If you’re into fast cars, you’ll have heard about Bloodhound SSC, the British-built land speed record car that promises to explode through the 1000mph barrier. You may not have heard about the second fastest LSR car that’s currently in development in the UK though. And you should have, because although it won’t be as fast as Richard Noble’s Bloodhound, in many ways it’s even more interesting.
The British Steam Car Project started life 10 years ago as an end-of-year engineering challenge at the University of Southampton. This June the car that project created will attempt to crack Fred Marriott’s 103-year-old land speed record for a steam-driven car, at Andrew’s Air Force Base, California.
If this car, which its makers have christened ‘Inspiration’, hits 128mph it will beat Marriott’s ‘Stanley Steamer’ and break the steam world record. If it hits 146mph it will also beat the ‘Steamin’ Demon’, which became the unofficial steam car world record holder in 1985, but only achieved the speed in one direction. And if it goes as fast as expected – 170mph – it will become the quickest steam-driven vehicle ever.
Sending a car like this to close to 200mph is no mean feat; even 180 years after Stevenson’s Rocket, boiling water still does not lend itself well to mobile applications. ‘Inspiration’ has 12 boilers that contain over three kilometres of 4mm tubing. It’s LPG-fuelled; the gas heats the water, and once the water’s been ‘superheated’ to 400 degrees, the water drives the car’s twin turbines. And the complication doesn’t end there.
‘Inspiration’ weighs three tons. At full tilt it will empty its two 70-litre tanks of distilled water in around two minutes. And if, for some reason, it springs a leak and runs out of water mid-run, it will do an impression of a screaming kettle that has boiled itself dry. But on a much larger and scarier scale.
Yesterday – 1 April no less, and the day of the car’s 13th test run (could you get any more inauspicious?) – I saw it on a test run, and can confirm that its twin turbines sound like nothing I’ve ever heard; hear it yourself in our video. On a closed half-mile runway it hit 80mph without issue though, so I can believe that it’ll crack 170mph on a six-mile run. Whether it will be a record-breaker seems to depend more on the team’s ability to turn it around, refuel it, heat its fuel and water and send it on its way within one hour.
Assuming this team of devoted designers and engineers does manage to crack Marriott’s record though, just how should we quantify the achievement? They’ll have managed to breathe new life and interest into a form of propulsion we all thought was dead and buried. You could go faster in a piston-engined road car, but does that matter? The JCB Dieselmax’s record was roundly admired, after all, and that wasn’t half as fast as Thrust SSC.
All I know is that, no matter how fast ‘Inspiration’ goes this summer, you have to admire the commitment and enthusiasm of the men and women involved with it. And their work may even end up being relevant for road cars; the heat transfer technology here is truly cutting edge. I’m sure some of it could be used to capture some of the energy that’s simply thrown away as heat down the exhaust pipes of internal combustion-engined cars.