Theme : Disappointment – All Steam & Mirrors

We look at a literal piece of Sixties vapourware – The Lear steam car

Lear & Turbine

One person’s disappointment is always another person’s gratification. We have seen this over the past few years as various electrical vehicle projects have been announced. Many people have been open-minded about their feasibility, but many more have allowed other agendas to make them either blindly enthusiastic, whatever the scheme, or similarly antagonistic.

In the late 60s, the extra-urban EV was not a practical proposition in any way, unless it was followed by a trailer full of lead-acid batteries or a very long extension cord. The once-mooted gas turbine had come to nothing. However, the need to do something about the environmental effects of the internal combustion engine was on the agenda, so there was an impetus to look at other types of propulsion.

With strict pollution laws being introduced in California, a scheme was initiated to investigate fitting their Highway Patrol cars with steam engines, with competing companies being offered both a development fee and a Dodge Polara to receive the retrofit. A somewhat unrealistic 6 month deadline was set for completion.

In the early days of the motor car, the steam engine had been surprisingly effective. Various manufacturers produced steam powered cars, but the best known vehicle is the Stanley Steamer which, viewed in context, was a very credible alternative to the internal combustion engined cars of the time. However, as ICE cars became more efficient and convenient, steam cars did not evolve at a similar rate and, by the 1930s, all the manufacturers had folded. Various people still kept toying with the idea, and indeed they do to this day, but through judicious use of publicity, for a few short years it once really seemed that steam would make a comeback.

Two companies took up the California Assembly Transportation Committee’s brief, Thermodynamic Systems and Lear Motors. Bill Lear had credentials as someone who could innovate and deliver. He was a serial inventor and he was responsible for the 8 track tape cartridge, a clever device of which history has rather unjustly made the butt of ill-informed jokes. However, his most impressive project was the Learjet private business jet. With a design resourcefully derived from an abandoned Swiss fighter plane prototype, the first Learjet first flew in 1963. The plane was very influential but, at first, only reasonably successful and Lear was forced to sell his shares in Lear Jet Corporation in 1967 to realise capital for other ventures. But, by then, his reputation was high and, as such, his proposals for steam powered vehicles were taken seriously.

Lear Indy Car

In 1968, Lear announced his steam car project. Unlike the engine of the original Stanley, or those of steam trains, that had an open circuit that turns water to steam which is released into the atmosphere as it goes along, requiring a substantial water reservoir or frequent topping-up, the Lear engine was more like a miniature of a power-station, where the water stays within a closed circuit, being converted to steam to provide pressure, then condensed back to water to repeat the cycle. In place of water, the fluid for Lear’s engine would use a mysterious sounding secret fluid, Learium. Aside from cars and commercial vehicles, Lear also planned to fit a steam engine into an Indy 500 car.

A rare picture of the elusive Monte Carlo
A rare picture of the elusive Monte Carlo

Even today it’s hard to get a reasoned view of the project. The world of steam power has always had its proponents and, as with any left-field niche, it’s hard to separate the oddballs from the committed. In the event, despite a lot of contemporary publicity, the deadline came and went, the engine changed from a complex delta piston engine to a turbine and by the end of 1969 the project was essentially closed down with the car uncompleted.

Lear however persisted with a separate California State commissioned project for a steam powered bus up until 1973, and this vehicle did actually run, though California took it no further possibly because, with the 1973 oil crisis, pollution became secondary to fuel consumption, not a strong point of the Lear system. There were also reports from the early 70s that Lear finally had his car engine up and running in a white Chevrolet Monte Carlo, but evidence to support this is scant, notably the survival of the car itself which, had it run, would be a small but significant piece of motoring history that would surely have been worth conserving.

Lear Steam Coach Layout

It is clear that, were either project to succeed, they needed more development and investment and maybe the plug was pulled too early. Unless of course, you take the view that some detractors have that it was really just a scam for California State to seem environmentally responsible and for manufacturers to milk California taxpayer’s subsidies – now where have I heard that accusation more recently?

As regards the car, in the early days of the project it’s supposed to have become clear that the condenser proposed was far too small for the job, and would have to be 10 times as big to function effectively. This would make a mockery of the intended compactness of the installation and, if so, it’s hard to see how such a discrepancy could ever be fully addressed. My own opinion, based on what evidence is generally available, is that it was not a cynical effort, though possibly there was a fair degree of hubris, that having cracked the private jet market a steam car would be easy.

It certainly wasn’t and, although talented engineers were employed, they did not have significant experience in steam engine development. In terms of accusations of milking subsidies, what was on offer didn’t sound that generous in view of the scale of the enterprise, and it’s likely that the projects cost Lear himself significantly.

Lear Bus Pic

Maybe the California Highway Patrol were disappointed at not becoming steam-driven, maybe they were relieved. At the time, I remember being slightly disappointed that an interesting sounding idea wasn’t going to be realised. Whether Bill Lear was frustrated I don’t know. As with others before, such as Preston Tucker, he presented a view that the established motor industry conspired against him. But, although there are several Tucker cars still in existence that can testify to what was lost to any possible conspiracy, there was probably never a driveable Lear car, nor does a bus remain. However, in 1985, Bob Barber took an unofficial speed record of 146 mph for a steam powered car using a spare Lear turbine.

Lear was 65 when he started the steam car project. For the next 10 years, he worked on other aviation projects that, ultimately, weren’t taken to market, before his death in 1978.

There is an interesting site on steam power here : https://modernsteampower.wordpress.com/

8 thoughts on “Theme : Disappointment – All Steam & Mirrors”

  1. Fascinating. The mysterious coolant is the bit I can’t fathom: Learium? It was a liquid with better thermal characteristics than water, probably a gas. I imagine it was poisonous or costly or both. According to Hemming’s blog it was lile freon. Lear reverted to water as the principle recirculating fluid.

    1. Whilst the new fad for waterless coolant would possibly have the opposite properties… these chemicals exist and in my modest experience, there’s usually little that is new in the world.

    2. I’m sure that Lear’s intentions were honest. He was a clever man, a bona fide inventor and proud. He certainly wouldn’t have wanted the scheme to fizzle out the way it did. When he was dying he was anxious that his Lear Fan plane would be completed after his death (it was and it flew, but was denied a USFAA certificate). That’s hardly the action of a cynical profiteer.

      But he also knew that you had to be a showman to sell even good ideas, so swoopy Indy cars, talk of secret formula coolants and rumours that the car was up and running aren’t surprising.

      You’ll find people on the web who will tell you that Lear was a charlatan profiting from tax dollars, and others that he had 20 Highway Patrol cars cruising around California. That’s the web for you.

    3. Actually, I picked up on your mention of ‘coolant’ and used it though, of course, the working fluid in a steam engine isn’t really ‘coolant’. Something else needs to cool it, hence the condenser.

  2. The Lear Fan was built in Belfast, funded by the British Government and then disappeared. I think three were built. The Delorean of the aviation world?

    1. Yes, even down to the rear engine. Although Bill Lear’s methods were nothing like as murky as John DeLorean’s, there is an uncomfortable similarity, especially in the culmination of a disappointed workforce in a place that didn’t need any more disappointment.

      It also shows a certain stubbornness that Lear had. The pioneering use of a composite construction certainly had potential, but was the rear mounted turboprop the answer to a question nobody asked? The conservative FAA’s refusal was due to concerns about the rear gearbox (supposed to be insoluble, but twin-engined helicopters seem to manage) but, the plane was not going to be cheap and, whatever the supposed technical merits, the elephant in the cabin was that it was driven by a propeller. Although the rich had a bit more restraint back then, the lure of the Lear Jet was in the name.

  3. The Marshall Steam Museum in Delaware has a great collection of operational,steam cars you can go for a ride around the property in on designated open days. I was luxky enough to visit and have a few rides in the steam cars, as well as watching the museum staff powering up one of the Stanley steam cars. Fascinating stuff and the steam engine was notably smoother and more refined than an equivalent petrol powered vintage car. http://auburnheights.org

  4. ‘Learium’ was WL’s name for a high-temperature CFC (Freon-like) chemical, probably today VERY HARMFUL to the ozone layer. Aside; people forget that he developed and personally built the first automatic radio direction finder, used by the thousands (produced by Bendix) on large Allied aircraft in WW2. Look at any photo of WW2 bombers and it is the teardrop-shaped thing hanging down under the nose.

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