Canada’s Brooks Steamers and their surrounding hot air

In 2014, the Stratford Perth (Ont.) Museum acquired a long sought-after artifact of Stratford’s brief heyday as a center of Canadian auto manufacturing. The object of the museum’s desire: a 1926 Brooks Steamer. It was an innovative, expensive and stylish steam car with a backstory as mysterious as its creator’s.

“We obtained the steamer from a private collection in Orillia,” said John Kastner, the museum’s general manager, referring to an Ontario town about 150 miles away. A drive to raise the purchase funds, reportedly $50,000, took seven years.

“It is a complete car, and fully restored, but no, it does not run,” Kastner said. For anyone interested in a running example, Kastner suggested contacting Jay Leno. “He has one, and it runs,” Kastner added. Leno confirms that, and says he keeps it in pristine running condition because he is “the patron saint of obscure steam cars.”

The Brooks is, and always was, a gem even among other rare steam cars like the Doble, White and Stanley. There are, perhaps, a dozen Brooks Steamers extant. But it is unclear how many were built during its production run in the mid-1920s.

The man who created it, a Maine farmer’s son named Oland Joseph Brooks, claimed at various times that thousands were rolling off the assembly line at his Stratford manufacturing facility, about 90 miles southwest of Toronto. He used the generous figures in his continuing efforts to raise ever-increasing amounts of money “because we are being constrained to keep up with production demand.”

Indeed, photos of the day show a steady stream of cars rolling down a production line. But in an article published around 1950 in Man’s World magazine, the author Karl Frederick Lunn claimed it was all part of “one of the most bizarre swindles in the annals of Canadian automotive history.” (The original article is preserved in the museum’s extensive archives associated with the Brooks Steamer.)

The photographic “proofs” of ongoing production were elaborate hoaxes, Lunn explained, “procured quite simply by lining up the few finished products and joining several strips of the same photographic shot together.” And there are no more than a couple dozen casually clad “employees” in any of the photos – far fewer than might be expected on a fully functioning production line.

By Lunn’s estimate, about 125 cars were actually made over a four-year period. Brooks placed dozens into service as taxis, to publicize their utility and durability. But during its peak production year, 1926, only about 18 Brooks automobiles were thought to have been sold. The sales force was charged with selling shares of Brooks Steam Motors stock, rather than its cars.

By 1927 or so, Brooks went to Buffalo, N.Y., to expand his line of products, to include a 120-passenger steam-powered city bus. At least one was actually built.

Therein lies part of the conundrum about Brooks. If the whole thing was just a scam to sell ultimately worthless stock, why did he go to such elaborate lengths to design and produce such a truly interesting automobile?

Brooks hired steam expert Eric Delling from Stanley to design the powerplant, which was rated at 125 horsepower. It had a unique body – with panels of faux leather crafted of fabric and lacquer – not metal.

“It seems quite durable, and very soft to the touch, even after 90 years,” Kastner said.

The fabric body kept the car’s weight down, and helped compensate for its rather limited speed – something under 50 mph. The interior was quite lavish for the day, with an attractive instrument panel, elegant controls and plush velour seats.

“The problem with it was its price – about $3,500 – which is about what a new Ford Mustang would have cost 30 years later,” Kastner said. “So from that aspect alone, the enterprise was pretty much doomed.”

In any event, the Great Depression crushed whatever chance Brooks might have had to build a successful automotive venture. The company collapsed; lawsuits dragged on for years. The factory and its contents, including a few dozen unsold automobiles, were auctioned off for pennies on the dollar.

Brooks vanished, along with his “beautiful second wife and playboy son,” Lunn wrote, leaving millions of dollars unaccounted for. He added that the son, Bartlett, was charged and convicted in a paternity matter that had ended in a Toronto woman’s death.

What became of Oland Brooks remains something of a mystery; a search of online records finds virtually no trace of him after the mid-1930s. But in 1961, an index of deaths in Broward County, Fla., lists an Oland J. Brooks; he would have been about 86. This was, perhaps, the final chapter in a flamboyant life story with many blank pages.