Corey Silvia ©2013, courtesy of RM Sotheby’s
This Stanley Model E2, one of six models of the Stanley steam car available in the 1909 catalog, is powered by a 10-horsepower twin-piston engine — a marvel of simplicity that employed only 13 moving parts. Once the big front-mounted boiler had been filled with water, fired, and tended by the owner’s careful hands, the Model E2 could hum along and climb steep grades with ease. It was a fun car, combining the eerie silence of steam with the peppy performance that, by the late 1900s, “automobilists” were beginning to appreciate. Former Stanley employee Ralph Van Dine also appreciated it, as he rescued this car in the early 1940s as one of numerous old Stanleys resurrected in the gas-rationing days of World War II. This Stanley has recently been returned to running and driving order for this sale by noted Brass Era specialist Stu Laidlaw. It continues to wear its vintage repaint, with more recently refinished fenders and older restored black upholstery, which only add to the charm and authenticity of its presentation. Only the wheels are inauthentic, with good reason; when this car was found in the early 1940s, the current size of tires was not available.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1909 Stanley Model E2 Runabout
Years Produced:1901–24 (Stanley Steamers; the E2 was 1909 only)
Number Produced:About 9,500 (total production; E2 unknown, but Stanley produced 613 vehicles in 1909)
Original List Price:$850 (for the 1909 E2)
SCM Valuation:Median to date, $93,500; high sale, $286,000
Tune Up Cost:N/A
Distributor Caps:N/A
Chassis Number Location:Plate on rear of body
Club Info:Stanley Register Online
Alternatives:Any other steam-powered car, including White and Doble
Investment Grade:B

This car, Lot 110, sold for $49,500, including buyer’s premium, at RM Sotheby’s Amelia Island, FL, auction on March 12, 2016.

The general rules of car collecting and restoration are pretty straightforward. You buy the best car you can find, and then you restore it with the correct parts and the best quality work you can manage.

It may be expensive, but it’s not really complicated. There are vendors who sell just about everything you might need. But that all changes when you start looking at true antiques.

If you buy a car from the “Brass Era” (up to 1918), then you’re really on your own, because new replacement parts aren’t readily available for anything less popular than a Ford Model T. In large part, this is because the idea of making every car exactly alike hadn’t really caught on outside of Dearborn.

Fast-forward 100 years or more, and today’s collector has a unique challenge (and opportunity) with every antique car.

Steam power in context

Back in 1909, a steam car wasn’t as outlandish as it sounds today. Steam power had been around for 100 years. Everyone traveled around the country on steam trains, traveled the rivers and oceans on steam-powered ships, and people used steam engines for all kinds of work. So the steam engine was old, familiar technology, especially to the people who could afford an automobile.

Plus, steam cars were fast and powerful by the standards of the day. While most gasoline-powered cars were putting along at 20 or 25 miles per hour, a steam-powered car could hit several times that speed. To give you an example, Fred Marriott set the world land-speed record of 127.659 mph in a specialized Stanley Steamer in 1906. In 1907 he was on track to raise his own record into the 140 mph range but crashed in the attempt. A well-built steam car can generate up to 800 pound-feet of torque — enough to twist the tires clean off the wheels. So it’s fair to think of a Stanley as the Z06 or Hellcat of its day.

Still, there’s no denying that a steam-powered car is a curiosity in the modern world. The average person doesn’t really know how they work, and frankly, they can be a little intimidating.

When you look at the difficulty of maintaining a Brass Era car in general, and throw in the fact that every part on your Stanley is going to have to be made from scratch or adapted to work, the challenge of owning one is substantial. This works to limit the pool of buyers for these cars, and that helps keep prices down. The buyer of a Stanley Steamer is not an average collector — it’s someone who doesn’t mind getting his hands greasy and who enjoys constant tinkering to keep the car going.

A worthy example

The 1909 Stanley Model E2 was the entry-level model in that year. At a purchase price of $850, the little E2 runabout cost less than half the money of any other Stanley product. While the E2 came with a 10-horsepower engine, its larger siblings carried 20- and 30-horsepower engines.

However, this car is a perfect example of the kind of vehicle that a Brass Era collector wants. The car carries enough patina to be driven without undue fear of damage, and yet is completely functional and drivable.

This Stanley is mostly original, and the deviations from its original plan are forgivable in a car of this age. For example, tires are no longer available to fit the original wheels, but the wheels in use are period-correct and appear to be borrowed from a Model T Ford. That means that replacement wheel parts and tires will be available, and really, who’s going to know or care?

Similarly, the paint color dates from the 1940s, but is similar to shades used on other Stanley products, and it looks the part. Stanley automobiles came in a rainbow of colors, and at this age, having a running, driving car that looks nice is the most important thing.

Stanley made just 613 cars in 1909, and very few have survived. By the mid-1920s, as the gasoline engine became the standard for American driving, almost all steam-powered cars went to the junkyard. As the auctioneer’s history of the car stated, this one was revived by an enthusiast during World War II, and then passed down into a museum collection, where it stayed through most of the last century.

On the block, the auctioneers expected bidding on this car to end up between $80,000 and $100,000, but the final sale price including buyer’s premium came in at $49,500. With the 10% buyer’s premium, that means the winning bid was $45,000.

Why did this car sell for so little? Possibly because another Stanley in concours-ready condition was offered for sale on the same day, drawing a winning bid of $260,000, and a total buyer’s price of $286,000. The chances of finding several bidders all looking for Stanley Steamers at the same auction are small.

Still, even falling short of expectations, the sale point of this Steamer shows that prices in general are rising, making this a very smart purchase for the buyer.

(Introductory description courtesy of RM Sotheby’s.

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