First of all to tell the story of this car would take a book along with some serious research. What more or less happened is as follows. It all started at Indianapolis where in May 1967 the STP gas turbine car, driven by Parnelli Jones, almost won the race. A British gas turbine fellow named Ken Wallis had been brought over to work on that car in Torrance, California. Several turbine cars were entered the next year including the Shelby turbine, also with Wallis in the act, and there is a long story about why they did not run. After that Ken Wallis was at loose ends and he wanted to win at Indy and the best way he figured out how to win was to cheat by having some other kind of power plant than an IC engine. Ken met up with Bill Lear, who was likewise at loose ends after selling his Lear Jet stock to Gates Rubber April 1967 and leaving the board April 1969 and it was a match made in heaven. Neither one knew anything about steam or had any inclination to doing any serious steam research.
The deltic engine in this car was designed from scratch by Richard Moser who went to work for Lear September 2, 1968. When he went up to Reno to work at the old Stead Air force base, there were two people: Lear and Wallis, kneeling on the floor with three circles, representing the crankshafts, drawn on a sheet of paper, full sized. Moser designed the engine from there. We can only assume that Wallis was influenced by the big Napier delta diesel engines the British were using in torpedo boats at the time. The diesel was a powerful and compact engine that worked well with the two-cycle diesel system because of the way the two-cycle diesel scavenged. There was no real purpose to use that design in a steam engine, although there were some clever aspects.
A lot of resources were thrown into the project and in six months there was a working engine with three cranks and twelve pistons. Bore was 2.52” and the connecting rods were knife and fork to get the cylinders all on the same plane. Mean Effective Pressure calculations were made so the engine was designed for 500 horsepower. The valving was done by a rotary valve in the middle of everything made with three parts so cutoff could be adjusted. Modern gas turbine seals were used having been copied from a Pratt and Whitney helicopter turbine. The best part of the story is that Lear ordered the turbine engine from P & W and took it apart to study how the seals were made and did not pay for it. After a while P & W started to harass him about the engine so he packed all of the pieces in a box and shipped it back to them. The stories just go on.
Of even greater interest is the fact that the Napier Delta engine had two crankshafts rotating one direction and the third one counter-rotating. No one told Moser about this important fact and so he had all three rotating the same way. He did careful calculations with the three crankshafts made at each of the 360 degrees in a complete circle and got things to more or less work. The pistons did not meet in the middle every time, but they did not hit each other either.
The steam generator was pure genius. It was designed by Seifi Ghasemi, a recent Stanford PhD graduate in fluidics and a native of Iran where his family was on good terms with the Shah. Seifi started work January 1, 1969 and began building the boiler in March and had a running steam generator in May that would make steam for a 700 hp engine and would fit in a car. Lear patented Seifi’s design and put his own name on it.
Patent Number: 3,812,826
There are many more good stories about what went on. Cal Tinkham tells me that no one working for Lear had ever seen a steam engine let alone operated one. He would drive Harrah’s Doble over there once a week and give Lear a ride. Actually some people had worked with steam because a couple of them had worked on the McCullough project in the early 1950’s and they knew what they were doing. They brought in Peter Scott-Brown who worked for a while before telling Lear the truth about something or the other. After that experience Peter often said that Lear was the smartest person who had ever fired him.
Two things caused the Vapordyne steam car to quietly die. One was that someone finally took a look at the car and it was apparent that whoever had designed the condenser had dropped a decimal point. The condenser needed to be ten times larger to even begin to condense the steam produced. The other thing happened during engine testing on a dynamometer one weekend when Moser was gone. Lear was insistent on using regular automobile oil and so they went to Sears, got some oil, tightened up the clearances and ran the engine until is seized. Lear was not a methodical person and so the whole deltic engine was shoved aside and a turbine was started.
Lear was not trying to make a good steam engine or to save the world. He was trying to make 500 hp and win at Indy because of the MEP issues with high pressure, high temperature steam, one can get twice the horsepower per cubic inch as that of an IC engine, naturally aspirated. Indy had cubic inch limitations on the engines. It all started with Ken Wallis trying to get around the rules.