Steaming To A Record?

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The “alternative” power source has been a constant sub-plot of the motoring scene for a long time, particularly during the past 10 years when high oil prices and concern about air pollution have added a certain amount of impetus to the search to find a viable alternative. There are times when the whole idea reminds one of nothing so much as medieval alchemists looking for the compound which would turn base metals into gold except that most of these schemes have the reverse effect of turning gold into junk. Its hard to credit that the Sinclair C5 was launched less than 18 months ago with serious funding and a load of publicity. It is now, literally, a museum piece.

We have tended to keep well clear of the “alternative power” scene, but we recently made an exception to travel up to Norfolk with a view to driving a new steam car. Two things intrigued us, the first is that the builder is aiming to set a new speed record for steam cars: the second being the builder’s identity.

Much is being made of the “centenary” of the automobile, when really it should be the centenary of production automobiles with internal combustion engines built and sold by Germans. Its clever propaganda, emphasising the German contribution to a larger and longer, movement. Steam and electricity are legitimate forms of power for automobiles and who seriously supposes that in a hundred years hence the ic engine will still be the main power source for automobiles? We all too easily forget that it took over 25 years for the ic engine to surpass the performance of automobile steam engines that the ic engine had the advantage of being the only choice for the aviation industry which enjoyed accelerated development during WWI, and that steam cars laboured under the handicap of a long warm-up period front dead cold, something which with new technology no longer applies.

In 1906, Frank Marriott was timed at 127.66 mph at Daytona Beach in his Stanley steamer, the fastest official speed for a steam-powered car. The following year Marriott was travelling at around 150 mph when he crashed wrecking his car. These are remarkable figures and 127.66mph remains the target 80 years later.

The identity of the builder of a car to tackle this well established record is Peter Pellandine who founded both the Ashley and the Falcon companies (which made attractive bodyshells for special builders in the late ’50s and early ’60s) as well as the Pellandini and Pelland kit cars of more recent years. All his products have shown a flair for style which intrigued us.

The car he has built has a rear-mounted, three-cylinder broad arrow engine of 750 cc which produces a calculated 95 bhp and 1,200 ft lb torque. With that amount of muscle on hand, there is no call for a gearbox and power is transmitted through a modified Mini differential.

The chassis is a conventional enough spaceframe with independent suspension all round by coil springs and wishbones. At the front is mounted a condenser. Behind that is a pair of batteries which presently have to be charged from an external source but Pellandine hopes to be able to incorporate part of a Garrett turbocharger into his system to run an alternator. Connected to the batteries is a box of switches which, when turned on, operates the starting functions in their correct order.

The spartan cockpit contains two instruments, a digital temperature gauge and a pressure dial. There is a 25 pint water tank, the water being in theory perpetual for it is a closed system and there is a 2 1/2, gallon oil tank which provides the energy to heat the water. It takes just one minute to get the car from cold to being ready to go and it is claimed that it returns around 30 miles to each gallon of the sort of oil one might use in a central heating system.

In passing, its interesting that the Coal Board has been in touch with Pellandine over the possible use of “liquid coal”. This is coal dust ground so finely that it can be held in suspension in water. The result can be sprayed through a nozzle and ignited, just like oil.

Clothing all the works is a striking, and well made fibreglass body. We drove up to Norfolk with the intention of driving the car but the burner unit was on the blink and was being repaired. Apparently all was fine again an hour after we left. We’re told, though, that the sensation of driving it is rather like freewheeling down a steep and endless hill. Seemingly without effort the speed builds up.

Pellandine took up with steam while living in Australia and he became a recipient of grants from the government of South Australia which wanted to develop vehicles for use in Adelaide which because of its topography has a smog problem similar to Los Angeles. The idea behind trying to break an 80-year-old record is to establish credibility for the use of steam vehicles in specific commercial areas, town buses being one.

First comes the record then a steam charabanc. Yes, charabanc. This would be styled along the lines of a ’20s “chara”, for use in leisure parks — it would be both “environment friendly”, and an attraction. If the practicality of the modern mechanicals beneath the period styling can be proven in this way, the idea of building steam vehicles for wider use becomes a possibility. At present the odds are stacked against it happening but Pellandine’s stage by stage approach is an attractively sensible one.

Regardless of any commercial spin-offs, it will be interesting to see whether Peter Pellandine can with all the advantages of twentieth century technology, crack a record set 80 years ago with 19th century technology. — M.L.

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