We look at a literal piece of Sixties vapourware – The Lear steam car
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, in 1969 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 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.
In 1968, Lear had 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.
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 engine changed from a complex delta piston engine to a turbine, the California deadline came and went 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.
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.
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/