Car of the Future Open Production

My Car of the Future, Today

Robert Wilhelm, Jr
Wilmington, Delaware
Stanley Steam Car

Wilhelm vehicle

While definitely a "car of the past" more than a "car of the future," the 1918 Stanley Steam Car that I've restored and drive not only represents America's past automobile heritage, but it speaks to the qualities that I believe are mandatory for evolving our automobile technology into the "car of the future."

In the final years of the 1800s and the first few years of the 1900s, automobile innovators were experimenting with internal combustion, steam, and electric powered "personal carriages." Steam had powered our industrial revolution and transformed the economy of the U.S. The newly discovered phenomenon of electricity was becoming better understood and harnessed to serve humankind. The internal combustion engine, while highly problematic, showed promise for greatness. All three of these technologies were being explored a century ago by innovators not unlike those being profiled by NOVA. It wasn't until 1912 that the innovation of using an electric motor to start an internal combustion engine guaranteed we'd all be driving internal combustion engine vehicles. Before the last century was a quarter over, both steam and electric-powered vehicles succumbed to the internal combustion engine.

The Stanley that I drive represents the pinnacle achievement of perhaps the best-known steam car manufacturer in the world. The Stanley twins, F.E. and F.O., had gained great wealth inventing the process to continuously coat photographic plates and licensed that technology to George Eastman after making their fortunes with the Stanley Dry Plate Company. Unfamiliar with the budding world of the motor carriage, they turned their attentions to developing a steam-powered vehicle, and in a few short years their products were the number one selling "autocarriages" in the U.S. (1900-1903). If history is any example, that same process will drive the evolution of the "car of the future." The Stanley twins were innovators who took a fresh approach to solving a problem.

I drive my car regularly, and it has no problem doing 50 mph for short spurts (steam generation limits prolonged high speeds), and the car maintains 35 mph easily. For a vehicle of this era, this was quite an outstanding achievement. A Stanley set the World Land Speed Record in 1906 at 127.6 mph on Ormond Beach in Florida. Subsequent racing at Daytona Beach lead to the birth of NASCAR, my favorite sport.

Perhaps the most enjoyment I receive is watching people react to a functioning steam car. People who see my Stanley at a show or in a parade often wonder why we aren't driving steam now. They look in awe at the Stanley's simplicity and technical prowess and wonder if anyone is building a modern steam car. Had 100 years of internal combustion development been applied to the steam car, perhaps we all would be driving steam today. It's interesting to note, however, that we'd still be facing fossil-fuel questions. Unfortunately, my Stanley is still a fossil-fueled vehicle, with 15 mpg kerosene consumption. The University of North Texas and the University of Washington have developed prototype cars, based loosely on steam technology, that employ liquid nitrogen flashed to a vapor as the working fluid instead of steam.

The Stanley Steam Car represents a brief era of American automotive development. It also represents what our American "Yankee ingenuity" can accomplish. The individuals highlighted by NOVA's "Car of the Future" program are not unlike the Stanley twins of the past using what technology and tools they have to attempt to solve humankind's problems. As our innovators develop their dream "cars of the future" they will be served well by learning the lessons taught while developing the "cars of the past."

To learn more about the Stanley Steam Car, you can visit my Web site:

See other Cars of the Future, Today.

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Under the hood of the Stanley Steamer

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Wilhelm shares his passion for steam-powered vehicles at car shows and parades.

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