There’s something endearingly quixotic – and awfully English – about the British Steam Car Challenge. The team has spent the last ten years trying to successfully marry Victorian-age transport with modern technology in an effort break a 100-year-old steam land speed record. And, on Friday August 7 at Edwards Air Force base in California, they finally beat that world record speed with a run of 131mph – but because the FIA wasn’t present, it’s not yet official.
Dubbed ‘the fastest kettle in the world’, the 25-foot British Steam Car is designed not just to break records, but also to reinforce the viability of non-internal combustion engines. Because it’s an external combustion engine, it isn’t fuel specific and produces far fewer harmful emissions.
Instead, the engine has 12 boilers that are heated with three megawatts of LPG-generated heat (or, as they charmingly put it on their website, the equivalent of 1500 kettles and 23 cups of tea a second). The two-stage turbine can reach a maximum of 13,000rpm, generating horsepower of 268kW.
Fred Mariott, driving a Stanley Steamer, set the world record on Daytona Beach back in 1906. His remarkable speed of 127.659mph remains the longest-standing FIA-recognized land speed record, and is the first one the British Steam Car Challenge wants to beat. The unofficial time at Edwards this week gives them great confidence that, in the official FIA attempts from August 18 to 22, the car will easily best that record.
The second step, then, is to get the steam car up above 145.607mph, which is the highest-recorded land speed by a steam vehicle. Set by Bob Barker at Bonneville in 1985, it’s not a record FIA recognizes but is the one the British team acknowledges, ultimately, as the one to beat. They believe they’ll beat this speed – and reach their estimated top of around 170mph – before the end of the year.