The Brooks steamer was likely the last automobile to gently chuff and hiss along Toronto streets, leaving nothing in its wake but a white vapour trail and the splash of water droplets.
That vehicle was reportedly driven by local resident Jim Lamb in the 1960s and manufactured not far away in Stratford. But the cars would have been a common sight in the 1920s though, when a fleet of Brooks steam taxis were operated in the city.
A Brooks believed to be Lamb's resides in the Canadian Automotive Museum in Oshawa, Ont., but the one pictured is part of the collection of the Perth-Stratford Museum, located not far from where the car was built in a one-time farm machinery factory for a brief period in the mid-1920s.
How it got there is a story of misplaced enthusiasm (or perhaps an early example of Canadians' penchant for being talked into unlikely car manufacturing schemes) followed almost a century later by some of the well-placed variety exhibited by members of the Perth County Historical Foundation.
The history of steam cars in Canada stretches back to Henry Seth Taylor's pioneering steam-powered carriage created in Quebec in 1867 – actually the first motor vehicle of any kind constructed in Canada – but the initial superheated enthusiasm for steam rapidly cooled as most inventors turned their minds to the potential of electricity and internal fires generated by gasoline.
But steam had its adherents, among them J.B. Kelly of Blythe, Ont., who built a steam buggy in 1884, the National Cycle and Automobile Co. Hamilton, which built an American Locomobile-based model in 1902, William Gray, who put one together in 1905 as an automotive amuse-bouche before getting on with his Gray-Dort main course, and the owners of Davis Dry Dock Co. of Kingston, which built a couple.
But by the 1920s, gasoline was definitely the fuel of choice and the dreams of steam that had clouded so many minds were rapidly condensing into a cold puddle of reality, except perhaps in that of Buffalo-based financial fast-mover Orland J. Brooks, who had moved to Toronto in 1920.
He apparently become enamored of steam propulsion, which led to an association with Detroit Steam Motors Corp. but a plan to build this company's Trask-Detroit cars in Windsor fizzled, and soon after so too did the company. It emerged as Brooks Steam Motors Ltd. in 1923, located in a former threshing machine factory purchased for it by the town of Stratford. Over the next few years, the Brooks was slowly put into production, although more stock was eventually sold than steam cars produced, some four million dollars' worth of the former but only about 180 of the latter.
The company also ventured into steam bus building in the United States before shareholders experienced a fit of the vapours that sent it into receivership in 1929, with Brooks steaming rapidly off in the direction of Buffalo, leaving behind 8,000 stockholders feeling sorry for themselves.
The Brooks steamer itself was offered in only one model, a substantial 3,800-pound, five-passenger sedan with a unique body covered in a multi-layer fabric rather than metal panels. The fabric, called Meritas and produced in Walkerville, Ont. comprised wire netting covered in two layers of wadding and two layers of imitation leather. These lightweight wood and fabric bodies were built in Orillia by a division of that city's Tudhope car company.
The rolling chassis was conventional for the time, but under the hood was a vertical pot boiler reassuringly wrapped in about three miles of piano wire and fired by kerosene lit from a naphtha-fueled pilot light. It took about half an hour to reach the working pressure of 500 psi required by the torquey, smooth and quiet twin-cylinder engine that drove the wheels directly. It could hit about 80 km/h, but the boiler was actually too small and it could only sustain a cruising speed of about 60 km/h.
Dubbed “The Gentle Giant of Motion,” the Brooks sold for the gigantically uncompetitive price of $3,885 or about the same as a Pierce-Arrow, explaining why, along with its lack of performance and operational complexity, there were few takers.
A sale of Stratford factory assets in 1931 apparently included the 1926 Brooks that can now be seen in the museum, one of just 18 cars sold that model year.
Involved in the acquisition was car and railway enthusiast Ian Taylor, who worked at Shell's Oakville research centre until retiring and moving to Stratford where he became a member of the Perth County Historical Foundation, which he says involves itself with preserving the city and Perth County's “historic stuff.”
Taylor says the group badly wanted to add a Brooks to its collection and jumped at the chance when one of the five survivors in Canada (there are also three in England) became available in Orillia. After negotiating a “nice price” of $45,000, the Brooks was hauled back to its home town in 2008 and the group began gearing up to pay for it. Taylor says that didn't prove as difficult as it had supposed thanks to the generosity of local government, residents and companies.
Unfortunately, due to tough Ontario regulations regarding steam-powered devices, the Brooks can no longer be brought to the boil. “I've never heard of a Brooks car boiler blowing up,” says Taylor. “They have had fires though.” Exhaust, er chimney, explosions weren't uncommon.
Perhaps it's just as well, but since 2010 the Brooks does hold pride of place in the museum and is hauled out as often as possible to local events, such as the 11th Annual Stratford Railway Heritage Show founded by Taylor that will be held June 3.
Check out our photo gallery here: In pictures: The 1926 Brooks steamer