"We felt like kings"

Confidence was sky-high at Vapordyne HQ. With eccentric millionaire Bill Lear behind them they were sure they could win the Indy 500 – with a car driven by steam
By Paul Fearnley

Bill Lear was a yes-can-do guy; hence his 130-plus patents for electrical devices. He wasn’t always their sole originator, but he usually brought something to the party: sensed their potential; neatly simplified them for mass production; used his personality and contacts to market them. He was the public face of the first practical car radio (Motorola), of the radio compass, automatic pilot and landing systems, 8-track stereo and the Lear Jet.

Money rolled in. And out. He flew close to the sun, though, and bankruptcy often beckoned. Yet it never held him back. He was an elemental force, targeting and overcoming technological problems. And as soon as they lost their challenge, he lost interest.

Oh, and he called one of his daughters Shanda, and his buildings had on-site hairdressers but no clocks.

Lear was Howard Hughes Lite.

Having sold Lear Jet in April 1967, he became a very rich 64-year-old. A suicidally bored, very rich 64-year-old. (Wife Moya fortuitously intercepted him leaving the house intent on a one-way flight out to sea.) After a very real brush with death – a ruptured ophthalmic artery – clocks or no clocks, Lear knew time was running out. Depressed and in pain, he wanted, needed, a new project.

Ken Wallis, an engineer not without talent, was prone to exaggeration, sometimes to the point of fabrication. Did he have a degree in applied science? Had he been a test pilot for Vickers-Armstrong? Had he worked at Weslake, Coventry Climax and Jaguar, and with Mike Parkes at Ferrari? He put the rumour mill into overdrive. Even his design of the gas turbine STP Oil Treatment Special that came within four laps of winning Indy in 1967 was shadowed by doubt.

Persuasive and confident, Wallis had emigrated to America’s west coast in 1963 and landed a job at Douglas Aircraft. The following year he met Andy Granatelli, gruff-tough maverick Indycar entrant. Chalk and cheese, they agreed, however, on a turbine’s potential to win at the Brickyard, and Wallis started to moonlight. They made it official in late 1965. Their STP ‘baby’ should have raced in 1966, but it fell behind schedule. Exasperated, Andy’s brothers stepped in. Wallis actually resigned in April 1967 but, at Andy’s behest, stayed on through May for the race. Parnelli Jones and ‘Silent Sam’ may have been serene as they swooped the track looking like winners, but their team was hardly harmonious.

Wallis used the kudos of this near-miss to persuade Goodyear and Carroll Shelby that he could pull the same trick twice. His ‘new’ design also had 4WD and a gas turbine slung to the driver’s left – learned from Andy G – but the resultant cars handled badly. Worse, their General Electric turbines could barely run with their inlets choked by Indy’s regs to 16 sq in – 33 per cent less than in 1967. Deep in debt and desperate, Wallis fixed them so that they were legal at a standstill, gapingly illegal on the move. Yet his cars remained off the pace.

Shelby withdrew them on May 7. The cover-up was clumsy and Wallis’s name was mud. His eponymous company was bankrupt and his rented factory was stripped and padlocked. Broke, he needed a new project. Sailing. Perhaps he could start anew there.

For years Lear, from up on high, had watched sulphurous smog thicken over LA. But now it wasn’t just the jet set taking note; California’s Green shoots were peeping through. There had been Senate hearings on air and water pollution, and the Justice Department had filed against America’s ‘Big Four’ car manufacturers over their tardiness in implementing pollution controls. Steam power, for so long a technological backwater, was simmering nicely again. This would be Lear’s new mission: to save the planet using pollution-free steam vehicles for the Space Age.

It was Wallis who convinced him to win Indy while he was at it.

They’d met when Wallis asked Lear for a five-figure loan – you don’t get if you don’t ask – to purchase a racing yacht. Lear was so impressed by the serious, plausible, eloquent Englishman that he bought him the yacht, told him his steam dream, and piped him aboard as his chief designer.

Everything moved fast now. Lear had bought disused Stead air force base, north of Reno, for $1.3 million, without a clear idea of what to do with it. By June 1968 he knew. By Christmas Lear Motor Corp had cherry-picked over 130 designers, engineers and fabricators and ‘parachuted’ them into its desert HQ.

The leaders of this new steam cult made outlandish predictions. Not only was Lear’s Vapordyne going to win Indy, intoned Wallis, Mr Lear would give his winnings to the first conventional car to finish. Lear himself promised to build a steam bus, a CHiPs patrol car, a 4WD Learmousine – and an exact replica of the Brickyard amid the Nevadan scrub. ‘Moonshot mania’ meant anything seemed possible. Sounds crazy now, but, boy, was it exciting back in the day. Just ask Bud Fraze and Dave Norton, two of the projects’ whizzkid designers.

“I’ve launched satellites out of Russia,” says Fraze. “I tested structural parts for the Blackbird spy plane (though I didn’t know it at the time). But working for Bill Lear and his incredible group changed my life. I’d forever judge the people I worked with using this period as the gold standard.”

Norton: “It was a great time to work, and a great team to work with. There were no boundaries, just an air of optimism. Ken Wallis was excellent to work with. A good engineer, sharp, and the stuff he designed worked. He was a good talker. It’s just that he had a tendency to tell Lear what he wanted to hear.”

Fraze: “Ken was disliked by a lot of people. He was one of those guys who float just about on the edge of fraud. Eventually it got him into trouble at Lear, but he was its driving force in the early stages.”

The Vapordyne had the ‘Wallis look’, its constant-pressure boiler, aka vapour-generator, lying flat by the driver’s left leg. Approx 2.5ft in diameter and 6ft long, it contained a tight bundle of concentric stainless-steel water tubes heated by a burner of atomised white kerosene sited within its central cavity.

Superheated steam was piped to the engine – the expander in steam-speak – a 2.3-litre six-cylinder 12-piston three-crank unit based on Napier’s Deltic equilateral-triangle design. So the ‘Double Delta’ was sited behind the driver’s shoulders, its power channelled by a 40/60 centre diff to custom casings containing Halibrand diffs, front and rear. There was no need for a gearbox – steam engines can give maximum torque at zero revs.

The frame was a true monocoque. The same section throughout – rectangular with rounded corners – it featured longitudinal bulkheads either side of the central drivetrain. Its tubular double-wishbones and horizontal coil spring/dampers were the same front and rear and carried by subframes hung from the lateral bulkheads. The disc brakes were inboard and vented. Plastic nose and rear sections completed the look.

There was no official weight. But it was big. Lotus’s ill-fated 4WD turbocharged 1969 Indycar, the 64, was imposing, but the Vapordyne was 32in longer, and had a 4in-wider track. That’s because there was a lot to fit in it. As well as the expander there was to be an auxiliary power unit by the driver’s knees. Powered by steam siphoned from the main circuit, this recirculated the brake fluid and drove the alternator, combustion air blower and fuel pumps – and cranked the water pump up to 1000psi.

And it promised to be clean. As long as the system could stand those pressures the water would be heated, condensed and circulated round a closed-loop system ad infinitum. Liquid-gas-liquid. The Rankine Cycle. Sounds straightforward.

“We thought we could make big leaps,” says Norton. “We felt all we had to do was take the best of 1930s/40s technology and apply modern expertise, metallurgy and electronic controls to it to create a new, efficient engine. There were a lot of knowledgeable people there. We’d all seen the numbers and we all thought we could make it work.”

Lear was spending $350,000 per week. Publicly, he remained ebullient. Privately, he became frustrated. Tomorrow wasn’t good enough. The problem? His target of 1000psi at 1000deg F was unrealistic. Available technology wasn’t up to it. Nor was water.

Okay, we’ll use Learium.

Pardon me?

“Our chemists tried to create a better working fluid than water,” says Norton. “It was to be called Learium. Learium A was some sort of freon. Learium B was an alcohol compound. We called the final attempt DLearium. In fact we worked with water the whole time. There was no magic fluid. It was a bold boast that people spent a lot of time and money on trying to make real.”
There were other problems. The cylindrical tower condensers weren’t man enough. Nor were the two radiators in the nose. But the biggest sticking point (often literally) was the expander’s rotary valve. Sited at the geometric centre of the block, it controlled the steam’s ingress and egress via ports between the top dead centres of the ‘boxing’ pistons. Given the pressures and temperatures, it was under the cosh.

“We couldn’t get it to seal,” says Fraze. “I think the best we got was 900psi and 900deg F [on the test rig]. It was a beautiful engine, but way ahead of its time. It made a lovely sound. Until it broke. Today we’d use some form of ceramic composite and CNC-machined fits accurate to millionths. We could make it work.”

Norton: “They said they’d get 1000hp, but they were struggling to get 100.”

Fraze: “But torque we had plenty of. It twisted truck driveshafts like they were pieces of liquorice. If you measure its BMEP, that engine was efficient. At top speed you’re not using a lot of your horsepower anyway. And all that torque at low revs would have provided tremendous acceleration.”

That’s all theoretical, of course, because in early March Lear ran out of patience.

Quoted in the September 1978 issue of Car & Driver, Dick Moser, a former Chrysler engineer who had worked at Wallis Engineering, explained: “We were running higher pressures and speeds [7000rpm] than had ever been done, pushing the state of the art by a factor of 2.5. We had a running engine [albeit with] a boiler the size of a Mack truck. But we were learning.
“One of the problems was piston clearance.” Stainless-steel pistons ran in cast-iron bores. “I had no idea what the expansion rates would be. We had been working seven days a week. [But this time] I told the technicians exactly how to run the test and took the weekend off to go racing. On Sunday the engine seized. Lear came in that day and wanted to know what the problem was, and of course the guys didn’t know. So he got all panicked. When I came back on Monday morning my department was gone.” With it down the tubes went $2m. Wallis was history, too. (He immediately found another US millionaire fixated by steam!) The bus and its turbine were Lear Motor’s new priorities.

Lear admitted that his Indy project had been behind schedule, but blamed its withdrawal on the breakdown in his communications with USAC and Tony Hulman, Indy’s owner. The latter had welcomed Lear. Those who ran the race for him, however, feared alienating the internal-combustion majority and had already squeezed out gas turbines by strangling inlet sizes. In January, because there were no written steam regs, USAC stated that it wished to see the Vapordyne in action before making equivalency calculations; the expander didn’t run until February. Lear was right to surmise that he could have arrived at Indy only to have more obstacles placed in his path, but the harsh truth was that it had always been an unachievable goal. And chances are that Wallis knew that.

“It was disappointing,” says Norton, “but we still had a car to complete [for April’s New York Auto Show], and we were hoping that we now had a bunch of time to do it right for 1970 [for which 4WD was already banned]. So it was a crushing blow when Lear pulled the plug on the Delta.”

One Vapordyne was finished in time for its public debut, but its rollout was exactly that.

Norton: “The boys rigged up a temporary steering set-up using an MG rack. They finished in the wee hours and rolled the car towards the door. The driver turned left, the car went right and hit a post. They’d installed it upside down.”

With tiny trim tabs on its nose – “to make it look more racy” – the Vapordyne was a strange-looking beast. It bristled with superb and innovative engineering, but for once racing had not improved the breed. This was a propitious time for steam vehicles, and Lear had the clout and money to make it happen. But he goofed by aiming for the moon, i.e. Indy, when a less boastful, more methodical and longer-term approach probably would have been more beneficial to the cause. A less complex, i.e. less like a racing engine, expander working within more realistic parameters might have put usable steam cars on the highways. And then, who knows? Instead Lear’s $17 million only succeeded in antagonising America’s Big Four. His bus did run, made it over the Donner Pass to LA, only to have a bearing fail in its transmission – just like ‘Silent Sam’. Detroit did not commiserate.

“The end of the road? I’d already seen it,” says Fraze. “One of the guys came upstairs and said, ‘Hey, there’s a business jet outside.’ About 20 minutes later men in red blazers wandered into our office. One of them stood over my drawing board, started asking questions. Suddenly the Old Man appeared: ‘Who the hell are you?’ Then I noticed the blue badges. ‘We’re Ford Motors! And you’re out of business!’” Security threw them out. But things went wrong after that. Contracts were lost, deals foundered.

“Lear had beaten Lockheed and Boeing at their own game, but he couldn’t beat Ford and GM. The aerospace industry, because of its military contracts, has to play it more down the line. Motor companies have no such constraints. They play dirty. Plus Bill was 10 years older now. One day he had a heart attack in the office. He was back at work the next day, with an oxygen bottle next to his desk. He was a bulldog, a rhino.” But he’d met his match.

Norton: “Had he listened to the right people we might have been able to make it work, because he had lots of highly motivated people putting in plenty of overtime.”

Fraze: “A 14-hour day was nothing unusual. I ended up divorced because of it – and we’d been high school sweethearts. My wife said she couldn’t live like this. One night I got back and she and the kids had gone. That was that. Insane!

“But as crazy as building the racing car got – Ken Wallis certainly got a little crazy – it was a golden period. Around the time its frame was being put together, the place was buzzing: Wallis was genuinely leading the project; we had Jackie Stewart to drive it [see sidebar]; we had the money to pull it all together; the coffee pot was always on. We felt like kings.”

Yes, but did the car run?

Not on ‘Indy West’ it didn’t. “I must hold the lap record,” laughs Norton. “Lear hired a grader to scrape out a duplicate of Indy. It was a con. He just wanted to be able to fly over and show it to visiting VIPs. It might have looked impressive from the air, but on the ground it was hardly grandiose. I puttered round on my 175 Honda just to say I’d done it.”

There was, though, a rumour…

“Some of the guys had apparently taken the Vapordyne out at night,” says Fraze. “When I got there in the morning it was parked on the floor in Assembly. It might have been a joke, I don’t know.”

The much-maligned Vapordyne whistling along Stead’s runways under a starry desert sky is a romantic image. You so want it to be true. But pause for a moment, and the very idea of it vanishes in a puff of wispy vapour.