The British Steam Car

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Back in 1906 a car Called the Stanley Steamer, which was driven by steam from a fairly simple boiler which was heated underneath by petrol or paraffin, set a world speed record of 127 mph over a measured mile. It was more than a century afterwards before another steam powered car could beat this.

The three ton car that managed to beat the record had been in development for 10 years. A team of enthusiastic engineers and designers created a highly sophisticated steam engine running on liquefied gas. There was a total of 12 boilers altogether; superheated steam was created to drive a turbine which could peak at 13,000 revs per minute. There were more than 2 miles of piping and the boilers required 2000 litres of distilled water to create the propulsive force.

The steam was heated up to a temperature of 400°C by burners producing a massive three megawatts; that is roughly the amount of heat that 30 modern car engines could produce! Power output was up to 386 horsepower; many times that of the Stanley Steamer. The sleek, aerodynamic car was 25 feet long and had a lightweight steel frame chassis clad with aluminium and carbon composite panels.

All this was assembled in order to beat a speed record set by a simple boiler, which generated 10 horsepower from water from whichever fairly clean source was available, heated by a paraffin burner.

The British Steam Car, as it was called, was rolled out in the Mojave Desert in California at the American Air Force Base for the speed attempt. On 25 August 2009 the record was broken with a speed of just under 140 mph, over a measured mile in each direction; and then the following day this was beaten again by a run each way over a measured kilometre at an average speed of 148.3 mph.

Breaking any record is a notable achievement and full credit must go to the team of volunteers who gave up their time to create the record-breaking car. However, how much more notable is it that more than a century earlier others had set a record only 21.3 mph slower without the benefit of 21st century technology?