Antique Road Show: A History of Poughkeepsie’s Old Steam Cars

Poughkeepsie produced some of the country’s most exotic automobiles in the early 20th century. Who knew?

Many locals are vaguely aware of Poughkeepsie’s industrial past, but few realize the Queen City once was a car-manufacturing hub. As part of that scene, Lane Motor Vehicle Co. produced technically sophisticated steam-powered cars, while American Fiat made large, powerful automobiles comparable to those from renowned marques Pierce Arrow and Packard.

Operated by William, George, and John Lane, Lane Motor Vehicle Co. on Prospect Street manufactured steam cars from 1900 to 1910. The brothers owned a successful hardware-manufacturing concern. While shopping for a Stanley Steamer — a favorite brand at the time — the trio decided they could build something better.

The first Lane, a small “runabout” that could seat four but accommodate no luggage, was on the road in 1900. Soon the company offered larger touring models. The vehicles featured two-cylinder engines that recycled excess steam back to their boilers rather than expelling it into the air (as most steam cars did). This engineering superiority allowed Lanes to travel further with more responsive acceleration. The unusual design — coupled with their light construction that was nonetheless robust enough for rutted, unpaved roads — were marketing advantages for the Lane. But production was modest, with 1909 being the zenith when nearly 150 cars went out the door. By comparison, the two leaders in the steamer market — Stanley Motor Carriage Company and White Company — produced up to 10 times as many units.

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Steam cars were quiet and powerful, but expensive — and trickier to operate than their gas-powered counterparts. Early gas cars were started with an inconvenient hand crank, which steamers did not require. But once Cadillac offered an electric start in 1912, gas cars began to dominate; most steamer companies were out of business by the early 1920s.

Arthur Eldredge of Peterborough, New Hampshire, owns a 1901 Lane Light Runabout that retailed for $750. It creates eight horsepower, enough to cruise at 15 miles per hour, and hit a top mark of 35. Eldredge owns one of two surviving Lanes in the world (the other is in England). His car belonged to one of the Lane brothers before being sold to another Poughkeepsie family, the Thayers. The steamer was then purchased by Eldredge’s father in 1951. A reliable performer, it retains its good looks from a high-end restoration which took place in the 1970s.

A century-old steam car lacks the driving ease of a modern vehicle. “There’s 30 minutes of preparation before you set off. You often need to add water to the boiler, and there’s always time required to reach a temperature where you’ve got steam to propel the car,” explains Eldredge, who brought his Lane to Poughkeepsie for the 2009 Quadricentennial celebrations. “A couple of gauges monitor steam and water levels, but the most important thing is braking. With nearly nonexistent traffic back then, they worried much more about acceleration. You’re also always listening to the car’s noises to know if it’s running properly.”

At the northeast corner of Route 9 and Fulton Street — where today you can purchase office supplies from Staples — there once stood the architecturally impressive American Fiat factory. From 1910-1917, well-heeled shoppers flocked to that location for exquisite automobiles designed in Turin, Italy, and hand-crafted in Poughkeepsie. Each year, about 350 cars emerged from the Mediterranean-styled facility with its stucco exterior and terra cotta tiled roof. For years, local residents wondered why the building they knew in later incarnations — as Western Publishing, Mid-Hudson Business Park, and Marist College classrooms — looked so distinctly European.

The American Fiats caused a stir right away. The Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle (now the Poughkeepsie Journal) reported on Sept. 2, 1910, about a test drive of the first American Fiat through the streets of Poughkeepsie. Company officials were joined by a Chamber of Commerce representative for the inaugural run; the paper reported that the event caused “no end of interest” because the car ran without a body on its chassis.

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A remarkable American Fiat still motors around the area when Ed Dina of Marlboro takes a drive. His 1913 seven-passenger touring car has a huge 8.6-liter, six-cylinder engine. A grandly luxurious car, it sold new for $6,000, staggeringly expensive considering you could have bought several Ford Model Ts for that sum. The American Fiat could reach 75 miles per hour — a breathtaking speed at that time.

With its deep blue paint, green pinstriping, cream-colored leather interior, and gleaming brass accents, it is easy to see why Dina’s opulent vehicle was a head-turning status symbol in the early 1900s. While American Fiat produced numerous models, Dina’s is one of just 10 left worldwide. He purchased the car in 2009 as it looks today, resplendent from a beautifully detailed 2003 restoration.

Dina says his automobile has go-kart-quick steering that you wouldn’t expect from a car of its size. But there are other pitfalls to driving it. “The brakes are the weak point, being only on the rear. Besides adjusting the idle for outside temperatures and spark advance for maximum power, you need plenty of time to stop,” he says. “She’s a handful, but great fun.”

Although the American Fiat venture in Poughkeepsie was significantly financed by Wall Street investors, in 1917 the company in Italy took over the Poughkeepsie factory. Shortly thereafter, manufacturing ceased as World War I escalated in Europe.

Both Eldredge and Dina enjoy owning a piece of automobile history, and the attention they garner from even “non-car” people. Dina, though, acquired his American Fiat specifically because of its Poughkeepsie birthplace. “I followed the car for some years, finally convincing the Florida owner to sell. The car needed to be back home.”

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Taking pleasure drives on sunny days and showing off these classics at car shows are part of the old-car experience. Eldredge, who belongs to the Northeast chapter of the Steam Auto Club of America, fondly recalls bringing his Lane to Vermont in August 2010 for a gathering of steam vehicles hosted by the club. Dina often attends local shows and delights in letting people experience a special chapter of Poughkeepsie’s heritage.

“The Lane and American Fiat will be here this summer,” says Chuck Mitchell — a lifelong Poughkeepsie resident who specializes in preowned Mercedes, BMWs, and vintage cars at Mitchell Motors on Route 55 in the city. He has judged and displayed cars at the nation’s leading classic car shows and urges people to see Poughkeepsie’s automobile legacy firsthand. “These cars are exceptionally rare and would be welcomed at any prestigious car show, including Pebble Beach Concours, Greenwich Concours, and Locust Grove — a Poughkeepsie show that is increasingly drawing significant cars,” Mitchell states. Organizers of the Locust Grove show (which takes place on July 17 at the Samuel Morse Historic Site in Poughkeepsie) expect to get both cars to that event, says Mitchell. He notes that Dina typically brings his American Fiat to shows at the Rhinebeck Fairgrounds in early May, and at Montgomery Place in Annandale-on-Hudson in September. “If the Lane doesn’t make Locust Grove, we’ll try getting it to one of the other venues.”

Mitchell sums up the appeal of these two Poughkeepsie products. “The Lane highlights the earliest period of cars. It’s like a converted horse carriage, but features the intriguing steam engine. The American Fiat shows how auto technology and consumer choice surged a decade later. Seeing the vehicles up-close and running is like a living museum.”•

Caption: Cruise control Arthur Eldredge’s 1901 Lane Light Runabout (top) is one of two surviving Lanes in the world. Ed Dina’s 1913 Fiat (bottom) can sometimes be spotted cruising around the Valley

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