By staff November 9, 2009

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A local connection to the history—and possible future?—of transportation.





By Hannah Wallace





Since embarking on his semi-permanent sabbatical, my father’s had time to indulge some new obsessions…er, “academic pursuits”—everything from world religion to gardening. Most notably, he spent a good deal of the last two years doing exhaustive research for a book about the history of the Asolo—but he’s been forbidden from doing any more work on it until I get a chance to do some editing. (There’s nothing like getting 20 pages into an edit and then having to start over on a new version.) So what’s Dad’s hobby in the meantime? The steam engine.





The Wallace family packs up and heads for the beach.

Turns out, during his daily walks around his bayfront Whitfield Estates neighborhood, Dad made a new friend from down the street named Dick Stanley—yep, as in “Stanley Steamer.” Dick’s family was responsible for the famous turn-of-the-century, water-powered automobiles. Since then, Dad’s been spewing forth information about steam engines: their efficiency (as much as 20 miles to a gallon of water), and how fast they could go (over 100 mph). While informative, his monologues also have a strong undercurrent of conspiracy theory—why did this cheap, effective mode of transportation disappear instead of being developed further? He’s fascinated that hybrid, electric and even water-powered cars are considered today’s new trend, when 100 years ago the Stanley Steamer was virtually mainstream. As a proud technophobe, Dad considers this vindication for having to learn how to use a cell phone.





So imagine Dad’s excitement when Dick invited him out to a car show on Sunday to experience a fully functional Stanley Steamer. I tagged along to take pictures (it’s always good to take an interest in your parents’ hobbies; keeps them out of trouble).





Actually, this was a meeting of the Florida Packard Club—interesting enough, since Dad owned his grandfather’s 1937 Packard up until a few years ago, when he had to give it to a family member who had time for the upkeep. The Packards alone, arranged on some private property east of I-75 off of Bee Ridge, were a sight to behold.




About an hour after we arrived, the Steamer finally made its grand entrance, chugging along Golf Club Blvd. right there between a pick-up truck and a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Dad had an endless stream of questions for the owner, a friend of Dick’s who was happy to explain everything about the car’s history and operation (he kept having to check to make sure the pilot light was still lit).




Turns out, the efficiency isn’t quite what Dad had read—a mile per gallon of water is about what you can expect in the Florida heat. But man, what a ride—we hopped in and zipped around a little community to the rhythmic puffing of the engine and the train-like whistle, nearing 40 mph. I have to admit: I’d expected steam power to be a little …gentler. Feeling the lurch of the car accelerate really inspires respect for the 100-year-old technology.




Dad looks through an unusual window to the future.


Yeah, I’m not really a car person, but it’s fun to see Dad take a real interest in technology, even as he wisecracks about carving letters in slate and using smoke signals. Check him out, right there at the forefront of the green transportation movement.


Stanley Steamer from Hannah Wallace on Vimeo.

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