In the days when the old Stanley Steamer was in its glory, there was a legend that its manufacturers had a standing offer of $1,000 to be paid to any driver who could run the car wide open. No one ever tried to collect the money, but the man who came nearest to getting the most out of the car was Fred H. Marriott, who on January 26, 1906 raced his canoe-shaped Stanley Steamer Rocket up to 127.7 mph at Daytona Beach, Fla. for the world's fastest mile. A year later Marriott was doing over 190 mph when his light, flat-bottomed Rocket hit a rough spot. The car took to the air like a kite and turned over, but Marriott miraculously lived to drive again. Because the run ended in a crash, the time was never made an official world's record, but Marriott was hailed throughout the country as the first to drive a car more than three miles a minute and live.
The Rocket looked like an upside-down canoe with four bicycle wheels, and it wasn't far from that. The body was built of wood and canvas by the Roberts Canoe Factory at Riverside, Mass. The Rocket weighed about 1,200 pounds including a two-cylinder engine and a steam boiler no bigger than the tub in a washing machine.
Although its flat bottom was aerodynamically wrong for high speeds, the Stanley Rocket had lines that were advanced for its day. The driver sat low in the car for protection and greater speed, and driver and car appeared to be one unit. Most racing cars of that period—like Barney Oldfield's Blitzen Benz, which at 131.7 mph finally bettered the Rocket's record in 1910—made no attempt at sleeker lines.
Following Marriott's crash the Stanley Steamer was withdrawn from racing, because the manufacturers felt that the car wasn't constructed to withstand the kind of speeds that Marriott could get out of it. By 1925 both racing and stock Stanley Steamer cars had disappeared from the auto world.
After withdrawal of the Rocket from racing, Marriott drove other cars in races and hill climbs all over the world. Often he and Barney Oldfield barnstormed together.
Today at 83, Marriott says he has "slowed down a little" since his racing days. He now operates Fred Marriott's Garage in Newton, Mass., just a few yards away from the former Stanley Steamer factory, which now is a photographic finishing laboratory. With today's growing interest in old cars, Fred finds himself acting as technical adviser to hundreds of hobbyists who collect and restore Stanley Steamers. His office window looks out upon the same street where in 1897, a brief 59 years ago, he first drove an automobile.
Marriott, who saw many records made and broken in the early days of auto racing, today recalls: "I told some newspapermen at the time that within a few years cars would be able to travel more than 300 mph. They looked at me as if I were crazy, but actually I was wrong only about how long it would take to accomplish it." In 1935, just 29 years after Marriott's prediction, Sir Malcolm Campbell established a new record of 301.13 mph in his Bluebird. And John Cobb, driving a Railton-Mobil Special on September 16, 1947, pushed it up further to 394.2 mph, where it stands today.