Steam Dreams Never Made It To The Indianapolis 500
The Nov. 27, 1968, issue of National Speed Sport News carried the headline news that Bill Lear was building a steam-powered car for the 1969 Indianapolis 500 and a duplicate of the Speedway in the Nevada desert as a proving ground.
William P. “Bill” Lear was well known to the American public as a gifted inventor and promoter. He was at the peak of his fame with the success of the Learjet private business jet. He had money to spend as a result of his 1967 sale of Learjet to the Gates Rubber Co.
Lear turned to developing a steam engine for automobiles; what better way to demonstrate his ideas and generate publicity than to build a race car to compete in the Indianapolis 500? Lear told NSSN: “We not only expect to be in the race, we expect to become a winner.”
Lear said his steam race cars would be practicing on the test track by March 1, 1969. Lear had committed $500,000 to the Indy program and $10 million to steam-engine development. Jackie Stewart was rumored to be the driver for the Indianapolis project.
To head up the Indianapolis program, Lear hired Ken Wallis, who had consulted with Andy Granatelli on the 1967 STP turbine program. Wallis also led the design and construction of the ill-fated 1968 Shelby turbine cars.
In the promotional literature, Lear said the “Indy motor,” while only 20 inches wide by 18 inches long, would provide horsepower output comparable to the competition and massive torque. The layout of the “Lear Vapordyne” was similar in many ways to the 1967 STP turbine and 1968 Shelby turbine utilizing four-wheel drive, with a rear-mounted engine and the driver beside the boiler.
USAC and the Speedway had just finished a legal battle with Granatelli over restrictions on turbine engines and had no rules for a steam car. The Speedway announced at the end of December that while USAC would not establish a steam formula for 1969, the Speedway’s policy of encouraging the development of racing engines meant that “supplemental regulations for the race will give the Speedway the right to reject or accept such an entry pending a thorough evaluation.”
In response, Lear wrote to Tony Hulman expressing reservations about “the supplemental regulations.”
Behind the scenes, Lear was running out of money and faced several basic problems inherent with steam engines, namely weight, recovery and maintenance of condensate. After months of development and construction, the race car was ready, but the “Indy motor” design did not work.
The race car was sent out with Lear on a tour of the major U.S. auto shows while he continued to test the engine. At the end of the 1969 car show season, the Lear Vapordyne race car and the Indy steam dream evaporated.