Full steam ahead

First bitten by the speed bug when he worked on the land speed record breaking Thrust II vehicle, Glynne Bowsher can now bring this passion to his long-running interest in steam power.

For most people, steam travel evokes images of relaxing family days out, not a futuristic vehicle haring across the Kalahari at over 100mph.

But if all goes well, a UK team backed by Coventry University and led by UK engineer Professor Glynne Bowsher, will be in South Africa next spring aiming to break the steam powered land speed record, one of the world’s longest standing speed records.

By breaking the 127.7mph record set in 1906 by US twins Francis and Freeland Stanley, the British Steam Car Challenge (BSCC), the consortium behind the attempt, hopes that its LPG (liquid petroleum gas) fuelled steam-powered vehicle, known as Inspiration, will raise the profile of alternative fuels.

Bowsher was born in Newport, Wales, and served a two-year apprenticeship with brake specialist Girling before completing an engineering degree at Cardiff in 1962. It was here that his long-running interest in steam engines was born.

After university he returned to Girling, joining the company’s advanced engineering unit. Here, he explained, he carried out problem solving on ‘all the oddball stuff that production design couldn’t handle’. He added that ‘some railways in Taiwan are probably still using systems designed by me’. Though the company later became Lucas, then TRW, Bowsher stayed with it for almost 30 years before taking voluntary redundancy and early retirement in 1997 at the age of 57.

While he was at Girling, the company was approached by entrepreneur Richard Noble seeking a wheel and braking system for his Thrust II vehicle. Noble was referred to Bowsher’s department.

‘At the time I didn’t have any interest in high-speed vehicles. In the earlysixties I’d seen Donald Campbell’s Bluebird turn over and my thoughts were “what a stupid thing to do with your life”. Thrust changed my mind,’ said Bowsher. By coincidence the chief designer, Ken Norris, had worked on Bluebird, and during the project he predicted that Bowsher would catch a bug that would never leave him. In 1983, Thrust II set a new land speed record of 633mph. ‘The sheer thrillof seeing the car going at over 600mph proved he was right,’ Bowsher said.

Noble wanted to try again, and in the early 1990s Bowsher was drafted in to help design a high-speed wheel and braking system for the Thrust SSC supersonic car. The resulting tyreless, solid aluminium wheels with carbon brakes were built by Dunlop’s Aviation Division. In 1997 they achieved a rotation of 8,200 rpm as the vehicle raised the world record to 763mph.

‘Once all the SSC razzamatazz was over I thought that was it and I could retire to build the model steam railway I’d been meaning to get on with for the last 30 years, then the steam car came along,’ said Bowsher.

Even so, Inspiration isn’t Bowsher’s only project. When not immersed in the BSCC attempt he’s an advisor on Nigel Macknight’s Quicksilver world water speed record project. Macknight aims to break the existing 317.6mph record using a turbofan-powered hydroplane in an attempt on Coniston Water scheduled for January 2005.

‘So far the Quicksilver space frame is in a hangar at East Midlands Airport,’ said Bowsher. ‘We have done a temporary installation of the engine and I will be giving them suggestions about the skinning of the vehicle and how the structure goes together. I dip in and out when I’m needed and when resources are available.’

Meanwhile, the steam car, which emerged from a design produced by final year MEng students at the University of Southampton, remains Bowsher’s main focus.

‘Someone I’d worked with on the SSC told me to give them a call. Given my love of steam trains I thought it was just a wind-up at first,’ he said. Nevertheless, he approached Southampton University’s Dr Neil Richardson, who had spotted the design’s potential, and met with Inspiration’s driver, record breaking powerboat racer, and nephew of Lord Montague of Beaulieu, Charles Burnett. Bowsher was inspired, but realised the power system needed significant modification to produce the required speed, necessitating a change in the vehicle’s shape.

The vehicle that emerged is rear-wheel powered, with a rear-mounted engine. Braking is by a parachute-assisted four-wheel disc system.

The car has four LPG-fuelled boilers each feeding a turbine nozzle. These are situated behind the cockpit and flanked by two water tanks. Each boiler can be fired independently if necessary. Power is provided by a two-stage steam turbine. This 13in diameter turbine drives an epicyclical gear train with a 4:1 ratio for a wheel speed of 3,000rpm at 200mph. There is no gearing or clutch, and the LPG tanks are situated at the rear, away from the driver.

But while the finished article may sound impressive, problems sourcing a boiler almost led to the project’s demise.

‘I wanted to use existing technology for the turbine, but there wasn’t any,’ said Bowsher. ‘It all turned out to be a much bigger job than we imagined. We ended up spending two years looking at boilers that either wouldn’t fit in the car or would, but then wouldn’t be able to do the job we wanted. We seriously thought about scrapping the project.’Bowsher therefore decided to build the boiler himself. ‘Eventually I went to Imperial College to see combustion specialist Fred Lockwood (a professor of mechanical engineering). He showed me a matrix burner he was working on for a central heating system. The burn rate was a tenth of what I needed, though.’

Bowsher then split his boiler design into three parts, a pre-heater, an evaporator and a super heater. The evaporator is a coil boiler, but the pre and super heaters are based on designs used in locomotives. Colleague Professor Peter White at Coventry University, where Bowsher was a visiting professor, suggested the burners might need air supplied at pressure, so Bowsher incorporated elements of the matrix burner. The team is now making the last of the components and expects to have the first boiler working by the end of October.

In the spring of 2005, Inspiration will travel to South Africa to attempt the world record. If all goes well, it will then have a crack at the US national record of 145mph. ‘The Stanley brothers’ record is internationally accepted, but when I mentioned it in an article I got an irate letter from an American,’ explained Bowsher. The American had indeed achieved a higher speed, he discovered, but hadn’t met international record criteria by repeating the feat over a mile-long course.

But Bowsher is already planning ahead, and once the records have tumbled hopes to investigate hydrogen fuel cells. ‘When fuel cells come along the infrastructure for making engines will be redundant. The idea I have will prevent this. It may or may not work, and as I’ve just turned 65 I may just want to pack it all up’ he said.

The latter seems unlikely. ‘We’ve had some interest from a company about the boiler as they want to make a lightweight steam generator,’ he mused. ‘The steam generator could be used on a car but it needs miniaturisation, really, and it could do with being more economical.’

With so many projects to investigate, the steam railway may have to wait after all.