Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Great Lear Steam Engine You Never Got to Own

In the early 1900's the Stanley Steamer cars were very powerful and fast cars, yet the high price tag of $2,200 compared to just $360 for a Ford Model T in 1907 helped to make these steamer cars a rarity in those days. Comic Jay Leno joked about he once got a ticket for going 75 mph on a 55mph stretch of a California freeway in a 1917 Stanley Steamer. Further the steam blowing out of the back of the vehicle was mistaken for fire by the police who called the fire department as well to put out the fire.

William Lear the aviation pioneer had a dream during the late 1960's to bring back a modern version of the steam engine that featured a closed circuit design in which a special sort of fluid that would not freeze would be encased in closed coils to power the engine. It also featured an external rather than internal combustion type design as well which was also unique to the design. One of my of my own relatives was also the lead engineer on this unique project to produce a new type of automobile engine that would produce up to 500hp and would only produce just 1% of the pollution of conventional internal combustion engines.

Lear spent millions of dollars to buy a former production plant and hire a group of talented engineers to work for several years on the development of this new modern form of combustion engine. At first a larger model was built to power a bus and later a very small and compact version of the engine was developed that powered a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. The compact size was very impressive of the later engine.

The Lear engine was powerful and seemed to have some clear advantages over the old Stanley design including no steam exhaust due to the closed circuit design unlike the old style engines which blew lots of exhaust steam. However, it appeared that the engine just was not nearly as efficient as the normal internal combustion engines as well as it seemed to run best on kerosene rather than gasoline. Eventually Lear had to give up his dream of the steam engine. But the incredibly compact size of the engine had to be one of the most impressive features of the Lear steam engine. Perhaps it was a great idea that just needed to be developed a little more to be a greater technological success than it really was. On the official Lear website, the Lear family blame Detroit for helping to bury the design as well, although they do not elaborate how Detroit actually did this. Regardless, the Lear dream died.

Then Lear turned to his love of electronics instead, and developed the Lear 8-track tape cartridge system which made music portable for cars. For a while this revolutionized the portability of music in automobiles before the cassette tapes were improved enough to replace the 8-track as the standard for portable music. Eventually the compact disc managed to displace both formats. But few persons remember that as far back as the late 50's a small number of companies marketed some small record players in cars designed to play a 45rpm single, or about three minutes of music, with skips and scratches when the car hit bumps in the road, etc.
Ironically, after losing millions of dollars on the failed steam engine dream, Lear turned his portable 8-track cartridge player dream into an $8 billion dollar industry by 1978 until cassette tapes began to quickly overtake the market and become the new dominant format. But William Lear's role as one of the greatest American inventors cannot be understated. The man was a genius.