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Monday, May 28, 2007

This car uses an alternative fuel

By Dick Hirsch
Even before spring arrives, Charles and Ed Erler are tuning things up and making plans to get their car out of the garage and back on the road. They’ve been following that routine annually since they bought the car in 1950.
They devote the winter to maintenance. Some is always required, even though the car has no transmission, no radiator, no spark plugs, no gears and no clutch. What is does have is a mysterious collection of handles, faucets, knobs, levers, dials and gauges, all of which provide needed assistance to the driver.
The car is a 1917 Stanley Steamer and the brothers well remember the excitement generated on the day they bought it 57 years ago. They hooked it up to the back of Ed’s ‘42 Mercury and towed it back to Buffalo from the barn where it sat in Massachusetts. Since that defining moment, the brothers have treated it with the kind of loving care that antique car owners lavish on their vehicles.
This is not what a conservationist would call a green machine, a car offering fuel economy to the owner. The Stanley gets about 6 to 8 miles per gallon from its 20 horsepower engine, sometimes attaining a speed as high as 30 miles per hour. Most of the destinations to which it travels are car shows, and one summer weekend a few years ago I met Charles when he was heating up his boiler at the close of an exhibit in North Tonawanda. He generously offered to give my wife and me a ride, and we drove around for 15 minutes or so. It was a memorable interlude because everybody, whether in their cars or on the sidewalk, waved at us. It’s a four door open touring car and we waved back, naturally, easily assuming the role visiting dignitaries.
The Stanley Steamer probably attained its greatest glory after production ceased in 1927. There were other manufacturers of steam driven cars, but their names have been forgotten by all but auto historians. The steamers succumbed to the gasoline powered internal combustion engine. Now, with the surging interest in alternate fuels, the Erler brothers are among those watching and wondering as other fuels for powering cars are considered. They know the days of steam are long gone, but they realize some fuel changes are likely.
Never did a Stanley Steamer have two more appropriate owners. Charles, 86, was a railroad fireman and engineer for 45 years, first in the days of steam engines with New York Central, and later with diesels for Conrail. Ed, 80, regards his older brother as a true authority when it comes to steam driven locomotion. Ed was a machinist for many years before moving out of the shop to a job in the front office.
They were in their 20s when they bought the car and it has provided them with a common interest since the beginning. They probably never dreamed they would still be driving around in the Stanley in their 80s; neither did their wives. Betty, who is married to Charles, and June, Ed’s wife, consider the car to be a member of the extended family, but don’t go for very many rides.
“We paid less than a thousand dollars for it and I wish we would have bought six more,” said Charles, who then explained the basics.
“The first thing we do is light the pilot on the boiler,” he said, pointing to an acetylene torch fastened to the running board. Since a match won’t do the job, the torch is used to light the pilot. Kerosene is the usual fuel for the boiler, although the car runs just as well on a mixture of kerosene and unleaded gasoline. The water tank holds 25 gallons, and when Charles fires up the boiler it takes about 20 minutes to develop enough steam to consider a drive. That volume of water will produce enough steam to travel about 80 miles.
“A lot of people who see us think the car just runs on water,” observed Ed. “They think that it must be a very cost effective operation, but they forget we have to boil the water to get the steam.”
It has a throttle, but only one forward speed with no gears or transmission. It will go in reverse if the driver steps on a pedal with the left foot.
It has a black and white 1917 license plate, B58-917. Be sure to wave if you see them. Yes, there is something undeniably seductive about antique cars. Ask any man who owns one.



At 12:24 PM, Blogger Brian said...

Sounds interesting. I believe you mentioned it to me once.
I read an artical in the news that talks about using corn husks and different grasses for fuel. They break it down into a chemical I can not remember. Something will have to change.


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