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Publish Date: 3/27/2005

From left: Bill Bicknell, Dan Ryan and Doug Dougherty rebuild a 1919 Stanley Steamer in Dacono on Tuesday. Ryan, owner of the St. Vrain Block, bought the car a while back; then the Stanley museum got interested in restoring the machine.Times-Call/Hunter McRae

Full Steam Ahead
Group works to rebuild a piece of history

DACONO — The scene felt and looked like treasure hunters eagerly picking the lock of an ancient chest.

But in this case, the group of five was huddled underneath a yellow 1919 Stanley Steamer parked on a lift, and the chest was the part of the engine that held the vehicle’s valves and pistons.

Bill Bicknell and Doug Dougherty were pounding hammers on the valved chest cover, a round piece of metal about the size of a cup saucer that twists off. It hasn’t been twisted off in years, so the men had to pound on the cover for about 10 minutes to loosen it.

Finally, the cover twisted free from its rusted compaction. Bicknell removed the piece, revealing two double-action valves.

The group gathered beneath the car to gaze at the inner workings of the archaic mechanism.

“When you get to this point, your confidence level increases exponentially,” said Sue Davis, director of the Stanley Museum in Estes Park.

These people live for this type of revelatory moment — engineers, mechanics, historians and lovers of old cars who like nothing more than to dig into an old motor, take it apart and rebuild it.

They gather each Tuesday at the St. Vrain Block Co. in Dacono to help rebuild Dan Ryan’s 1919 Stanley Steamer.

It’s a workshop, sponsored by the Stanley Museum and open to anyone who wants to learn a thing or two about steam engines, or who could help the group restore the engine.

“Most of the people who are into steam cars like them because they are more technical than (conventional) engines,” Davis said. “This is for people who have a passion for steam cars and want to learn about them.”

But Bicknell added that a bit of insanity also may be needed to dig into one of the cars to resurrect the old technology. But that’s the best way to learn about the machines.

“The only way you know them is buying one, then spending time underneath one, on top of one or all over one,” said engineer Dick Dailey, who’s also working with the group.

Ryan is delighted about the workshop. Some of the best steam engine minds in the state at times will huddle around his car, helping to put the motor back together again, he said.

Bicknell, for example, has ample experience rebuilding old cars, including one Stanley Steamer.

Dougherty, of the Dougherty Museum in Longmont, owns and works on three steam cars.

“It’s great; it’s better than great,” said Ryan, who bought the Steamer during a 1999 auction in Deer Lodge, Mont.

“I had always wanted a steam car, but I never had a chance to buy one,” he said.

Ryan, who owns a handful of classic cars, went to the auction to buy another car but saw the steamer and began bidding.

“Of course, I paid too much for it,” he joked.

The car sat for five years in a warehouse at the St. Vrain Block Co., which Ryan owns, until Davis talked him into being part of the workshop to fix it up.

“I just didn’t know enough about steamers to tackle it (on my own),” Ryan said.

The workshop began last month, and Bicknell estimated that there are hundreds of hours of work left to finally restore the machine.

But there’s a historical significance to the work, as well. While Ryan’s car probably had never been to Colorado before he bought it, Stanley Steamers marked the beginning of automobile tourism in the Rocky Mountains.

Twin brothers F.E. and F.O. Stanley of Maine invented the machine in the late 1800s. In 1903, F.O. Stanley’s doctors — after diagnosing him with tuberculosis — said he should move to the clean air of the Rocky Mountains. That summer, F.O. Stanley drove his steam-powered car from Denver to Estes Park up the North St. Vrain River, via Lyons, reportedly with ease.

The trip proved that something other than horses could transport people into the mountains.

Today, F.O. Stanley’s ride is considered the beginning of automobile tourism in the Rockies.

By the summer of 1907, David Osborn and sons were manning a fleet of Stanley Steamers in Loveland to drive tourists to Estes Park. A year later, F.O. Stanley began a similar business in Lyons.

Internal-combustion gas engine technology eventually caught up and surpassed the Steamers. The last of the Stanleys’ steam cars were built in 1927.

Dailey said steam-engine technology for cars and buses was picked up again in the late 1960s because of its low emissions.

But such technology wasn’t very fuel efficient. Though the engine is powered by steam, kerosene or gas is needed to heat the burner. When gas prices went up in the 1970s, steam technology faded away again.

But interest in old steam cars has stuck around.

Davis said a completely restored early model of a Stanley Steamer can sell for $40,000 or more.

Dougherty said he stays interested in the technology because the vehicles are fun to drive.

“They’re unique,” he said. “Everything about them (is) unique.”

Sitting in a car powered by steam pressure “feels kind of alive,” he said.

Those interested in the workshop can contact Dick Dailey at 303-349-3718 or

Douglas Crowl can be reached at 303-684-5253, or by e-mail at

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