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 1899 - 1927

Frank B. Streans

Frank B. Streans was one of the earliest pioneers of motoring in America - he built an experimental car in 1896, while he was still a student - and one of the first to go into production. That was in 1898-9, and the first car to emerge from his factory in Cleveland, Ohio, was a single-cylindered gas buggy, with its power unit mounted horizontally, under the floor. Epicyclic transmission, tangent-spoke wire wheels and chain drive were all part of the specification - as they were of that other pioneer marque from Cleveland, the Winton.

By 1901 the single cylinder of the Steams car had grown in capacity to a thumping 4083cc, and the tiller steering of the early models had been replaced by a wheel. Unlike the Winton, the Stearns matured quickly, and by 1902 the company was building a twin-cylinder car with the engine mounted at the front under a bonnet: at $3000, it was high-priced for a twin. Within a couple of years, Stearns were building high-quality four-cylinder cars on European lines.

In 1904 they listed a 36 hp four-cylinder with seven-seated roi-des-belges coachwork, scaling well over a ton in touring trim. The cylinders were cast in pairs, and the radiator was patterned along similar lines to that of the Mercedes. Chassis was of pressed steel, wheelbase was 111 inches, and the engine transmitted its power through a four-speed gearbox and double side chains.

The handbrake acted on internally-expanding drums at the rear, while the foot brake acted on the transmission. For European buyers, the only item betraying the American origins of this $4000 motorcar was its ignition system which functioned with a coil and battery rather than the magneto which was found on European and British cars of the era.

Joseph Galamb

On the 1905 Steams 32/40, however, a high-tension magneto was a standard item of equipment; wheelbase was now 115 inches, and the car weighed some 2700 lb. Weather protection was an extra, as the Stearns came without benefit of windscreen or hood, though for an extra $150 a rather fetching Victoria hood could be added to protect the inhabitants of the rear seats from a fair percentage of any unpleasantness that the weather might choose to hurl at them. At around this time a young Hungarian engineer, Joseph Galamb, was employed by Stearns. Galamb had worked in Germany before coming to America in 1903, and would shortly resign to join Ford, where he became one of the company's leading engineers, second only to Childe Harold Wills.

In 1906, the company's principal offering grew up into a 40-45 hp four weighing 3000 lb and costing $4250. The body panels were now cast in aluminum: additional body styles now available included a canopy-topped tourer with windscreen, costing $4600, and a limousine at $5200. No fewer than 17 coats of paint gave the coachwork its lustre. Before each Stearns chassis was fitted with its bodywork, it had to undergo a searching test for quality and performance, which culminated in a 150-mile run over rough roads carrying a load of half a ton of sand. The company was soon in the six-cylinder business, with the introduction of the massive 45/90, which had a 12,913cc power unit which was so long that the rearmost cylinders were hidden under the scuttle; ball-bearings were used throughout the engine. Most popular body style was the euphemistically-named 'Light Tourer'.

1908 Stearns 45/90 Light Tourer
1908 Stearns 45/90 Light Tourer, powered by a six-cylinder engine developing 90 bhp. It cost $6250.

1909 Stearns Light Tourer
1909 Stearns Light Tourer, which was fitted with a six-cylinder 12,913cc engine.

1910 Stearns 15/30 Tourer
1910 Stearns 15/30 Tourer, equipped with a 30 hp 4-cylinder engine. It cost approx $3200 when new. The white line around the radiator was a Stearns trademark.

1926 Stearns Knight limousine
1926 Stearns Knight limousine. By 1926 the company had been acquired by Willys Overland, but this was not enough to prevent the Stearns-Knight becoming another victim of the Depression.

Barney Oldfield and the Stearns Six

The Stearns was reckoned to be the fastest stock car of its day, and Barney Oldfield used a Stearns Six to win the Mount Wilson hillclimb. In ordinary touring, too, the Stearns was an astonishing performer. Witness the tour diary of one private owner who took his car to Europe in 1910, and decided to try the latest method of avoiding tire trouble, always a bugbear of multi-litered motoring in Edwardian days: 'I used the Michelin bolt valve on a 60 hp Stearns, weight, loaded in full touring trim, well over three tons. I had a set fitted in Paris, and then I started on a 7000 mile trip across France, Italy, Germany, Austria, and Belgium, and either in going up or down such passes as the Col de Tenda, when skids to order are absolutely necessary to get round the corners without reversing, I never had a tire blow off.

I should add that on one or two occasions I found myself without any spare bolt valves, and all I did was to replace damaged tubes without them, or without security bolts, and even then I never had any trouble, not-withstanding the fact that the car was doing a mile a minute most of the trip. I finished up minus a bolt valve in one back and one front tire . I think the only drawback is, if one runs on deflated tyres any distance, the valves are ruined, but they only cost 95 centimes each in France. I may add that while in Turin I saw a whole batch of new Fiats, and on not one were there even the holes in the rims for security bolts-in fact the Michelin tire fitter told me they were a thing of the past.'

Al Poole and Cyrus Patschke

With mile-a-minute motoring and 'skids to order' part of the road-going repertoire, it's hardly surprising that on occasion the Stearns could turn in an electrifying performance on the track. In 19 I0, for instance, Al Poole and Cyrus Patschke won the 24-hour race on Coney Island's Brighton Beach, covering 1253 miles at an average speed of 52.2 mph. But within a couple of years, Stearns began trading performance for refinement. A sign of the changing times had been the 15/30 hp town carriage of 1909, but the real turning point was the adoption of the Silent Knight sleeve valve engine.

In 1914, the company was offering a 5.1-liter four-cylinder and a 6.8-liter six, with electric lighting and starting, while a V8 joined the range in 1917. Frank Stearns left the scene in 1919, and the company was acquired by Willys Overland in 1925, and maintained as the prestige line of the Willys empire, retaining its distinctive hallmark of a white line running round the inside of the radiator shell under the new ownership.

The Stearns-Knight maintained its quality to the very end, dying a victim of the depression in 1930. The last cars to bear the thin white line were a 27.3 hp six at $2095 priced in Stearns's bargain basement-and a magnificent 6.3-liter straight-eight, with its crankshaft carried in nine main bearings and bearing a basic price tag of $5500.
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