back to article Kettle car breaks speed record

The British kettle car has successfully smashed the 100 year old record for fastest steam-powered vehicle. The car hit an average speed of 139.843mph over two runs at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The British Steam Car Challenge was driven by Charles Burnett III and broke 150mph for its fastest trip over a measured …


This topic is closed for new posts.
  1. Mr Larrington
    Thumb Up


    Hurrah for the Great British Shed!

  2. Dogbyte

    They must have been...


  3. Anonymous Coward

    Hat's of.... the Victorians. After 100 years of innovation & technological advances, they still only mamaged to top it by 10%.

    If the same Victorians were around now, we'd proberbly have skycars and bases on mars by now.

    Still nice to see the British "because we can" attitude still alive in some people.

  4. Anonymous Coward

    A true triumph!

    I predict steam powered cars on every street in the coming years.

  5. It wasnt me

    The record

    It really puts the original record into perspective doesnt it? 100 years of engineering and they are still only a little bit faster. The original car must have been fantastic technology for its day.

  6. this

    100 years later...

    I can't help thinking that the passage of 100 years should have enabled a greater advance in speed than 12mph.

  7. Ole Juul

    23 mph

    That's pretty cool, and I certainly don't want to belittle their achievements, but I'm a little puzzled by the relatively small increase in speed over the SS record. Yes, 23mph is quite a bit, but still the improvements in materials and other technology in the last century should account for even more shouldn't it?

  8. buggane
    Thumb Up

    absolutely steaming

    This highlights just how impressive that 1906 record was.

    Well done to those who set the new one though!

  9. Anonymous Coward

    Steam Powered?

    No, not steam powered, steam driven. It's powered by LPG.

  10. Chris Hawkins

    The Mighty Wurlitzer

    Couldn't help it!

    This brings to mind the Goon Show episode "The Mighty Wurlitzer".

    "Now Seagoon, tell us, what is that fifty-ton brass-bound contraption you're driving?"

    Seagoon: "It's a Wurlitzer."

    Script here:

    Spike, Harry, Peter and the lads would have had a field day with this bit of deja vu!

  11. Annihilator Silver badge

    Bravo, jolly good show..

    But the improvement to the real world is where?... the fact the record hasn't been broken in over a century is shurely a sign that it's no longer relevant!

    Or is it a case of the marvellous point made by Clarkson (from

    "The problem is that humans have already climbed the highest mountains and sailed on their own through the wildest and loneliest stretches of ocean. But though the records have gone, the world is still full of Chichesters and Hillarys and Amundsens. As a result, these people have to think of stupider things to quench their need for a spot of frostbitten glory. So, they insert a few sub-clauses into the record and set off from Margate to become the First Person Ever to Pogo Stick Round the World — Backwards. "

  12. Steven Jones

    Not a great rate of progress...

    So that's over 100 years to achieve an increase in top speed about 13 mph. Even allowing for the old record being set under less rigorous rules, that's not exactly a breathtaking rate of improvement.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    British Engineering

    Well done lads.

    Letter from Gordo in the post?

  14. Torben Mogensen

    What's the point?

    It seems to be that the reason the record has stood for over 100 years is not that it was difficult to break, but that nobody (until now) have bothered trying.

    Steam cars were not unusual in the early 1900s, but they have gone out of fashion since, for obvious reasons: They are heavy, they are inefficient and they need to be filled with water all the time.

    Using huge wads of cash to break a record that nobody cares about seems like waste to me, unless you develop useful technologies in the attempt. I can't offhand see any in this case, but I may be wrong.

  15. Hud Dunlap

    Epic fail

    The car weighs two tons more than the original. Has modern aerodynamics, wheels etc and only went a measly 10 percent faster. I bet that they could have done as will by copying the original and putting modern aerodynamic shell and better wheels.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I am impressed, but...

    No, seriously I am impressed by this achievement and its ilk.

    I was just wondering if there is a record for a car powered by a grimy bloke shovelling coal into a boiler.

  17. Anonymous Coward

    Re:Steam Powered?

    "No, not steam powered, steam driven. It's powered by LPG."

    Actually it's fuelled by LPG, not powered. It's not the same as a car, where the explosive reaction of petrol (for example) directly pushes the pistons and turns the engine. They only use the LPG to heat water, and the steam from that is what actually "powers" the engine.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hmmm ....

    The Mallard was just a few MPH slower and that run routinely, every day, for 3 decades from the 1930's, pulling 500 tons along with it.

  19. Philip Nicholls

    And it's all over Google (US) News ...


  20. Anonymous Coward

    Build a better mouse trap

    There is probably only so much you can do to get a car that weight up to speed, maintain it and stop safely even with all the technology in the world. There are probably rules on how the engine must run too hence the need for ratification.

    Well done on doing it.

  21. MnM
    Jobs Horns

    Original car was better

    To regurgitate, the Stanley Steamer:

    1) beat 4 petrol cars on the same attempt

    2) went faster (they reckon 140-150 mph) on a subsequent attempt but crashed

    3) most importantly, had pistons

    Good work, but they won't be chuffed!

  22. Carl W


    The team's website says that the burners produce 3 MW of heat, i.e. around 4,000 bhp. Since the car's "power at wheels" is shown as 360 bhp, that's an overall thermal efficiency of about 9%.

    Thermal efficiency of an internal combustion engine is about 40%.

  23. Nigel 11
    Thumb Up

    Steam on wheels record

    Perhaps worth mentioning, they've also claimed the record for steam powered motion on wheels. That was previously held by the "Mallard", a steam railway locomotive, which got to 126mph in 1938.

    @Carl: the physics of a steam engine is intrinsically inefficient compared to an internal combustion engine. It's simply not possible to make a 40%-efficient steam engine. (well, not without using steam at implausibly high pressures and temperatures, which couldn't be engineered safely. Possibly not at all, because steam at high enough pressures and temperatures becomes an almost universal solvent that would eat the boiler).

  24. Anonymous Coward

    @It wasnt me (et al.)

    To everyone commenting on the fact that they only gained a few MPH over 100 years of technological advancements: Stop it, stop it right now.

    Need you be reminded that in that same 100 years humans have also built jet aircraft which can exceed MACH 3 (~2260MPH) and built gasoline engines which can propel a car at speeds of up to 345MPH (the land speed record for a non-jet propelled vehicle)?

    It seems to me that the more logical reason is that 100 years ago steam propulsion reached the maximum achievable efficiency. Steam appears to be pretty lousy method for obtaining high speeds.

  25. Ceilidhman
    Paris Hilton

    Ah but..

    can you fry your bacon and eggs on the shovel like they do on steam trains?

    Paris coz she's pretty steamy

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Philip Nicholls

    Really, I found 11 articles from the US, 21 from the UK. But this is more interesting:

    "...Charles Burnett was educated in South Africa and the United States. As a legitimate tri-national - his mother was Canadian and his father American..."

    The reporting in UK media? "British born".

  27. brakepad
    Thumb Up

    Just needs a longer run up

    It's always easy to criticise on this sort of thing, but the speeds & times quoted suggest that acceleration rates & available track length are both significant issues if the design stats and quoted figures are to be believed.

    Considering only aerodynamic drag, the power increase required to boost max speed from the old record of 127 to 139mph is 'only' around 30%, but the quoted theoretical max speed of 170mph would suggest the car should be capable of producing around 2.5 times as much power as the Stanley Steamer (and anyway 268kW of power should be sufficient to power a low drag vehicle to these kind of speeds without difficulty).

    This would suggest either a big shortfall in power (by around 80%, which seems unlikely) from that predicted, or a large calculation error in another area (e.g. drag coefficient, again unlikely), or simply that the car does not accelerate quickly enough to get close to its theoretical Vmax in the time/distance/fuel/water/whatever available.

    If it takes 2.5miles to get up to speed (presume he means 140mph), then the *average* acceleration rate is a fairly unexciting 0.5m/s^2, and if that accel rate could be maintained (optimistic) it would need another 2km to get up to 170mph. Assuming it can carry enough fuel for a longer run then the simplest solution would be to go somewhere bigger, hence salt flats are a popular venue, but running on salt can bring further issues with stabilty, rolling resistance etc.

    Other than that, the fundamental options remaining would be to a) reduce drag - although we should assume that it's at least 90% optimised, b) reduce weight, although again a 10% improvement would probably be good going, or c) add more power, which would probably come at the expense of adding more weight, not least from the water required.

    Apologies for the gratuitous mixing of units!

  28. Anonymous Coward

    @Steam Powered?

    >" No, not steam powered, steam driven. It's powered by LPG. "

    Do you have the faintest idea how a steam engine actually works? I suppose you think that a real steam engine drives down to the garage and fills up with steam from the pump and stores it in its steam tank, and I suppose you also think that the industrial revolution was triggered by James Watts' invention of the Wood and Coal Engine? Idiot.

  29. Anonymous Coward

    Re: What's the point?

    Torben Mogensen writes...

    "Using huge wads of cash to break a record that nobody cares about seems like waste to me"

    Enter Lord Wooster and his jet-powered car with the strap-on rocket. When Chieftain of the Britards, Jeremy Clarkson, claims that such sideshows are the consequence of everything having been done and the world still producing explorers and daredevils, it says more about his lack of imagination than what could actually be done. The fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission should remind us all of that.

    Wooster and his strap-on is more in line with the failed North Korean "satellite" launch with its supposed "revolutionary melodies" than Apollo, of course: just an exercise in stroking "patriotic" sentiment. At least the Koreans would have some useful spin-offs from the stunt, if executed successfully, however.

  30. Richard 45

    Steam powered

    @AC 14.24

    "Do you have the faintest idea how a steam engine actually works? I suppose you think that a real steam engine drives down to the garage and fills up with steam from the pump and stores it in its steam tank"

    Being pedantic, such things did exist. Google "fireless steam locomotives" to find out more. Apart from that, it's stretching it a bit thin to describe this kettle car as just a steam car. Steam is just one link in the transmission chain. They could've used the LPG to drive some sort of turbine directly to achieve rotational motion on the geartrain, or just use the turbine's exhaust output without any mechanical coupling to the wheels. Your typical nuclear power station is similarly "steam-powered" in that it acts as the intermediary to achieve rotational motion from the hot fissile material. Apart from the mass disadvantages, you could even have a nuclear-fuelled steam car - just replace the LPG burner with a fissile core, control rods, etc. and pass water round it - bingo!

  31. ian 22

    "The car really did handle beautifully."

    So it travels in straight line then? No bobbing or weaving? Brilliant, it brings a tear to every British eye. A pint all around.

  32. Steve X


    Which, IIRC, is the same output as a French TGV locomotive, that cruises at 186MPH for hours.

    Still, I suppose the original Stanley Steamer would have failed modern health & safety rules. They probably account for a good whack of the inefficiencies of the modern car.

    When will we see the Mamod record breaking model? :)

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Daft idiots

    So they did 139.843 mph. That means they can be beaten by a car that does 139.8435 mph because that will round up to 139.844 mph.

    BUT, if they'd quoted their speed to less precision, say 139.84 mph, their rivals would have had to go at 139.845 mph to beat them - a full 0.015 mph faster.

    So quoting their speed to only the nearest mph (140) would have made a lot of sense.

    Of course, taking this to its logical conclusion, they could quote only a single binary digit indicating that they were moving, as opposed to stationary. That'd be a hard record to beat.

  34. Joe Zeff


    I read the article and couldn't help but thinking that this is a marvelous example of Steampunk in everyday life.

    I'd also like to mention that I remember reading that nobody's really sure just how fast a Stanly could go. Its boiler was wrapped in two layers of piano wire for extra reinforcement and the one time they tried to burst one, the pressure valve failed before the boiler. There's also the fact that, supposedly, nobody ever had the balls to open the throttle all the way and leave it there until it stopped accelerating. Probably an urban legend, but it still gives you an idea of what it was capable of.

  35. Steven Jones


    You are right that if the acceleration is constant it would average about 0.5ms/s (which is fairly pathetic - a family car will manage around 4 times that). I suspect there are two main issues. Number one is the mass that it has to carry in water. Given that a run would have lasted about 2.5 minutes (or which 2 minutes is that fairly leisurely acceleration), then that is apparently a tonne of water that it has to carry, and that's assuming that they don't have to carry enough water for both runs - I believe the LSR rules allow for refueling (not that the water is fuel of course). However, to do so would require bringing a tonne of water up to full operating temperature. Even overcoming the latent heat of evaporation for 1 tonne of water is going to take 334MJ without whatever increase in temperature is required (I guess they could have recharged the boiler with near boiling water, although that strikes me as dangerous. Pumping (say) 600MJ into the boiler in about 3,000 seconds (about the maximum turn around time they had) is going to require about 200KW to be transferred into the water in the boiler. That might sound a lot, but given that IC engines are maybe 25% efficient that's about the rate of fuel usage of a 70bhp petrol engine. For those that think that an instantaneous boiler is used - well that would require something upwards of a 2MW+ heat source if it was to turn 1 tonne of water into steam over a 2.5 minute run. Really rather too much for a vehicle that size.

    The second issue is surely the use of a steam turbine - those things are great at running at high RPM and producing a lot of power whilst not occupying much space. However, what they are truly terrible at is producing torque at low RPM. Even equipped with a gearbox it is likely to be operating outside its peak power output area for long periods of time.

    In contrast, piston-driven steam engines develop maximum torque at low revs (look at the way a powerful steam loco tends to spin its drive wheels at rest). That would mean it would accelerate faster, it would take less time to reach top speed, and would very likely need to carry less water in the first place. Steam turbine driven rail locomotives never really succeeded either.

    I can't help but think the designers may have made a mistake choosing a steam turbine and I rather think an updated version of a Stanley-like steam powered car with modern materials would have got the job done rather better in the available length of track. Of course piston engines don't rev very high (steam doesn't expand that quickly, and the cylinders tend to be large). So a piston-driven steamer would have its own gearing issues. However, I suspect that current steam technology is all designed round steam turbines and nobody has much experience of designing high-power piston-driven steam engine, whilst you can buy a steam turbine off the shelf (Stanley gave up record attempts when they have a near fatal crash, so maybe there are serious problems with the drive train on such beasts - after all, coincidentally or not, The Mallard reached pretty well the same top speed as the 1906 Stanley record).

    In the case of some steam-turbine driven ships and submarines, turbo-electric drive trains are used. That might work in this case, as electric motors generate maximum torque at 0 RPM and the steam turbine can run at its most efficient RPM rating and that might overcome any extra penalty of carrying a generator and motors (it would save weight in water and gear box). However, would such a beast count as a steam-driven or electrically-driven vehicle? Or maybe I could build my own and claim a turbo-electric LSR even if I only got to 5mph...

  36. Stevie


    [@ AC 14:24] Er...James Watt didn't invent the steam engine.

  37. The elephant in the room

    An embarrasment

    I cant believe they took this underwhelming contraption to Edwards Airforce Base - a place where serious records are broken. The Yanks must have been pissing themselves looking on. Barely exceeding a 100 year old record in front of experts in hypersonics does not promote British engineering on the international stage, rather it makes us look like a bunch of eccentric backward-looking hobbyists. I wonder if they were all wearing top hats & 3-piece suits and drinking tea in fine bone china cups under the desert sun just to complete this preposterous spectacle.

    Next time these tinkerers want to have a crack at the record they should dispense with the absurdly overstated Max Power body kit & parachute brake (a much faster 2 ton Bugatti Veyron manages to make do without huge twin tails and a parachute) and put a big hydrogen peroxide steam generator on a skate board. That should break the record in a supermarket carpark! (OK they need a measured mile - maybe a quiet stretch of A road then, but dont take it to Edwards AFB unless they are sure its going to go a lot lot faster than a standard spec IC engine road car.

  38. _wtf_

    A bit underwhelming

    Speking as a steam hobbyist myself, the guys I know who are into steam cars think this project was a bit of a botchup. At this point in time it should be possible to build a steam car that would acheive something of the order of 300 to 400 mph. Mind you it would still be a pretty pointless exercise. We know the capabilities of steam plant pretty well by now, it is excllent for large scale plants like power stations and ships, but not so useful for mobile applications. Note that efficiency is not a problem in large plants, a big steam plant is more efficient than a Diesel engine, and the most efficient heat engines are combined cycle setups that use a steam cycle for part of the process. So there is life in the old technology yet...actually there is more installed steam horsepower now than there has ever been before.

    Those who have put the time and effort in, for example lear back in the seventies, have found that you can build a steam power plant that is comparable for power to weight with an internal combustion engine. The downside is that the volume of the plant tends to be quite high...the actual engine unit can be much smaller than an IC engine but the heat exchanger is bigger...and the fuel economy tends to be not as good. Against the latter, it is not so fussy about the nature of the fuel. But the real killer is that a compact high power steam plant suitable for a road vehicle is not simple, it is a complex expensive peice of plant. People think a steam engine is simple, well, a Mamod one is, but one with any chance at all of being usable on the road is very complex.

    Incidently there is little difference in the expansion of steam and other gases, at the sort of temperatures involved in steam or IC engines. Steam turbine plant often runs with temperatures around the dull red heat mark. This is harder to manage with reciprocating plant but has been done in steam hydroplanes. The world record for Model steam hydroplanes is around 120mph

    Remember this is for a model size device, on water, and with the drag of the tethering wire slowing it down. If any model rocketry guys ever find their hobby is getting a bit tame they could give this a try! So if that can be done by lone amateurs with their own resources, they should be able to do much better with the car and the money that has been spent on it.

  39. Anonymous Coward

    Britain Leading the way

    in technology... of the past....

    Typical British. We can´t make shit these days but i bet we can beat 100 year old tech.

  40. Mr Larrington


    It is, perhaps, worth noting that Mallard's record was set in one direction only and on a slight downgrade.

    Plus it broke.

  41. Steven Jones


    I think running a full scale steam piston engine at red-0heat levels in order to get the gas expansion rate (and hence rev rate) up to what you would see in an IC engine would be pretty near impossible to achieve reliably at full scale. High powered IC engines tend to use liquid cooling of the cylinder walls in order to keep keep the lubricant working and stopping the engine seizing up. If you use re-hot steam in a reciprocating engine and cool the walls down to a reasonable temperature, then the efficiency of the whole thing is going to suffer horribly. Thermodymic efficiency would suffer even more as it would effectively rule out using a compound engine (even if the cooler cylinder walls didn't slow down the steam expansion in the primary, the exhaust temperature is going to be much lower so the expansion rate would be slowed down).

    There are very good reasons why steam piston engines tend to run at lower temperatures and lower RPM than IC engines. Even if somebody can get a small scale steam piston engine revving into the stratosphere, that isn't going to be a practical thing at full scale. Keep the really high temperature stuff to turbines where you can run them, hot as there is no direct contact with lubricants.

    As far as thermodynamic efficiency goes, I think that for ship propulsion at least, a diesel engine is still the thing to beat. Thermodyamic efficiencies of over 52% have been demonstrated where the best steam turbines are still below that figure. In commercial shipping diesels tends to dominate over steam turbines (the various navies of the world have different priorities - especially where their source of power is nuclear).

  42. Anonymous Coward

    RE: Steam powered / driven

    Splitting heirs both require the conversion from chemical to kenetic energy in the same maner.

    In both cases of either internal combustion or steam driven, a fuel is used to heat an intermediate substance to drive the piston. In the combustion chamber the fuel explodes ( burns rapidily) to increase the internal temperature which super expands the gaseous material and that drives the piston. In a steam engine heated steam expands and drives piston in exactly the same way. The generated heat in both cases does not drive the piston it heats the susbstance that drives the piston. Plus difference n'est pas.

  43. d 25

    sooo, the Kettle is in fine fettle

    [somebody had to say it]

This topic is closed for new posts.

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022