An American mechanic in the seat of a steam-powered automobile set a land speed record of 127.66 mph

Friday 26th January 1906

An American mechanic in the seat of a steam-powered automobile set a land speed record of 127.66 mph. Fred Marriott’s milestone was not beat until four years later, when a Blitzen Benz used a gasoline engine to reach 141.7 mph. His vehicle was a modified “Stanley Steamer,” a popular consumer model that the Stanley Motor Carriage Company produced from 1897 to 1924. Such steam-powered automobiles, which were at one point manufactured by 125 different firms, could take up to a half hour to light the pilot, fire up the boiler, and build the requisite pressure to move. (See an excellent demo, complete with a disproportionally dramatic soundtrack by Philip Glass, here.) Nevertheless, they remained a cleaner, more reliable alternative to gasoline-powered cars until Henry Ford perfected his assembly line and captured the market. Marriott set the record from a rolling start on the hard-packed sands of Florida’s Ormond Beach, just north of Daytona Beach. His Stanley Steamer Rocket was 16 feet long and 3 feet wide, and had it not been for the wheels, spectators may have mistaken the thing for an upside-down canoe, especially since it was sitting next to the water. But once that raucous boiler got going, propelling the beast one mile in just 28.2 seconds, they realized it probably wasn’t a canoe.In 1907 Marriott returned to the Floridian sands with an improved model of the Stanley Steamer Rocket, hoping to break his own record. He was thought to have been approaching 150 mph when his machine hit a gully, took to the sky, and split in two upon impact. Marriott survived, but would never attempt the effort again. Marriott’s 1906 record wouldn’t be topped by another steam-powered vehicle until more than a century later, when Charles Burnett III reached 136 mph and 151 mph during two runs in California’s Mojave Desert, much to the delight of spectating steampunks and local purveyors of fresh water.

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