The External Combustion Rally

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On September 20th. when sports cars were racing at Oulton Park, club racers contesting the MOTOR SPORT Trophy at Silverstone, rally drivers competing in the London Rally. members of the Veteran Car Club taking part in bending races at the Aldershot Horse Show and the Continental Correspondent was mending his motor-cycle, the Editor decided to do some motoring and departed to Lavenham for the B.L.S.P.S. Rally. B.L.S.P.S. stands for British Light Steam Power Society and we were promised five or six cars propelled by external-combustion, which would deport themselves on a disused airfield.

So I hurried, first to St. Albans, thence through de Havilland-dominated Hatfield to Ware and on along the winding road and downhill into Bishops Stortford and thence to Braintree and eventually to Lavenham.

There I was confronted by a fine Doble steam car, which, after a small quantity of water had been put into a tank in front and the level of paraffin checked in a tank at the back, got up steam to the accompaniment of the most terrifying noises before melting silently and swiftly away.

For some time the only other exhibit was a very sad Lancia Lambda in the last stages of decay, but retaining one of its original wickerwork armchair seats, and worthy of attention only because, where the engine should have been was a sort of washing machine, as under the bonnet of the Doble, and on the back axle was a steam engine.

This Lancia was a non-runner and the Doble was having water feed trouble so prospects looked bleak, the only item of interest being provided by a gentleman who opened the boot of his Jowett Javelin and withdrew a small steam plant mounted on a board. One gathered that this was a 1901 two-cylinder Crone engine of 2.75 in. by 3.75 in., rather like a Stanley, and designed to work at 160 lb./sq. in. One day, if a Raleigh back axle can be found to provide chain-drive, it may be put into a chassis.

Matters improved when Alec Hodgson turned up in a 1904 Turner-Miessa steam car and gave rides to the Society’s members. This veteran, built by the Turner Motor Co. of Wolverhampton, ran all the afternoon without appearing to need water or fuel, although it did have to be blown into on one occasion with a tyre pump.

The Doble had now been made to behave and I was taken for a ride in it. This is an American car of about 1931/32, with a fine, very roomy Fisher saloon body, four-wheel-brakes and an engine built in this country by Sentinel for research purposes just before the war. Externally, apart from an aura of warmth and sounds and smells as from a traction engine, this elegant Doble, with its broad, gilled tube radiator, looks exactly like an expensive petrol car of the same period. The dashboard and controls are conventional, but what would normally be the clutch pedal controls the Stevenson valve gear and, fully depressed, engages reverse. Acceleration is exceedingly vivid, even fierce, and the silence of running uncanny, although marred in our experience by the clack-clack of the feed pump, water level being low. One understands that these Dobles work at 1.400 lb./sq. in. pressure, will do some 90 m.p.h. and run a matter of 200 silent miles or so without requiring water replenishment. In winter the front seat occupants certainly wouldn’t get cold feet. Although I found the external sounds alarming I was told that a Doble, having a flash-boiler, cannot blow up!

By now another car had arrived. Outwardly a dull Morris of 1934 or thereabouts, water dripping, and water vapour rising, from it suggested that it wasn’t at all dull. The radiator badge proclaimed it to be a L.B.C. Steam Motor and, sure enough, when the bonnet was opened, there was revealed another of those silver-painted washing-machine things, together with a blower and a starting carburetter, the radiator acting as a condenser. A Stanley engine drives the back axle, the coil-tube boiler having a heating area of 101 sq. ft. The paraffin consumption is 8 m.p.g. and I got the impression the owner isn’t exactly enamoured of the Stanley engine. As steam cars have no clutch, a back wheel had to be jacked up before the engine could be run in pursuit of leaking glands.

By now the scene was an active one, the steam cars being surrounded by curious humanity, with interest lent by Milligan’s fine 38/250 Mercedes-Benz, a Type 40 Bugatti and a fabric saloon vintage Sunbeam. The Turner-Miesse and Doble were still giving joy rides when I remembered that I was 125 miles from home and from this glimpse of another sort of motor sport I returned to my customary car (which, unlike these steamers, will not run on paraffin) and headed, first for Sudbury, famous for its Coronation tapestries. with its Gainsborough statue, unveiled in 1913, its fine churches and where cricket was still being played, in sunshine with a nip in the air, on the low-level village green. Thereafter the VW made its way over the river bridge erected two years before World War One in busy Halstead, through busier Braintree and along that straight road to ugly Chelmsford, and so towards home, a day’s motoring of more than 250 miles – W.B

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