Steaming Down the Road

A three-ton car that does 170 mph and generates enough heat to keep an entire town warm

Ten years of toil for a ride lasting less than two minutes — that’s the trade a team of Britain’s finest engineers, mechanics and speed junkies have made for a chance to break the century-old speed record for a steam-powered vehicle. Using propane to turn 10 gallons of water a minute into superheated steam, they expect their 25-foot-long Steam Car to top out at 170, shattering the record by more than 40 mph.

The pet project of auto aficionado and British nobleman Edward Montagu, the machine was built from a mishmash of donated, salvaged and new or custom-fabricated parts that seemingly have no place working together: steam valves from a nearby power station, a fire engine’s water pump, heating elements from tea kettles. The group also designed 12 suitcase-size stainless-steel micro-boilers, where a mixture of propane gas and air flows in and ignites at temperatures nearing 2,000ºF, generating a whopping three megawatts of heat. “We couldn’t just pick a boiler design out of a book. It didn’t exist,” says lead engineer Matt Candy. “We had to create it.”

At press time, the Steam Car team had yet to give it a full test run, holding off until trying for the record at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats in September. Why wait? Because the Flats are one of the only places in the world with a smooth, unobstructed surface that’s long enough: The 360-horsepower car needs a full three miles to get up to speed before it makes the mile-long record run, and another three to slow down.