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Propane and the Steam car
Posted by: (
Date: May 22, 2008 12:51AM

Discussion has recently been made on the Stanleysteamers web site about the use of propane fuel in the steam cars for pilot lights. Jim Crank did us the favor of recalling what can happen with propane fuel and the steam car. Location...Knotts Berry Farm, California.

Jim writes:

Bill Marsh and I were there the weekend before, and I
know what happened. The accident was directly the result of Wayne's
stubbornness and probably his ignorance of how to use propane tanks.

Described as a chain of events.

Wayne had a huge propane tank in the back of his garage property to
fire his heat treating furnace.

His Stanley used kerosene for the main burner; but he had a long
small diameter propane tank in the floor of the tonneau for the pilot
light. The tank was up against the back of the front seat and thus
right over the cylinders.

Wayne filled this tank from his big one; but not the right way, I saw
this happen, I watched as he did this. He inverted the propane tank
and filled it until a solid stream of liquid propane came out of the
vent on the pilot tank. THIS is his big mistake. That vent valve has
a tube inside the tank that goes down and provides about a 20% gas
volume at the top of the tank when it is used in the proper way with
the valves on top. It starts spitting liquid propane when the level
comes up to the bottom of this tube. Then you are supposed to stop
filling. The void is to take care of liquid propane expanding in hot

We went out in the Stanley and I remarked to Wayne that I smelled
propane in the rear seat of the car, a lot of it. I opened one rear
door to try to let the cloud of propane out of the car after we got
Wayne got mad and told me that he damn well knew how to use propane
and not to mention it again.
When we were about to leave, I told him: "Wayne, that pilot tank is
venting raw propane out the safety valve because you overfilled it
and this was very dangerous. Fran Duveneck and I also use propane for
out pilots; but we don't deliberately overfill the tank like you
do." He didn't want to hear this for sure and got quite mad that I
brought this up again. I told him: "Wayne, this is going to cause an
accident, so think about that." Then we left.

At Knott's Berry Farm, it was a very hot day and the parade was just
creeping along, so there was not even a breeze to dissipate the
propane from the tonneau. Not only a hot day; but remember the tank
was right over the hot Stanley cylinders.
The tank vented again and filled the tonneau with propane. Mrs. Bill
Schutz and her two children were in the back seat. She lit a
cigarette and the propane in the tonneau blew up. The Nuttings were
killed from their burns, Mrs. Schutz was very badly burned and the
kids less so. I was told that she could not be seen in public until a
lot of skin grafts and other reconstructive surgery was done.
Bill Schutz sued the Nutting estate for a lot of money and that is
how he got into the vintage car business, from the payment by the
insurance company.

When we got home, both Fran and I dumped our propane pilot tanks and
went back to using white gas.

On the several Steam Car Tours in Idaho and Colorado, only the hand
torch to warm up the pilot light was permitted. Any car using propane
for main or pilot fuel was denied entry to the tours, as you should

There was also a propane explosion on one of the London to Brighton
runs. The car was a 1904 White, which has the gas tank under the
floor right next to the steam generator and burner.
The idiot replaced it with a propane tank and, of all things
possible, used a rubber hose to run the main burner at full tank
pressure, about 250 psi. The hose froze up and broke and the car was
enveloped in a ball of flame. The driver and passenger were not
seriously burned.
A friend of mine was only two cars down line when this happened. He
said that people ran in panic and several fell down and got badly
skinned up.
I was asked to and provided a report to the Veteran Car Club on this
by a friend of mine who was then the dating chairman. Why this
happened, propane tank next to the steam generator and rubber hose. I
recommended that the owner be banned from any club event until he put
the White back as it was made. This happened.

As far as I am concerned, any steam car that uses propane for either
the pilot light or the main burner, should not be allowed on any tour
or even in the parking lot. Hand torches are OK, not much else you
can use.
Anyone who wants to use propane in any steam car is an idiot. There
is no where the BTUs per gallon compared to gasoline of kerosene and
it is just plain dangerous to use.
If they can't figure out how to burn liquid fuel, then take up
another hobby.

Hope this helps.



Re: Propane and the Steam car
Posted by: Tim Senior (
Date: May 22, 2008 06:40AM

Propane is a perfectly safe fuel if properly installed using commercial fittings, valves, metal pipes, etc. Keep the replaceable gas bottle and regulator at the other end fo the car to the boiler and away from the exhaust. Always turn it off (at the cylinder) when not in use.
Propane has been used in boats and caravans for over fifty years and I'm sure if it was that dangerous it would have been banned by now. I do appreciate that accidents happen but with intelligent use they can be avoided.
I do agree that I must be an idiot, after all I do have two steam cars.
Are all the users of LPG fuelled vehicles idiots as well or does it just apply to us steam car drivers?

Regards Tim Senior

Re: Propane and the Steam car
Posted by: Mark Drake (62.189.28.---)
Date: May 22, 2008 07:50AM

Jim & All,

I feel that I may, in part, have catalyzed the recent dialogue on the Stanleysteamers website forum. If anyone wishes to read my post placed on 21st May they can find it there. Im sorry if I caused offence, it most certainly was not my intention.

Jim, thank you for the detailed description - I cannot express how truly shaken I am to hear of the details of the terrible accident which took place with the Nuttings. After your description, I can clearly see how a poor installation, and possibly lack of understanding of handling propane (thermal expansion, poor choice of position etc.) conspired to give fatal results. Similarly the installation in the 1904 White sounds most ill considered, also with disastrous consequences.

The intention of my previous post was to share my experiences of using propane in a number of different applications Steam boats, LPG conversion to a car, my pilot conversion on my 735. All of my experiences have been positive, and all the installations have been professionally and carefully executed; with well considered professional advice taken at every stage and only certified materials and fittings used; I certainly would not attempt to refill the cylinders myself.

These are clearly not the actions of an idiot.

However - fortunately I made no permanent changes to my car for my propane pilot installation, which can be removed in about 10 minutes. The original liquid pilot fuel installation is completely unaffected and can be reconnected in about the same time. (Having professionally designed gas turbine combustion chambers, I do know how to burn liquid fuels)

I respect that if propane in steam car use is banned, then so be it Im happy either way.



Re: Propane and the Steam car
Posted by: James D. Crank (
Date: May 22, 2008 11:34AM


As with anything connected to steamers, one simply has to use proper procedures all along the line. No offense at all.
Approved fittings and professional guidance with propane installations is only being smart.

Wayne did not fill his pilot tank properly and the safety valve did just what it was supposed to do, vent with over pressure. It was indeed a poor installation, the tank should have been on the rear of the car, or hidden in a tool box. Plus, I wish Wayne had listened to us; but he was very stubborn.
The newspaper photograph was horrifying, a huge ball of flame enveloping the entire car. Only the tiny arc at the bottoms of the tires could be seen, the rest was fire. It was a miracle anyone survived at all.

Indeed propane is used all over the place; but accidents do happen.
On a yacht cruise from San Francisco down to Santa Barbara, as we rounded the point, a large yacht in the harbor simply blew up, nothing but toothpicks. The Coast Guard later said the the propane stove in the galley had leaking plumbing and filled the bilge with gas. When the owner turned on the bilge blowers, the yacht went up.

Personally, I think steamers should be restored and operated as they originally did. My 1910 White ran with the original system all its life and after some 2,000+ miles it still used the original pilot with good success.


Re: Propane and the Steam car
Posted by: (
Date: June 22, 2008 08:04PM

Another data point -

I've just returned from a US steam car tour; 35 cars attended. At least 2 use propane for their pilots. One uses a regulator and feeds the propane into the fuel fitting of a Stanley pilot. The other uses a modified Bernz-O-Matic torch tip. Both mount the tank on the running board in a ventilated enclosure. The first car drives extensively on steam tours and brass (Edwardian?) tours. Neither owner has encountered discussion by tour organizers of their choice of pilot fuel.

Kelly Williams
Mount Joy, PA

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