This whole thing started, William Lear says, when he died. Literally died; his heart stopped on the operating table and all the systems inside him began slowly ticking to a stop while a team of doctors worked to pump his life back in. When that crisis was over and he was alive again, he began to look around with a new sense of purpose. He was 66 and retired. He had millions, and all he needed was a mission. He had been everywhere and done everything. He had developed a jet airplane that has become the darling of the business world. He had inventive talent and one more thing: he was an inspired crapshooter. All of which make up the best set of qualifications any man ever needed to go automobile racing.
Naturally, racing could only mean the Indianapolis 500—any man who has already died once is just about in the proper emotional shape for that crazy American spectacle, where racing's greatest pressures pile up. And just as naturally, not any old racing car would do. There would have to be a bigger goal than just the race. A more noble goal. Like How I Won the Indy 500, Shook Up the Establishment and Purified America at the Same Time. With those thoughts in mind, Lear announced last fall in Reno, "I am going to build a steam-powered passenger car. And to publicize it, I am going to build a steam race car. With it, I expect to win the 500."
Steam cars. Hoo boy. Here comes 1969, racing's fun year. Even if the thing never works, which is eminently possible, the steam-car project already has touched off an epidemic of jitters in the car-manufacturing and racing worlds. Indy is still suffering from a massive jet hangover—a condition brought on by the turbine racers of 1967 and 1968, cars that sailed along with whispery whooshing sounds instead of the honest clatter of good old-fashioned pistons and things. That uprising from the ranks was put down by a series of restrictions on the size of turbine engines. But hardly has the old calm and order been reestablished when along comes Lear.
Lear was weaned on controversy and he loves it. Loves it. Suddenly, here is the old fox of big biz, the man who took on the entire aircraft industry and beat it with the first successful business jet; here he is, back again, prowling restlessly around this rickety old surplus Nevada air base, most of which he owns, shamelessly pirating top engineers and draftsmen from his competitors and spending $300,000 a month. He is building a new plant, an elaborate machine shop. Bulldozers are pushing aside tumble-weeds and sand to make his own private racetrack. He has a special team of architects and planners laying out a model city to house all his new employees, and it will be built around a model lake for them to fish in. ("I think we might call it Lake Lear," one of his draftsmen said in the first big understatement of 1969.)
February 3, 1969
Things are popping again for Lear, even at the crap tables of Reno. Mrs. Lear, a serene, lovely matron, keeps his winnings (they were up to $6,000 the other day) in a special bank account; her husband always hands it over. He doesn't want to spend it, he just wants to win it. "You have heard of Mother's household account?" she says. "Well, this is Mother's craps account." She is continually delighted by everything Lear does, perhaps because she is a daughter of the late Ole Olsen, co-producer with Chic Johnson of an explosive stage show called Hellzapoppin, which was the Laugh-In of its day. And now the thing that pleases her most is that Lear, at 66, overweight, jowly, out of condition, is suddenly springy, dieting and living again. And building a steam car to save the world is as good a goal as any to start with.
Lear sits at his desk in a leaky wartime barracks in a ratty old red pullover sweater he fancies, his hands folded calmly, with the racket of construction going on all around him and the chill of the Nevada winter seeping in, and tells his story in the voice of a hoarse bear. In 1967 Minneapolis Publisher T.S. Denison & Co., Inc. produced a book called William P. Lear, Creative Designer and Inventor as part of its Men of Achievement series (other titles are J. Edgar Hoover, Modern Knight Errant; J. C. Penney, Merchant Prince; and Lyndon B. Johnson, Man of Reason). Lear's story takes up where his stupefyingly dull biography leaves off.
"I was technically dead," he says. "This was last January. For a minute or so my heart stopped; there was no pulsebeat or blood pressure. Nothing. I had a broken artery near my brain which they were repairing. My nose wouldn't stop bleeding; that's why they were operating.
"To make matters worse, before that I had broken my damned leg getting out of my limousine and this whole thing knocked hell out of me for about three months. When I came out of it all, I wanted something new to sink my teeth into. Something big—maybe even to compete with my old company, Lear Jet." Lear tried a couple of projects, but they turned out to be $5 or $6 million a year things, and "still too insignificant to warrant my total effort." He put some money into Montana oil for something to do and, first thing, six high-paying wells came in—which ought to give Indy an idea of what kind of year this could be. Still, Lear claims to be unimpressed with wealth. "I've never even felt wealthy," he says. "What counts is altering a way of life for the better. For instance, I can't play any musical instrument. Hell, I can't even carry a tune in a handbag. But I showed my love for music by developing the first really fine radio set, the Majestic. It was my first successful business of 1928; stock went from $10 to $1,600 a share. Then I pioneered car radios, and you will note that Motorola has not exactly been a failure. But my love of aviation exceeded all other loves, so I left Motorola to start Lear Aviation, which became Lear Inc., which I ultimately sold for many millions of dollars."
Lear also developed radio and navigation instruments that are still the standard of the industry (he holds more than 100 patents), and he is perhaps most admired for his autopilot. In 1950 it won the Collier Award, the highest honor the aircraft industry can bestow. And you'd better believe he's made a dollar or two from his Lear Jet stereo tape deck for cars.
But to Lear neither car radios nor autopilots nor jet planes nor tape decks were the Big Thing. Then he discovered air pollution. The stuff was there all along, hanging low and acrid over California, stinging lungs and reddening the eyes of millions and being thickened every day. A problem worth tackling.
A workable steam engine, one of Lear's aides suggested, could change all that—a steam engine could be made to emit only a fraction of the noxious fumes of conventional engines. Yet, so little research was being done on steam, one might suspect that the American automobile industry thought the steamer was as dead as the Stanley.
By coincidence, a couple of weeks ago the Justice Department filed antitrust charges against the Big Four automakers, charging they have conspired for more than a decade to delay development and use of devices to control air pollution from automobiles. The Big Four said it was not so and the case is headed for the courts. But Lear can't wait. A steam-powered car, the fascinated Lear believes, could brighten up a nation which ought to have air as clean as Reno's. A steam-powered car could save lives and change the economic structure of the country. The man who made it would leave his mark on history. And that part did it.
If Lear has not made a mark on history just yet, after 4½ months of wheeling, his project has etched one on Nevada and sent shock waves out into racing and the auto industry. Reno, whose housing style is Early Trailer Camp, is already full of engineers looking for expensive homes. More personnel arrives daily. Not long after Lear announced the steam-car project, a delegation of executives arrived from American Motors and stalked around his new plant, looking over the plans and nodding wisely. Lear offered them the exclusive sales rights to the new steam car in exchange for, as he puts it, "certain stock options." Lear was clearly pleased with their reaction. "They were flabbergasted," he says. "They admitted it would take Detroit two, three years to get to the point where we are now in Nevada. To say the least, they were shook."
One of the things that shook them, obviously, was not so much that Lear has impressive plans and a brigade of impressive people at work in Reno, but the fact that he has what businessmen call a "proven track record." Years ago the aircraft industry laughed when Lear sat down to build an executive jet plane—and now there are 223 Lear Jets winging around and many more on the way. "Most economic, fastest, highest-flying, lowest-cost business jet ever developed," says Lear, "and it is doubtful that that record will be altered for many years to come."
What Lear plans this time is a production-line, $6,000, steam-powered passenger car, plus a much more expensive steam-powered limousine—having broken a leg getting out of one, Lear has this fixation on limousines—all coming from a new $500-million industry just outside Reno. Before going to the market for more, he is willing to gamble the first $10 million.
"Here is one guy," he says, speaking of himself, "who has gathered together the greatest group of engineers in the country in what once was known as a gaming town, one guy willing to prove that by gambling $10 million on one roll of the dice he can produce a steam engine that will be the world standard of excellence. It will at the same time solve the air pollution problem—producing less than 1% of the pollution from internal-combustion engines. Now then. If I do it, I will have solved a national community health problem and at the same time challenged the largest single industry in America, if not the world." He pauses and wheezes just a bit. "By comparison, Nick the Greek was a piker."
Perhaps. But the world of auto racing does not care about any of that. Did Nick the Greek ever race an Indy 500 car? The world of auto racing has never bothered itself much about pollution. And as for the limousine, most Indy drivers prefer something a little quicker. What they do care about is that steam-powered race car, what it all means and what it might do to them.
Hardly had the word steamer come out of Reno than Speedway Superintendent Clarence Cagle and Henry Banks, who is director of competition for the United States Auto Club, got on a plane and flew to Nevada to look things over. Banks seemed enormously pleased to find that, in fact, there was no steam race car. He looked all around the old surplus barracks to make sure. "All I saw was drawings on the drawing board and no hardware," he said, "no bits and pieces of a racing car. But I do think they have a sincere desire and will attempt to build a car."
What Banks wanted to make clear to Lear was that Indy does not have a set of rules for steam cars. There are no specifications on what sort of steam car would be properly competitive with the current piston cars.
"Use my specifications," said Lear, and handed them over.
Well, then. Did Lear understand that with no specifications on a steam race car, the USAC could not sanction it?
Did he ever. Lear was way ahead of them. He had already run the whole play around the auto club and gone directly to Tony Hulman, the gentleman who owns the Speedway., Not many people realize the 500 is Hulman's race and the USAC only sanctions and runs it for him. And if Owner Hulman decides a steam car will brighten up the proceedings, it seems safe to bet a steam car will be allowed to try for the lineup on Memorial Day. In fact, the Speedway's official entry blank says propulsion systems not covered by USAG are encouraged. Thus, if it met the basic requirements on size and shape, a steam race car could be accepted under a special waiver for one year. "We would welcome a steam-car entry under these terms," Hulman said. And a year is all that Lear wants. He came away from his chat with Hulman elated.
Lear also dropped in to see Ralph Nader, the Unsafe at Any Speed man. The prospect of a nonpollutant car intrigued Nader right away. Having its marvelous potential paraded at the Indy 500 intrigued him also—more even than the recent electric-car revival talk.
"He told me," says Lear, "to keep him posted on the project—and if it looked like the Speedway might turn down the steam race car, to let him know before they did it." The implication is clear that Nader might bring unusual national opinion pressures to bear if he thought someone were holding back American motoring progress and safety while continuing to dirty up the air with those old piston engines.
Another point in Lear's favor: USAC and the Speedway are still smarting from criticism over the restrictions imposed on the turbines. The Speedway likes to boast that it is in the forefront of motoring progress. Throwing out the new race cars in favor of the old ones did not do much for that image. A steam race car could help restore that forward-thrust air about the place.
Chief designer of Lear's steam cars is a wandering British carbuilder named Ken Wallis, who is either a mastermind or the Peck's Bad Boy of racing. Wallis meandered into Indy a few years ago, helped STP Impresario Andy Granatelli produce the sensational turbine car in 1967, and the next year built a pair of turbocars for Carroll Shelby. The Shelby-Wallis race cars were mysteriously withdrawn just before final inspection, and Indy promptly exploded with charge and countercharge as to whether the cars were "cheaters," that is, illegal under the specifications. Wallis left Indy under a sort of mechanical cloud, and even now Banks is not sure that USAC would let Wallis come back to the Speedway "until certain allegations have been cleared up."
No matter. Wallis does not plan to go back to Indy anyway. "I'll be too busy working on the passenger cars at the time," he says. What he does plan to do is to build two steam race cars and send them to Indy with a team of drivers and mechanics.
The fact that he has Wallis to rub into the racing Establishment touches a well of ironic humor in Lear. "I know all about Wallis' background," he says. "I have heard all about the cars that did not make the race and I have heard that all of it is still under a cloud. But I also know he is a great engineer and race car designer. He has a following second to none among machinists and engineers, and he already has attracted a group to Reno that I feel can meet this challenge."
It had not started that way. Wallis walked in one day last August and asked Lear to lend him $39,000 to buy a 12-meter yacht. "He said he had put $2,000 down on the yacht," Lear says, "and figured if he could borrow the rest, he could get a government contract to do some research. Well, I liked him so much I bought him the yacht and made him my chief engineer as well."
With the yacht tied up at San Francisco and Wallis aboard at Reno, the steam race car project began to take shape. And Reno began to brace itself for what can only be a wild adventure.
But—as everybody keeps asking—what is a steam racing car supposed to look like? People keep getting a mental picture of something pretty big and bulky, filled with dials and tubes and whistling like a calliope—and with a big boiler and a guy wearing a red bandana and shoveling coal into a furnace.
Maybe that sort of image was O.K. for 1875 and the Grenville Steamer, which did look a whole lot like a locomotive, with one man driving and one man stoking. But by 1906—at an early Speed Week in Daytona Beach, Fla.—a Stanley Steamer driven by Fred Marriott took on Henry Ford's six-cylinder Model K and beat it in a 30-mile touring race, going so well that it set a 127.66-mph world speed record. Several critics insisted it was a freak record because Ford Driver Frank Kulick spun out and got stuck in a sandbank.
A little more than a year later Ford got into production with his new T model and by 1927 had built 15 million of those critters. Steam cars, as everyone knows, have been museum items ever since.
Lear insists the only reason steam cars have not been resurrected before now is that the science of space-age controls has not been applied to them. Wallis is not only approaching steam scientifically, but figures it might be a good idea to get away from the word steam entirely. "It has a bad history," he says. "People get a picture of a big boiler and explosions and that sort of thing. The name sounds dangerous. Our engine is not, of course. Since everything happens outside the engine, it is called an external combustion engine."
But how does it work? Does it take a plumber to run it rather than a mechanic? If a turbocar goes whoosh, does a steam car bubble, like a high-speed Lawrence Welk?
Without getting technical, it may be said that the Lear-Wallis steam engine will be a rather dainty thing. Its boiler will not be much bigger around than, say, Raquel Welch, and the engine, Wallis assures one, will be a small, efficient-looking affair to be called a Delta. The old steam cars had large boilers full of water that took forever to get hot enough. The Reno Steamer will use yards of coiled tubing instead of a simple boiler and a special chemical preparation rather than water. This fluid will be superheated to vapor by burners fed by kerosene or heating oil. It is on the "clean" burning of the fuel that Lear rests his pollution salvation case. The boiler will be hooked up to the six-cylinder reciprocating Delta—or, possibly, a turbine engine—and the power will be delivered to all four wheels. In either case some steam will be diverted to a small turbine to run the auxiliary electrical and hydraulic systems. Ultimately the steam is condensed back into fluid and reused indefinitely—the music goes round and round.
The physical race car, Wallis said, doesn't matter much; anyone can build a chassis once the power problem is solved. The drawings for the Reno Steamer look an awful lot like the new wedge-shaped turbine racers built for Granatelli last year—and the next howl you hear will be from England's Colin Chapman, who designed them. Plans are to plunk the boiler up there beside the driver, put the engine just over the rear wheels and go racing.
Since the racing world is not exactly crawling with steam-engine experts, an output figure of 450 hp that Lear has released is being bandied about. This would be dandy with the piston-engine people, since they are producing far more horsepower than that with conventional engines. What they will be hearing more about is the steamer's inlet-valve effect.
"The principal difference between our engines and conventional piston engines," says a Lear engineer, "is that a steam engine can operate in two basic modes, a power mode and an economy mode. In the economy mode one puts a little bit of steam into the engine and expands it. In the power mode we can keep the steam inlet valve open a little bit longer and furnish tremendous, sudden power. It means we could design a steam engine for, say, 250 hp, and if it needed instant acceleration we could supply up to a thousand horsepower for 20 seconds or so—thus giving the car any dragging speed it needed. It would be limited only by the wheelspin on the track. Another advantage is that a steam engine generates total power at 0 rpm just sitting there. We can store the power in the boiler and dump it out all at once if we need to."
But what of that wonderful moment when the race is about to start and all those gentlemen are called upon to start up? Surely they can't be expected to wait for a boiler to get up to pressure. "No," says the engineer. "This happens in 15 seconds. And not only that, to refill it one just adds fluid—tap water will do—perhaps twice a year."
Lear, of course, is looking forward to the screams of anguish certain to come from the Indy old guard. Since the steam race car is meant to be a publicity device to swing attention to the new Steam Passenger Car That Will Purify America, the more howls the better. And if the race car actually works—that is, if Lear gets it built on time, if it is accepted by the Speedway and if it qualifies—it should run quietly and without any noxious exhaust. Thus anyone who complains about it figures to be lined up against progress and national health.
"We'll have the weight of public opinion behind us," says Wallis. "The racing Establishment cannot cry 'airplane engine' as they did in the case of the turbines. These are simply efficient, safe motors that do not produce any smog or air pollutants. This race car is for the good of mankind—and how can anyone complain against a thing like that?" How, indeed? It has all the makings of a huge, motorized mousetrap for the Indy 500. Even if everything goes wrong and Lear can't go to Indy, perhaps Indy can come to him. Keeping pace with his blockbuster-a-day series of developments, a few days ago Lear's crews began pushing sand around just off the old airport runways. It began to look strangely like a racetrack in the desert.
"It is," Lear said. "I am building an exact duplicate of the Indianapolis Speedway right here. I mean exact: It will be 2½ miles, all blacktopped, all banked the same, same curves and straights, same pits—everything. We will start practicing here March 1 with the steam race cars. And lest this sound too fancy, remember that it will be cheaper for us to practice here than to keep running back and forth to Indy with the cars and crews. Then, we will go to Indy with our shakedown completed."
Not long ago Lear and Wallis introduced their Nevada crew to a rugged-looking man who studied their drawings a long time. It was the inimitable Parnelli Jones, once a 500 winner, driver of the 1967 turbocar and one of the most talented Indy drivers of all time. "Interesting," Jones said, and he allowed as how he would have to take a serious look at the car with an eye to driving it if they ever got it built. The other steam car, Reno rumor has it, would be driven by Jackie Stewart of Formula I fame.
Lear has a couple of other steam irons in the fire as well. There is the great highway patrol car for one. At its last session the California legislature—on one of those days when the smog in Sacramento was unbearable—moved to have the state patrol study the feasibility of steam cars by trying out some samples. After 15 years of fighting air pollution and losing, the state was at the "peril point," warned Assemblyman John Francis Foran, a San Francisco Democrat. "We have 12 million registered vehicles in California now," he said. "And there will be 20 million by 1980." Which is a lot of smog. Next thing, General Motors had offered to provide up to six new car bodies and $20,000 each for anyone who wanted to put steam engines into them.
"Actually, General Motors figured that nobody could do it and that this offer would finally put a stop to all this steam-engine nonsense," says Wallis. "So we responded right away."
But Lear's tack was a bit different, which is typical. No free cars, thanks, he said, because anyone who accepted the GM plan would have to make his steam secrets public. Instead, when Lear discovered that the patrol had ordered a covey of 440-cu.-in. Dodge Polaras for 1969 patrolling, he promptly bought a new Polara; the crew mocked it up for steam power and then called the patrol back to see it. "They went away walking on air," Lear says. "And they indicated that we're their great white hope now as far as steam cars are concerned. Naturally we'll give them this one without cost."
If California will now be patient, Lear says, he will hand over a steam-driven patrol car by early spring that will dazzle the world. Then will come the two sleek race cars, the production-line passenger car and that luxurious limousine. But it is clear that the prospect of the Indy race car intrigues Lear the most. There is so much publicity attendant on the 500 and he so plainly likes the image he is gaining as Nevada's highest roller. Anyone who will plunge with money like that has Reno's respect.
Saving the world does not keep Lear pinned to Reno. A couple of weeks ago he flew his personal Lear Jet east to New York to attend a dinner for Richard Nixon. The next morning he tossed his coat on a seat of the jet, warmed up the engines lightly and kicked it more or less straight upstairs to 43,000 feet before giving the controls to his copilot. Lear likes to fly up or down; just piddling along in a straight line does not interest him. He dropped in at Chicago for a business lunch and at Wichita, Kans. for a fast tour of the Lear Jet factory before flying on to Reno. The next day, just to give some visitors a little feel of his as-yet-unpaved Indy track, he led a madcap automotive procession in his limousine over the ruts and gouges of the course at A. J. Foyt speeds.
The romance of the adventure has caught up both Lear and Wallis. Lear has become a well-known figure about town, a nightly celebrity at the Round Table at the casino in the Holiday Inn, which is where everyone important gathers for a few drinks after work. The table is not really round, it is a couple of square tables pushed together off to one side right next to the ladies room. But the men who run Reno are always seen there. Wallis, meanwhile, has been so busy that he has not had a haircut in months. He appears all over town in a long curling pageboy vaguely reminiscent of June Allyson when she was playing those ingénue roles.
If he gets them to Indy, Lear would like to qualify the Reno Steamers just slightly ahead of the fastest piston-engine car, the better not to overscare the Establishment. Then, in the race, he would like to suddenly pump out all that hidden power and beat everyone so badly all the world would take notice and make a rush for his steam passenger cars. "And if someone cried that it was an unfair race," Wallis says, "it would be very much like Mr. Lear to say, 'You're right, fellows,' and give back all the prize money to the next-place car. It would be the sort of gesture he might make. He would have made his point anyway, you see?"
"I know Ford would pay me $25 million for this operation right now," Lear says. "And then they would tell me to go off and take a long, long vacation."
The biggest gambler of them all gets up heavily from the Round Table and strolls over to the crap tables to try his luck. "Talk about odds," he says. "Listen. The other night I was standing at the crap tables over at Harrah's Club when it came my turn to shoot. The croupier pushed some dice over to me and—just for fun—I scooped up three of them and rolled them out on the table. The guy didn't blink an eye. He simply picked them up. Then he palmed one of them and handed me back two. And he said, 'All right, mister, your point is 15.' "