The widely-publicised reciprocating steam engine with which William P. Lear was going to revolutionise the American automobile industry has been abandoned. However, the multi-millionaire industrialist and inventor insists that he will continue his quest for a pollution-free automobile engine by trying to develop a suitable steam turbine. It was late last year that Lear announced that he was going to build a steam-powered car capable of winning this year’s Indianapolis 500 (plus a duplicate of the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway on which to test it), and that by 1970 he would have steam-powered passenger cars in production. The race car (and track) never materialised and now Lear has admitted that the work done so far has ended in failure and that they were virtually starting all over again. “Thus far, I’ve spent 84 million on the project”, Lear remarked. Henry Ford once said ‘Your assets are your junk pile’. If this is, true, then I’ve got a 84-million asset.” Lear said one of the major technical problems in developing the reciprocating steam engine was the inability, despite help from the oil companies, to find a lubricant that would function without decomposition at the high steam temperatures and pressures essential to maintain suitable thermal efficiency. Lear also referred to the age-old stumbling block in producing a reasonably-sized steam engine—designing a condenser small enough not to intrude on all the boot and passenger space. His engineers have developed a compact boiler (20 in. in diameter and 24 in. long) but, Lear admitted ruefully, it unfortunately requires $1,200 in stainless steel tubing to withstand the 2,500ºF. temperatures. “I produced a $30 million Lear Jet for $10 million but I’d rather do the Lear Jet problem twice over than solve the steam-car problems. The government talks about a $100,000 contract. This would take us all the way through one week. . .” Even before he admitted the failure of the reciprocating engine project a note of pessimism had tinged his remarks. “I assure you it’s going to take a lot more than $10 million—and five to 10 years before we have steam cars. . . . If I’d known what the problems were, I probably would not have been so brash.”
Explaining why his team had concentrated on the reciprocating engine in the first place, Lear said, “We missed the boat on the turbine. We thought the turbine would only be 72% efficient. But we’ve recently made a breakthrough and found that we can get 92% efficiency from it. This turbine will also be 80 to 100 times as reliable as the internal combustion engine and its size will be very advantageous (6 in. x 8in. for a 150-h.p. turbine without boiler and condenser). . . .” When asked why Ken Wallis, his former general manager and chief designer was no longer employed by his firm, Lear replied: “I think his experience was in turbines (Wallis worked on the original 1967 STP Turbocar for Andy Granatelli and designed the abortive Goodyear-sponsored turbine cars for Carrol Shelby). It was his (Wallis’) calculations that led us to believe that we could never get the efficiency out of the turbine. I didn’t want to spend good money after bad.” It takes a smart man to admit his mistakes and Lear is nothing if not smart. What effects are his abandonment of the reciprocating steam engine likely to have? Well, his “steam crusade” has been used by many people, particularly in government, to flog the automobile industry and exert pressure on it to come with a pollution-free power-plant. While this is an admirable aim, Lear’s candid admission of failure may produce a more sober and realistic appraisal of the problems involved.
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Last month’s column referred to Ford’s problems in the N.A.S.C.A.R. Manufacturers’ Championship, in which it was having to battle not only with Chrysler’s Dodge division but also with its sister Mercury division. The problem came to a head after the Motor State 500 at the new Michigan International Speedway in which Mercury drivers Cale Yarborough and Lee Roy Yarbrough fought tooth and nail for the last 40 miles until Yarbrough slid into the wall while trying to pass on the last lap and handed the win to Yarborough. It was Mercury’s fourth major victory in a row, Yarborough having won the Atlanta 500 and Yarbrough the Rebel 400 and the World 600, and this was apparently too much for Ford, who hadn’t scored a major win since taking the first three (the Motor Trend 500 at Riverside, the Daytona 500 and the Carolina 500). The upshot was that the Ford Motor Company, the corporate boss, promptly scrapped the Mercury division’s highly successful programme on the grounds that it was stealing too much of the limelight from the Ford division and hindering that division’s bid to win the Manufacturers’ Championship from Dodge. The decision provoked a storm of protest from Mercury dealers in the South, who said their sales of Mercurys had increased over 500% since the division went racing—and they didn’t want to lose the business. Ford dealers, on the other hand, argued that because Ford division spends a lot more money on the sport than the Mercury division (which only contests the major, well-publicised events), they deserve all the exposure the company gets from racing. The decision to scrap the Mercury programme stood, and it immediately paid a dividend when Yarbrough, driving a Ford, won the Firecracker 400 at Daytona on July 4th. Yarborough continued driving his Mercury for the remainder of July but this month he, too, will switch his allegiance to Ford. Two days after Yarbrough’s victory at Daytona Petty scored again for Ford in the Mason-Dixon 300, and as a result Ford began to pull away from Dodge in the Manufacturers’ Championship. After 29 races of approximately 50 that are scheduled Ford led Dodge by 190 points to 165.
Without detracting in any way from the tremendous win of the lckx/Oliver Ford GT40 at Le Mans, I should mention that these N.A.S.C.A.R. races can be equally as exciting. At the Motor State 500, for example, the 2-mile M.I.S. proved perfect for these huge stock cars because there is more than one groove and the cars were thundering into the turns three and even four abreast. The lead changed hands 35 times among nine drivers during the 500-mile race and for most of that distance there were less than 15 seconds separating the first seven cars. In the Firecracker 400 Yarborough in a Mercury set a new World closed-course record of 190.706 m.p.h. during qualifying, and in the race itself the lead changed hands 16 times among seven drivers before Yarbrough’s Ford beat Baker’s Dodge to the chequered flag by just four car lengths after 400 miles.
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Ford has also continued to rule the roost in the S.C.C.A.’s Trans-Am series for sports saloons, Follmer’s Mustang winning’ the fourth race at Bridgehampton from Donohue’s Chevrolet Camaro and Titus’ Pontiac Firebird, while FoIlmer’s team-mate, Jones, took the fifth race at Donnybrooke from Leslie’s Camaro and Revson’s Mustang. With four wins and one second in five races, Ford then led the series with 42 points. Chevrolet had one win, three seconds and one third for a total of 31 points. Pontiac was in third place with 13 points, followed by American Motors with eight. Having failed to halt Ford’s march toward the Championship at Donnybrooke, Roger Penske, whose two Camaros constitute the unofficial Chevrolet works team, was faced with a decision. Should he divide his efforts and join the Can-Am series in the third event at Watkins Glen (as he had been planning, with Donohue driving the latest Lola T-163), or should he concentrate on retaining the Trans-Am Championship that he and Donohue won last year for Chevrolet? I will leave readers to judge where the greatest pressure was exerted by simply reporting that Penske, Donohue and their unraced Lola were nowhere to be seen at the Watkins Glen Cam-Am (the results of which are reported elsewhere in this issue).
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The S.C.C.A.’s third major series, the Continental Championship for Formula A (Formula 5000 cars) got off to a somewhat shaky start while some of the less’ experienced drivers became accustomed to the power of 5-litre stock block engines, but it is now settling down into quite a competitive series. The fields for each race have averaged about 22 Cars and, while the early events were somewhat processional, the most recent race found the first five cars finishing on the same lap (with only 17 seconds separating the second, third and fourth-placed drivers). Another good feature of the series is that in addition to the established makes such as Eagle, Lola, McLaren and Lotus, it has also attracted American-made cars such as McKee, Forsgrini, Eisert, LeGrand and Spectre. There is no question, however, that the most successful cars so far have been the Eagles, which are a simplified version of the cars Gurney’s All American Racers built for the 1968 Indianapolis 500. With the exception of one race that was halted by a storm and fatal accident, the first five races have all been won by drivers in Eagles. With one win and two second places in four starts, Posey (Eagle) led the series after five races with 21 points. Cannon (Eagle) and Wintersteen (Lola) were tied for second place with 18 points each, Cannon’s coming from two victories and Wintersteen’s from consistency (one fifth place, two fourths, one third and one second). Adamowicz (Eagle) was in fourth place with 13 points earned from one victory and one third place.—D. G.
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