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Photos: Firing up the British Steam Car

The goal for this sleek and modern-day automotive design: Break the land speed record set by a Stanley Steamer in 1906.

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Jon Skillings
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British Steam Car

It looks like the love child of the Batmobile and an F-15 fighter jet. Deep in its genome are traces of a very early automotive bloodline, the Stanley Steamer.

Meet the British Steam Car. It's out to set a land speed record. On Wednesday, it passed a milestone with a run of better than 80 mph on a test track in England.

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Deploying the parachute

At the end of a run, the British Steam Car deploys parachutes to slow down. The goal of the project is to beat what the group says is the longest officially standing land speed record for steam-powered cars. That record--127 mph--was set in 1906 at Daytona Beach, Fla., by a variation on the Stanley Steamer driven by Fred Marriott. The British group aims to get to 170 mph.

(A 1985 attempt by a separate group apparently got to 145 mph for a single run, but was not able to make the second run required for official consideration.)

According to the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, the overall World Land Speed Record is 763 mph, set in 1997 by a twin turbofan jet-powered car called the ThrustSSC.

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Spewing steam

The vehicle uses superheated steam as its driving force. "Today marked the first time the car has started in superheated steam and gave both the start team and the turnaround team the chance to get some valuable practice," project manager Matt Candy said in a statement. "We've got some cooling issues to address before we go out, but other than that we are good to go and hope to come back with the record."
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Don Wales jumps

Driver Don Wales jumps for joy. Wednesday's runs were the first public tests for the vehicle; not long before, the group had to scrub a test launch when impurities got into the car's water system.

Next month the British Steam Car will be shipped from England to the U.S. The goal is to make the record attempt in a dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base in California--depending on the weather. According a post on the group's Web site: "They have experienced a particularly wet winter and we could be waiting some time for the lakebed to dry."

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Wales in cockpit

Wales in the cockpit of the car. "We reached nearly 60 mph on the first test before I applied the parachute," he said in a statement. "All systems worked perfectly, it was a really good test. The second test run went even better and we clocked a speed in excess of 80 mph. The car really did handle beautifully."
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Side view of British Steam Car

The British Steam Car is 25 feet long and weighs 3 tons, with a body built of carbon fiber and aluminum.
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Steam Car schematic

This schematic diagram shows the location of the car's major components. The British Steam Car team says that the vehicle has 12 boilers and contains nearly 2 miles of tubing. The system works this way: "Demineralized water is pumped into the boilers at up to 50 liters a minute and the burners produce three megawatts of heat. Steam is superheated to 400 degrees Celsius, which is injected into the turbine at more than twice the speed of sound."
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Car skeleton

Here's a look at the skeleton of the car--it has a steel space frame chassis--and some of its components. The expected cost for the entire project was forecast to be in excess of 650,000 pounds ($950,000).
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Engine schematic

Here's more on how things operate under the hood, from the British Steam Car site: "The burners develop three megawatts of heat. The water boils at 250-degree C because it is at 40 times atmospheric pressure; this is called 'wet' steam. It is then super-heated to 400 degree C 'dry' steam, which is directed down the car via heavily lagged pipes and two industrial steam valves, into a two-stage turbine. The steam is injected into the turbine at more than twice the speed of sound and the turbine spins at up to 13,000rpm. The turbine then drives the rear wheels crown wheel and pinion reduction gear."
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Car component

Here's a part of the British Steam Car's underlying structure and equipment. We're waiting for some clarification on what exactly this shows, and will update this caption when we get that information.
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Front view

From the front, the British Steam Car is sleek and streamlined. For video of the car making its run this week, see the British Steam Car Challenge site.

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