A Story, Not For the Weak

                                                                                by Dan Haynes

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This tour was done before the car had any significant repairs. Old boiler with too few tubes, 18" burner, crummy pumps, old broken pilot light... the list is endless! I am very satisfied with the performace today -
I would have been delighted to have even PART of that performance when I took this tour...

Not too long ago I took my Stanley steamer on a tour with the newly formed "Nickel Age Club" in California. The club was formed for 1913-1927 cars, "The Nickel Age"; after brass, before chrome. What fun. I took Marty, my friend of 25 years, with me to share the good time. There were only the most prestigious cars on hand. The Nickel Age group is for the best iron. Pierce, Locomobile, Packard, Cadillac, Lozier, Hudson, Peerless, Lincoln, etc. A few Model Ts for "fill"; an Overland or two. And the Stanley, ...it was, of course, the only steamer on the tour. In fact, it was the only steamer most of the club people had ever seen. We un-chained and rolled the car off the trailer. It looked great, sitting with its peers.

The tour party would be pulling out soon, but by my calculations we would have more than enough time to fire up. That is not what happened, in fact. The majority of the cars were running soon (drat those self-starting gas cars) and the tour leader did not see any reason to delay departure. He pulled onto the street leading a thirty car tail. All those magnificent cars - exhaust barking, gears clashing..................

The Stanley was only at about 250 of its normal 500 psi steam when we HAD to go, too. Slowly we hissed and wheezed into the traffic. All was cold. Engine was cold and sluggish, boiler was taking water through the cold feed water heater... It was dismal. The nearest of the gas car boys was in the next block already. We were, obviously, last in line. On we pushed.

By and by steam came up, and we did succeed in catching the most sluggardly makes of gas rigs. The tour
route had us, briefly, on a heavily traveled part of Highway 101. As we wheeled along I was bursting with pride with how the car had recovered from the undignified and hurried departure. As we glided along, passengers in modern cars waved to us. I had never really noticed how vigorously people waved before. They were waving almost frantically. I waved back to them, assuring them that I saw them and I did appreciate their approval of the car. Now some were pulling off the road, waiving their arms above their heads and shouting. I waved likewise. "How are you?", I shouted to them over the noise of the freeway. They weren't smiling but they did continue to wave.................And point.

A car pulled along side me cautiously to point under the car, only to back off and get clear of the Stanley again. I looked over the side of the car. Flames were blowing from under the car, from the front to beyond the rear. It was spectacular. Flames were licking through the wire wheel spokes, between the tires and fenders. Immediately I closed the throttle and prepared to leave the road. As we lost speed, the flames were no longer being blown back, and they started to rise straight up. Along the hood hinge a little fringe of fire poked up. A huge wave of flame washed out through the cells of the radiator-like condenser at the front of the car. I jumped from the seat, reached into the fire and threw open the hood to gain access to the fire door on top of the boiler.

This little door, when thrown open, allows the burner to vent (it acts as a chimney). I must say, I have had some fantastic flare-ups, but this one was a prize winner. As my friend and I stood there with about 15 people who had stopped, we watched as the fire flared and fluttered like a vertical beacon. My attention was drawn to the rear of the car when I heard a noise steamers don't make. It was an engine idling.

It was a black and white car and out of it came the biggest highway patrolman I have ever seen. He was huge. He was nearly seven feet tall (no kidding). He had shoulders that blocked out the sun. I sheepishly walked back to his car to greet (placate) him. In two (!) steps he was at his trunk and took out an enormous fire extinguisher (it looked like some kind of rocket-jet pack) and announced, "That car isn't going to burn up on MY section of 101." Being surprisingly light on my feet, I blocked him like a basketball player with my hands held up and out.

"No, no!", I said. "It's a steam car and they do this sometimes. See, it's going out already..." He turned his head to the car and sure enough, the flames were receding back toward the trap door. Apparently he bought it, for he lowered the fire extinguisher and asked if I could make the off-ramp (about 100 yards distant). I told him I could and as the last of the flames had dropped into the trap door hole, into the nether regions of the boiler, I lowered the hood and told Marty to get in. Without turning on the fire, we easily made the off-ramp to safety.

The only damage from this adventure was soot on the paint, but it did polish up very nicely. My rush to leave the trooper, you see, was because the Stanley was not, at the time, licensed, nor registered, nor insured. My own license to drive had expired sometime during the previous year (I'd been busy with other things!).

When, after what seemed an eternity, we reached the lunch stop. We were just in time to leave with the group. Due to the Stanley's great thirst, we had to call a halt many times for water just to get to the mid-way point. All the cars on the tour, as I have said, were of the most noble birth. They did not feel the need to replenish their puny water stores like we were bound to do. The route back to the motel had us motoring along an uncommonly pleasant stretch of road. The two-lane county road kept stride with a creek, turn for turn. The undulating hills we negotiated were just what the Stanley was designed for. Up we would chuff in good style, then cut the throttle and coast down the other side, building up our steam for the next rise. The car never ran better.

Dusk was falling when at last we pulled into the edge of a little town. Steam was up on the button at five hundred. A traffic light compelled a stop. For those not familiar with a steamer, when the car stops moving, the engine is also stopped. There is no noise or vibration. All of the "power" systems (fuel pump, water pumps, oil pump) also stop. It is a unique feeling, sitting there in a stone quiet car, waiting through a red light. When the light changed, I pushed up the long nickel plated throttle lever and we moved off through the deserted streets. We had gone less than a block, between the tall business buildings that were closed for the night, when the peaceful evening air was shattered by a deafening explosion. A brilliant flash of intellect told me all was not as it should be in the boiler room. I turned off the main fuel, and we coasted up to pizza parlor that generously lit its parking lot. Investigation revealed that the pilot light had plugged solid with carbon, and when the fire went out due to high pressure at the stop light, there was no ignition source when low pressure turned the fuel back on. The cloud of un-combusted kerosene collected until some innocent glowing particle in the burner touched it off.

We spent several rewarding and interesting hours on our knees (on the asphalt) digging carbon out of the pilot vaporizer with a small piece of wire (something I always carry for such an emergency). When I could no longer see because of the pain from the position, I would insist that friend Marty have a round of the pleasure. Some time near mid-night (remember it was dusk when we stopped) we were once again on our way. Through the cold night we chuffed. Our exhaust was the only noise. We spoke little.

Since the tour was in the summer months, coats or jackets would have seemed laughable at the start. It was now 16 hours later and we were freezing in the coastal night-time fog. Back at the motel (1:30am), we were hardly surprised to learn that the motel employees had given our room to some people whom the clerks felt were more deserving. We didn't call, they said. True, but we had reserved a room. You didn't show up, they said. Aha! We DID TOO show up! We're just LATE!! Too late, it turns out. There were no other rooms available and the clerk did not appreciate my humor when I suggested she ask the interlopers in our room to vacate. I swallowed my pride and called some friends to see if they would mind subletting the floor of their room to Marty and me.

My eyelids, it seemed, had only just finished scraping across the surface of my eyeballs when my friends (?) were shaking me and yelling for me to get up or we'd be late. My head buzzed. Late for what? Oh, yeah, the tour. I pushed myself into the dazzling morning light outside the motel room. For some reason, I wasn't looking forward to another day of touring. The shine was just off of it. But the car would have to be fired up anyway to get it on the trailer. I told Marty we would drive with the group to the edge of town and turn back, load up and head for home. He agreed that this was a good plan. The parade through town of massive antique iron of Saturday was repeated on this morning. The Stanley nobly took its place in the tour procession. I blew its locomotive whistle again and again.

At the city limit we pulled over and watched as the gas cars receded from our view, their drivers evidently tougher than I was. We turned around and drove back into the downtown section of the city. One of my favorite things has been to see the Stanley driving around. I like driving it, but I like to watch it, too. To see the steam exhaust billowing under it as it moves through traffic.

At the town square, I told Marty, "Here, you drive for a while. I don't care where you go, just stay where I can watch the car." I stood on the sidewalk and watched with pride as that magnificent automobile slid away from the curb and, exhaust barking, accelerated into the light Sunday morning traffic. Around and around the square Marty went. Back and forth in front of me. It was great. One lap carried him beyond my view and I waited, with a big goofy smile on my face, for the car to come back into view.

I waited and waited. Nothing. Finally I started walking in the direction I had last seen him. I rounded a bend in the road and saw the car's profile in the distance. As I walked, I could make out that Marty had raised the hood and had the lighting torch in his hand. The pilot, I reasoned, had gone out. Having been so recently cleaned (you remember) it would me an easy job to relight it. Marty had seen me do it many times and I knew he was equal to this minor challenge. Well. What can I say.

When Marty smartly waved the torch near the pilot to apply the light, WHUMPH! Into the air went the flames. He had the presence of mind to have the trap door open when he started the procedure. I don't know why, but it occurred to me at the time to use a telephone pole near the car to judge the height of the flames. I resisted the temptation to run toward the car. I maintained my stride. The flames were over three-quarters of the height of the phone pole.

As I neared the car, Marty was standing with his back to me. I said, almost into his ear from behind, "Well, did you get her lit?" I've heard it described, but I had never actually SEEN someone almost jump out of their skin before. It was funny. His eyes were HUGE! "Let's get out of here," I said. I lowered the hood and we climbed up into the car. As I released the brake to go, there was a familiar, insistent sound in the distance. A police motorcycle was approaching fast. The rider slid to a stop directly in front of the car, blocking our escape. In the distance, the insistent sound was the fire engine siren, answering the panicked call of some concerned citizen who had seen the flames.

"Is this car on fire?!!!" barked the cop. With exaggerated calm I looked the car over from my position behind the wheel. "No... it doesn't appear to be..." "Well, we got a call that this car was burning up! Is this car on fire?!!!" He was not kidding. He wasn't smiling. The fire engines were getting closer and it was clearly getting serious. I started to get down from the seat. "It is a steam car..." I said. "It blows steam and sometimes some smoke out from under it..." my voice trailed off, hoping he'd get the irony of it all.

The fire engines slid to a stop at that instant and a brigade of full-battle-gear-dressed firemen jumped from the trucks and came at a dead run. They slowed to a walk when they saw I was half in, half out of the car and Marty calmly seated beside me. The firemen pulled off their face shields and helmets, showing their embarrassed grins. One said to another, "See! I told you it was going to be this car!" Another motorcycle cop had pulled up by now as well as an ambulance.

The first cop snapped at the fireman, "What do you mean, you knew it would be this car?" The fireman answered, "It was driving around down by the square and it had all this smoke and steam coming out from under it." A cop car arrived. The motorcycle cop clearly did not know what to do next. He dismounted his motorcycle and walked over to the car. "What's your name and where are you from?" as he pulled out a notebook from his pocket. I accurately relayed to him my vital information. My heart was thundering in my chest, waiting for him to ask for my driver's license, or even better, all the car's paperwork. While the nice officer was drilling me, a Forest Rescue wagon pulled up with all red lights and siren going. This now meant that seven emergency vehicles were clustered at a bend it the narrow two lane road. The Stanley was sticking up in the middle of them like an ostrich in a flock of sheep.

For some reason known only to God (I've heard it said He looks out for babies, drunks and steam car drivers), the officer did not ever ask to see my license. Or if he did ask, I stalled until he forgot about it. Anyway, his stern admonition to get the car on the trailer and back where I came from was all the cue I needed. Being the law abiding citizen I am, I did exactly what I was told. And I haven't been back to TIBURON since!

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