Every Saturday for many years my dad and a bunch of his buddies have gotten together to drive a small fleet of these restored steam-powered cars from the early years of the twentieth century. The Stanley "steamer" was built by a New England company started by identical twin brothers named Francis E. and Freelan O. Stanley (both of whom graduated from the same small Midwestern public undergraduate institution my wife and I would attend a century later). One of them went on to build the Stanley Hotel outside Estes Park, Colorado, which was Stephen King's inspiration for the Overlook in The Shining. They were transcendent oddballs. Instead of advertising their cars by traditional methods, they preferred to just dress up in the exact same clothes from their shoes to their derby hats with long, identical beards and drive identical Stanley Steamer automobiles side by side into a town, around a town, and then on to the next town. This was said to draw crowds of curious---and perplexed---onlookers.

Their cars were incredible, though. They could go really, really fast: well over 150 MPH (which was unheard of in those days) and they were surprisingly safe. The water boiler that released the steam had several ingenious components that prevented it from exploding. No Stanley Steamer ever exploded (though occasionally one might catch on fire). Still, the engine had only fifteen moving parts and didn't need transmissions, spark plugs, or gearshifts. The pilot light and burner were fueled by anything from gasoline to kerosene to coal. The cars emitted very little pollution. It was like a car that runs on the same basic principle as the hot water heater in your basement.

The crotchety old Stanley twins seemed to lose interest in their burgeoning enterprise after they broke all the speed records. They produced fewer than 1,000 cars per year just as great strides were being taken in the development of the internal combustion engine. Francis E. died in 1918 while speeding in his steamer down a Massachusetts road and he drove his car into a woodpile to avoid farm wagons travelling side by side on the road. Freelan O. sold the company not long after that and began manufacturing violins.

When I take the kids to the Henry Ford museum, one of my favorite places is the far northeast corner of the museum where they've banished all the early cars that ran on alternative sources of fuel, near-forgotten like promising poets who died before their immortal verses could be penned: the Argos and the Babcocks and the Hupmobiles and Detroit Electrics; the steam-powered Dobles and Locomobiles. One wonders if only Henry Ford had applied his eye for innovation and business acumen to the electric or steam-driven engine whether this corner of his museum wouldn't be devoted to the silly idea of cars propelled by an internal combustion engine, and whether the world wouldn't be a very different place today.

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