The Virtual Steam Car Museum interprets the history of steam automobiles by collecting, preserving, and exhibiting its collections. This is set in the larger context of American industrialization and the automobile industry.
At the turn of the 20th century steam power dominated the dawning automobile age. The civilized and industrialized world depended entirely on steam as the primary power source, driving factories, mines, ships, and trains. It was only natural that this common power source would be applied to horseless carriages.
Over 200 companies and individuals built steam vehicles, some as early as the 1860s. American inventors developed many different ideas and configurations.
The Virtual Steam Car Museum documents and interprets the initial success of such companies as Stanley, White, Locomobile, and Mobile as well as their ultimate demise.
The downfall of steam cars had nothing to do with the advent of the electric starter for gasoline powered cars, but rather the time it took to raise steam and the increased size and power of gasoline engines.
By 1912, steam cars had all but disappeared. Only Stanley served a tiny niche market. The internal combustion (or as the Stanley Motor Carriage Company derisively called them Internal Explosive) cars dominated.
Steam cars were America's first mass produced automobiles and they advertised as their budgets allowed. Their early advertising is quite interesting. They tell prospective buyers "We really are making cars!" "Our cars are simple and reliable!" "Look at the races we've won and mountains we've climbed!" By 1904, Locomobile features lovely women excited to ride in its automobiles.
Steam car makers struggled to sell their horseless carriages. The Museum's collections document one company's attempt to set up an early dealer franchise. There were no garages to fix the new, complicated vehicles, and the Musem's holdings of owner's manuals, instruction booklets, and parts lists interpret the education of owners.
Some inventors and entrepreneurs never awoke from their steam power dreams, and the Museum follows the exploits of Doble, Derr, Delling, Brooks, Coats, and others into the 1920s and 1930s. Steam powered tanks were seriously researched during World War I.
In the 1920s and 1930s, inventors turned to interurban passenger trains, city busses, and heavy trucks, before succumbing to diesel engines.
Because they burned kerosene, many Stanley cars were driven during World War II, when kerosene was not rationed.
Shortly before the War, early automobile pioneers created the antique car hobby that burgeoned after the War. Steam cars, predominantly the Stanley and White, were widely featured.
The mnemonic Stanley Steamer and the car's popularity during the War were important elements that moved the steam car into popular culture.
The Stanley was featured in movies and driven by major stars. Opera star James Melton was often pictured with his Stanleys and Whites.
Firms such as Sunoco, Pacific Life Insurance, Humble Oil & Refining, and Sinclair featured Stanley Steam Cars in their advertising during the 1950s and 1960s.
The advertising extended into all kinds of kitsch featured all kinds of cars, including steam cars. Liquor bottles, cologne bottles, advertising thermometers, calendars, jewelry, Lions Club pins, etc. are just some of these kinds of artifacts. Higher end nostalgia firms, such as the Franklin Mint, created Stanley models and sterling silver bars.
In the 1960s and 1970s the environmental movement introduced the idea that steam automobiles were the solution to automobile pollution. They were not.
Kit Foster, the highly regarded automobile historian, wrote in The Stanley Steamer, America's Legendary Steam Car, that the very mention of Stanley Steamer elicits a response from almost everyone, and not because of the carpet cleaner that happily misspells the word steemer.
Steam cars are continually introduced to new generations, for example through a recent Disney movie featuring the wedding of a Stanley Steam car and a Model T Ford. Die hard steam power aficionados still hold out hope for the perfect engine and boiler.
The Virtual Steam Car Museum is a work in progress. As do its brick and mortar cousins, the Virtual Steam Car Museum upgrades its exhibits and creates new exhibits, all the time adding to its collections.
In the past two years, the Museum has acquired three major steam car literature collections, little of which has been processed.
The museum's first book, Hector Halhead "Steam" Stewart: The History of New Zealand Steam Transportation, has exited the research and writing phase. Publication funding is pending.
Unless otherwise noted, all the artifacts and documents exhibited here are the property of or on loan to The Virtual Steam Car Museum.
Contact us if you have additional information about steam automobiles, or if you have questions.
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