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1905 Stanley Steamer owned by Peter Fawcett Bob English for The Globe and MailThe Globe and Mail

'Wow, it sounds just like a steam train," was my delighted, if ingenuous, observation to Peter Fawcett as he opened the throttle and we chuff-chuffed off to perambulate sedately around the Port Hope, Ont., fairgrounds in his stately 1905 Stanley Model F Touring.

With a sideways glance that was perhaps part "well, duh" and certainly part "you ain't heard nothing yet," he twiddled another control and, from somewhere down under the polished green bodywork, a yowling Whooo-ooo, Whooo-ooo was emitted that brought broad grins to both our faces.

Now chuff, chuff and Whooo-ooo, Whooo-ooo aren't sounds you normally associate with a motoring experience, even a vintage one, but Fawcett's Stanley wasn't called the Steamer for nothing.

For a brief period, way back when the curtain was being raised on the automotive age, steam, along with electricity and gasoline-fuelled internal combustion, were all power sources the nascent industry's pioneers were tinkering with. And both the former initially seemed to hold the advantage, until the bare-knuckle engineers of the day figured out how to break the latter to harness.

Among those captivated by the idea of personal powered transportation were twin brothers F.E and F.O. Stanley who had a few bucks in the bank after selling their photographic plate company to Eastman Kodak. And as steam had been a tried-and-true propellant for almost a century, that's what they chose to power their first vehicle in 1897.

It was followed by production versions and Stanley Motor Carriage Co. was formed in 1902. According to one source, 485 of the 909 new vehicles registered in North America that year were steamers. A small group of rivals also emerged, but all their high-pressure steam-powered dreams were soon reduced to a lingering moist vapour amid rising clouds of gasoline fumes.

Among other drawbacks, the steam car's complicated and lengthy startup from cold couldn't compete with the electric starter.

According to Fawcett, it takes about half an hour - "longer if I hurry" - to get steam up. And it involves much hand pumping to fill the boiler with water and pressurize the gasoline feed, plus a blowtorch to heat the external tubes that vaporize the gas in the burner system to heat the water.

To see how it's done, you can check out a video of Jay Leno firing up a 1909 Model R Stanley Steamer at www.jaylenosgarage.com - look under The Cars tab, then the Steam Cars section of Jay's Collection. The demonstration includes a gas explosion that all but bowls him over.

By 1917, the Stanley brothers had sold their company; by 1924, like most other steam devotees, it was no longer in the car business. But it had been a superheated steamy hoot while it lasted.

Stanley models like Fawcett's were the fastest production cars in the world at the time, guaranteed to top 50 mph (80 km/h). In 1906, a modified and surprisingly aerodynamic Stanley racer set a world speed record of 204 km/h (127 mph) steaming ahead of four gasoline-powered racers at Daytona Beach.

Remarkably, that record stood until just last month when a British group's 13,000-rpm steam turbine-powered racer hit 243 km/h (151 mph) at Edwards Air Force Base in California. That's just a 53 km/h improvement, which indicates how remarkable the Stanley Steamer's performance was in its day.

The 1905 Stanley had an open touring body mounted on a tubular steel and ash wood frame with solid axles front and rear and brakes only at the rear. The engine was a parallel twin, single-expansion, double-acting type geared directly to the rear differential and powered by steam produced in a front-mounted gasoline fired boiler. It only made 20 hp but huge amounts of torque.

The 1905 Stanley Steamer that delighted me so much, the earliest known example of the big 20-hp Model F, couldn't be in better hands after coming into the custodial care of Fawcett, who operates what is likely Canada's longest established restoration shop.

Fawcett Motor Carriage Co. in Whitby, Ont., was created more than four decades ago by his father Ron, "basically from a hobby." Ron Fawcett loved cars and grew up with, and apprenticed as a mechanic fixing, a lot of the models today revered as classics.

In the 1950s, he set up his own White Rose station in Oshawa, Ont., but found so much of his business involved fixing old cars he decided to specialize, despite advice to the contrary.

"Well, here we are, and we're still doing it," says Fawcett who, with partner Art Carty took over from his father in 1981.

Ron Fawcett died last year, still with a home workshop packed with automotive projects. "He just loved fixing cars," Fawcett says.

Growing up, it was natural Fawcett would come under the spell cast by old cars. "I've been doing this since I could walk," he says.

"There's a picture of me in the office, taken in about 1959, at about five years of age, with two cars on a trailer and me putting the chains on the back one."

Fawcett also apprenticed as a mechanic, but learned the often-esoteric arts involved in restoration in his father's shop. "Every time we get a new car in, it's a challenge. Often if you need something, you have to make it."

He's currently restoring a 1913 Simplex of which only 1,100 were made, for example. "No way you're going to find parts for that on eBay."

And bringing new life to old iron is obviously more about passion than a paycheque. "We can all just work and make a living at something, but at the end of the week, it's more satisfying to say, 'Look at what I did here.'"

Fawcett's personal enthusiasm is focused on early cars and his collection includes many century-old veterans including an Oldsmobile and Stanley from 1903, a 1904 Ford, 1906 Cadillac, 1909 International Harvester, 1910 Ford, an original unrestored 1911 Ford Model T Touring and a 1915 Ford, his first car, restored when he was 15.

Fawcett's two sons aren't involved in the business, but they and his son-in-law get together once a week to work on project cars.

"That way we can all ride along together and have some fun. That's what these antique cars are all about."

globeauto@globeandmail.com