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Feature story: Full steam ahead

Vintage Vehicles features a host of cars, including a Stanley steam car from Palo Alto

Thousands of Bay Area got a glimpse of steam power on wheels in Palo Alto Sunday at the annual Vintage Vehicles and Family Festival at El Camino Park.

Earlier, cruising around Palo Alto, the 1924 Stanley Steamer ambled down neighborhood streets, an American flag rippling on the front.

Some residents spotted the steam-powered vehicle -- which was once considered competitive or even superior technology to the internal-combustion engine.

The car was featured recently in the Weekly:

The steamer had cheerful round headlights and a "Stanley" logo in brassy gold. Kids on the sidewalk gaped, then waved.

Behind the wheel was the car's owner, Palo Alto resident Channell Wasson. He hadn't driven it in a long time, but was happy to give a quick ride to a grinning Weekly photographer and reporter. It was like a scene from an old movie -- until the photographer's cell phone rang.

The steamer was on display Sunday along with about 100 other antique and classic vehicles. Cars, bicycles and motorcycles filled El Camino Park across from Stanford Shopping Center during the day-long Vintage Vehicles festival put on by Palo Alto's Museum of American Heritage. A wanderer may come across a 1915 Harley-Davidson or a '59 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud.

In this case, "vintage" means anything 25 years or older, museum executive director Gwenyth Claughton said. That includes '70s muscle cars and even vehicles from the '80s (yes, some are considered classics already).

"We run the gamut from turn-of-the-century through some (more recent) experimental prototypes," Claughton said.

Event organizers also hope visitors run the gamut in age. They seek to attract families by including kids' activities, food booths, music, model-car races and LEGO models. The event is also free, thanks to underwriters.

About 3,500 visitors attended last year, up from 800 the previous year, event chairman Don Nusbaum said.

"It's grown in such big strides," said Nusbaum, a Porsche owner who is looking forward to picking up tips on fixing up cars.

Vehicle owners range from car-club members to individuals showing off cars they've been working on alone for years.

The versatile Channell Wasson is in a category all his own. Besides maintaining his Stanley Steamer, he keeps a bike shop in the back of his home and may bring along a two-wheeler or two to Vintage Vehicles. A former real estate and stock broker, he's now a bike dealer who sells quite a few Bromptons (English folding bicycles). He even named his dog Brompton.

In front of boxes of bikes, Wasson demonstrates how a Brompton can be folded up and carried. "I rode a bike like this from London to Moscow," he remarks.

On the walls are photos of him with old-fashioned high-wheelers, the kind where the front wheel dwarfs the back. "These are very rare," he says with a hint of a lament in his voice. "When today's bikes came along, people didn't want the high-frame kind any more."

Wasson also wheels out a Sunbeam bike from about 1908 and shows off its bike light, which is actually an oil lantern. A collection of these vintage lanterns fills a shelf in his office.

But the prize is definitely the Stanley car, a seven-passenger touring Model 750 with a long body and powerful-looking "artillery" wooden wheels.

Stanleys are named after the inventor twins F.E. and F.O. Stanley. Their steam cars were popular in the early years of the 20th century before being overtaken by the internal-combustion engine. One of the legendary steam cars was a red racer that was clocked at 127.66 miles an hour on a Florida beach in 1906, according to the book "The Stanley Steamer: America's Legendary Steam Car," by Kit Foster.

Here in Palo Alto, Wasson's car isn't quite as fast, but it can still take you for a cruise.

On a recent afternoon, Wasson stands in his long driveway preparing for a visit from a Weekly reporter and photographer, getting the car ready to go.

In a steam car, fuel -- Wasson uses gasoline, although kerosene was probably used originally -- produces flame that ultimately heats water to create steam. Firing up the car requires patience.

"It takes about an hour before you can drive it. That's why they had chauffeurs," Wasson says amicably. A cloud of steam erupts from the back of the car.

Wasson traces his interest in steam cars back to growing up on a farm in Canada, where he was fascinated with steam-powered threshing machines. He's now a member of several steam-car clubs; the cars have a tenacious following with many enthusiasts, who include Jay Leno, the owner of a 1906 Stanley.

"There are still about 400 steam cars left in the country still operating," Wasson says.

He previously had a Ford Anglia steam car, but then moved on to the Stanley, buying it about 10 to 15 years ago. Former owner Ken Maxwell had restored the car.

Now Wasson says his Stanley is ready to go. Palo Alto Weekly journalists eagerly leap in back, sliding across the shiny black seat and putting their feet on a faded Oriental rug. There are no seatbelts, but there's a fire extinguisher on the floor.

Wasson puts on black gloves. "I haven't driven it for a while, but we'll give it a shot," he says. "With these rides, you're never sure you're going to get back." Pause. "In the car," he adds for clarification.

On a residential Palo Alto road, the Stanley is quiet; instead of engine noises, there are only soft sounds from the fuel and water pumps. The ride is remarkably relaxing and pleasant.

Since there are no windows, the summer day drifts in lazily. Instead of being sealed in an air-conditioned shuttle of a modern car, one feels connected with the trees and sun and birds of a peaceful afternoon.

Returning to Wasson's home, the car begins to lose speed. There's a small explosion somewhere. Wasson steers the slowing car to the side of the road where it stops, half a block from home. The pilot light has gone out.

Usually the car can go 100 miles in a day, but Wasson doesn't appear bothered. He's got a shady parking space, and, after all, the car hasn't been driven in some time.

"I don't know why it quit. I'll find out and get it going," he says with purpose. One doesn't doubt it.

What was it like to ride in a Stanley steam car in the early years? For some anecdotes, cruise over to arts editor Rebecca Wallace's blog Ad Libs.

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