross’s steam car was rated at only 20hp compared with 90hp for the European cars, seeming to give him little chance against the larger cars. But Ross took advantage of steam cars’ ability to deliver full torque instantly and won decisively at a speed of 94.7mph. An amateur racer in a ‘home-built’ had defeated Mercedes and Napier.

From the archive

The Stanley brothers also raced, intermittently but successfully: the Stanley ‘Torpedo’ was campaigned in the north-east by FE Stanley. Two cars were built in 1905 for the Vanderbilt Cup races on Long Island, but were not raced. A special racer was also developed for the 1906 Ormond Beach events. This car was radical in every aspect.

John Katz described the Stanley LSR car in Automobile Quarterly in 1987 as ‘a long and narrow single seater. The driver sat low and forward, with his legs between the front wheels, as in a modern grand prix car. The boiler, a seething cauldron 30 inches in diameter, was positioned immediately behind him. The engine’s bore and stroke measured a whopping 4V2 x 6V2 inches and it hung out the rear of the chassis, with its connecting rods reaching forward for the axle.’

The most unusual feature of the car, however, was its skimpy body. It looked like an overturned boat and has been called the ‘world’s fastest canoe’. In fact, it was the Robertson Canoe Company in West Newtonville, Massachusetts that built the body for Stanley, using stiffened fabric stretched over an elm frame.

The Stanley Motor Carriage Company announced its intention to set a new Land Speed Record — which at that time stood at 108.59mph — with this car.

6 Stanley Steamer driven by Louis S. Ross

Marriot was lucky to escape a huge crash

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The team arrived at Ormond Beach in January 1906. The car immediately proved to be fast if fragile, with 1000psi of steam in the boiler. The Stanley won the Dewar Trophy and set a world record on the 23rd at 31.8 seconds for the mile, and the next day won a five-mile championship heat. Friday, January 26 1906 was chosen by the team to raise the world record they had set in the Dewar race. Of the four Stanley employees attending to the car, Fred Marriott — foreman of the factory repair department — was reportedly chosen to drive the car because he was the only bachelor on the team.

The day dawned overcast, but the clouds broke in the early afternoon. Alone on the beach, Marriott covered the mile in 28.2 seconds to set a new Land Speed Record of 127.659mph. It was the first time that an automobile had been driven at over two miles a minute.

From the archive

The Stanley racer returned to Ormond Beach in 1907 with the boiler upgraded to 1200-1300psi and the intention of raising the record. Fred Marriott was again the driver. But on its record run the front wheels bounced off the sand on a rough patch of beach and the car crashed heavily. Marriott received extensive injuries but survived; the car was destroyed.

A functioning replica of the Stanley Land Speed Record racer was built in the late 1960s by Morris Frost of Lake Park, Florida and donated to the Birthplace of Speed Museum in Ormond Beach. Subsequently, the replica was loaned by the City of Ormond Beach to Daytona USA when the speed display opened at the International Speedway in ’96. There the Stanley racer was displayed beside other record machines, including Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird V.

The replica of the Stanley was prepared to run at Ormond Beach on January 26 2006, 100 years to the day since the record run. The day dawned windy and cold, but without the rain that plagued the attempt of a century earlier. Descendants of Fred Marriott, FE and FO Stanley were present, as was a gathering of almost 50 steam cars. The temporary paddock at the top of the beach ramp was more like a rail yard with smells of oil mixed with steam, shrill whistles and the chuffing of steam engines trailed by white clouds.

7 Stanley Steamer driven by Louis S. Ross

Wreckage of Marriot’s crash

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The thread of the story was nearly lost when the Stanley racer refused to start as the other cars made timed runs on the beach. The petcock feeding fuel to the pilot light had also been left open and fuel had pooled beneath the boiler. Sue Davis, director of the Stanley Museum in Kingfield, Maine called out, “Get Brent Campbell!”. The crowd parted as Campbell — Master of All Things Steam — was found. He worked tirelessly, but just as it looked as if it would all come to naught the racer ‘steamed’ and Campbell drove it onto the sand.

Sarah Stanley, the great-granddaughter of FE Stanley, was given the honour of the first run on the beach and she thrilled the crowd — and herself. Other drivers who followed were not so lucky, as the racer soon lost steam: it was not to be. Finally, with the crowd departed from the sands, the racer was towed ignominiously off the beach as the tide came in.

We stood there for a few more minutes watching the great-grandsons of Fred Marriott willing it to go. And I thought of Sarah Stanley’s words earlier when she said: “I wasn’t alone on the sand today.”