British Steam Car at speed

If the British Steam Car team has its way, a land speed record that has stood for more than a century will fall later this month. In fact, the group reported that in trial runs Friday at Edwards Air Force Base in California, the steam-powered, aircraft-like car outpaced the record speed, hitting 131 miles per hour. That doesn't officially count as breaking the record, however, since representatives of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile were not on hand to certify the speed. The FIA will be in attendance for the official record attempts August 18-22. Still, it was a happy occasion for the British Steam Car Team, which has endured its share of technical and logistical difficulties.
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Photo by: The British Steam Car Challenge / Caption by:

Steam car, plugged in

Granted, 131 mph isn't all that fast--but we're talking about a 21st-century variation on the Stanley Steamer, not a standard (or souped-up) internal combustion engine. And the British Steam Car Team aims to go faster still, up to around 170 mph. The record? It's 127 mph, set in 1906 by Fred Marriott, driving a Stanley Steamer on Daytona Beach, Fla.

There's a lot of trial and error in getting to the record. Test driver Don Wales wrote this in the team's diary on July 31, about early efforts at Edwards AFB after the steam car was shipped over from its earlier testing venue in the U.K.: "Our first run was purely a rolling resistance test of the surface. The car was very slow to move away and acceleration was sluggish. We only had 90 seconds of fuel on board (the record runs will have 2 1/2 minutes). The car peaked at about 70mph before the burners switched off and I coasted for approximately a mile before coming to a stop. This was good news and demonstrated to the team that the surface of the lakebed is less 'sticky' than the Tarmac we are used to at Thorney."

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Photo by: The British Steam Car Challenge / Caption by:

Under the hood

The steam car team set up shop on the dry lake bed at Edwards AFB in late June, three weeks after the 25-foot, 3-ton vehicle was shipped out from a British port. The car, which runs on superheated steam, has 12 boilers and contains nearly 2 miles of tubing.
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Photo by: The British Steam Car Challenge / Caption by:

Under cover

Because of high summer temperatures in the Southern California desert, the crew typically gets started before 5 a.m. local time The heat can affect the car as well as the crew, and so can the wind--the team won't run the car if the wind gets over 15 mph. The record attempts are expected to take place between 6:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.
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Photo by: The British Steam Car Challenge / Caption by:

Work goes on

The steam car has encountered a number of technical challenges since arriving in the U.S., including problems with sensors, water filter, and boilers that needed to be replaced. In addition, in late July the team had to be sure to be off the wide-open lake bed because there was a chance the Space Shuttle would need to land there. (It didn't.)

Wrote Wales on August 5: "Today had to be the worst day for the team's morale as we had high expectations of a good run. There was a huge full moon setting over the lakebed as we arrived. I was strapped in to the car and waited for it fire up, which she did with a sense of purpose, but I could feel and see the burners cutting in and out intermittently. We had a blocked miser, which hasn't happened since Thorney Island. After carrying out several successful runs, it was hugely disappointing for us all...

"We then had another issue to contend with, battling a very strong and hot wind. We took down all the tents to save them from being blown away; the mechanics were working without shade or shelter, which was a thoroughly unpleasant experience. It was a tough day."

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Photo by: The British Steam Car Challenge / Caption by:

The team

The British Steam Car team poses with the vehicle. Not everyone has been able to stick around, given the number of weeks in which preparation has dragged on.

But there's been good news along the way, too. Wrote Wales on Thursday: "I am pleased to report that the car ran beautifully this morning. We have been carrying out low speed tests to check Jerry's software modifications and today were one of the last ones. We tested the slam acceleration which still needs a little more "tweaking", but reached in excess of 95mph again with just 90 second burn time. Tomorrow we are upping the burn time to 2 minutes so we should exceed 100mph and use approximately half of the track that we will have available come attempt time."

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Photo by: The British Steam Car Challenge / Caption by:

Fred Marriott

Here's the ghost that the British Steam Car team is up against--Fred Marriott, seated in his Stanley Steamer, ca. 1906. Production models of cars built by the Stanley brothers were briefly popular at that time, but soon were overtaken by gasoline-powered cars with internal combustion engines.
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Photo by: State Archives of Florida / Caption by:

Fred, again

Another view of Marriott's car, which was 16 feet long and weighed 1,675 pounds, according to the British Steam Car site: "The engine was a twin piston double acting type with a displacement of 184 cubic inches or 3.1 litres. This corresponds roughly to an internal combustion 4 stroke V8 with a displacement of 735 cubic inches or 12.25 litres."

For more, see "Photos: Firing up the British Steam Car."

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Photo by: The British Steam Car Challenge / Caption by:
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