Meet A Steam-Powered Suzuki Built To Chase Land Speed Records
Photography by Will Broadhead
A biting wind cuts across the open expanse of grass and concrete, boring through the core of me as yet another rain squall hurries across this former RAF airfield. A small group of dedicated, two-wheeled speed freaks are exposed in the middle of this space, and in amongst the vans and trailers is a small red tarpaulin. There’s nothing especially remarkable about that, it’s the type many a racer has used as a makeshift pit garage over the years. What makes this one special is the unique beast underneath. It’s not the fastest machine here today, it won’t perform turbocharged wheelies at 180mph like some of the bikes tearing down the runway, and in fact there’s no guarantee that it’s even going to “do the ton.” But whether it reaches triple digits or otherwise, it’s certainly the most unique bike on this two miles of runway, and it’s the only contraption our here being developed towards a genuine land speed record attempt in the near future.
All eyes have been on the red tent this morning, as its occupant has now been laid out naked, skirts and skin removed to display the inner workings of this distinctive motorcycle. Everyone’s offering up opinions, and the odd pair of faux expert eyes have discussed plenty of solutions to this odd bike and its alien organs. When dressed, it looks just like any other Suzuki Hayabusa drag bike at face value. Exposed as she is though, the secrets are revealed.
The large water tank on the back is the first clue, piggybacking a tank containing a bunch of kerosene. The space normally occupied by the traditional four-cylinder motor contains a complex web of batteries, pipes, and silver insulation. Then there are the strange twin cylinders that sit between the main frame and swinging arm, as well as the various pipes, valves, and sensors that complete the anatomy of this extraordinary creature. As the time comes to fire it into life, the red aircraft-style switch on the dash is lifted and a noise not dissimilar to a hot-air balloon’s burner bellows up from its mechanical bowels. It’s joined by the sound of pistons beginning their response, and all of a sudden the little red tent is engulfed in clouds of hot white steam as the rider cocks a leg over his steed and slowly disappears up the runway for his first outing of the day. This isn’t your average Hayabusa drag bike at all: it’s powered by a steam engine.
Now before your thoughts turn to Heath Robinson, this bike is more computer science than Fred Dibnah. Indeed, amongst the various mechanical components, there are no less than five computers controlling various aspects of the bike’s operation, as well as providing telemetry data used to tweak and tune and achieve as much speed as possible before the official record attempt. The theory is simple enough, and the bike’s rider, developer, and builder, Chris Wedgwood, gives me a crash course in steam engineering.
First, a paraffin burner heats the surrounding area of a steam generator, inside which runs a coil of copper tubing containing the water. Cold air is pumped between the coil and the heat source to help control the temperature of the burn, as without doing so it would be much too hot. The super-heated steam created here—around 950°F—is then channelled into the Bower and Bell V-twin Compound Engine—based on a design that originally powered a bus—that then drives the rear wheel directly, albeit geared down from a direct 1:1 ratio.
That’s the simple summary version, but the workings of the bike are a lot more complex than that, with many a valve and variable to master in order to get the bike to work correctly. There are auxiliary pumps to allow the fuel and water to find their way through to the steam generator during start up, main pumps that drive these when the thing is running, as well as back-up systems to take over if any of these fail. A lot of the mixture and fuel supply can be controlled at the bike’s handlebars, and on the dash a traditional twist-style throttle actuates the valve that regulates the steam to the pistons. With no clutch through, the throttle valve’s closed position must be set by one of the computers before the bike is started to prevent, for want of a better expression, a runaway train scenario.
There is no blipping the throttle when you sit stationary on the bike either, a reflex reaction for someone like Chris who has competed on two wheels around such circuits as the Isle of Man. A resident of the Island and no stranger to the danger of the TT course, Chris has his roots firmly set in speed. Indeed, his record-breaking attempt to come on this steam back is backed by the Isle of Man Motor Museum, an indication of the man’s pedigree and the seriousness of this pursuit.
So, what’s it like in operation? It cuts a strange sight as it travels down the runway, steam trailing from the rear end. White smoke like this would indicate engine problems for a traditional motorcycle of course, but the cloudy tracer that protrudes from this machine is only a good sign. It sounds like a V-twin, only much quieter and without the induction roar, but it’s a pleasant sound nonetheless. She goes well too, considering this is the first shakedown. A speed of 77mph is achieved before a discharged battery an end to the day’s runs, which were at one point only 10mph off of the unofficial steam bike record. Chris is quietly confident, with a personal target set at 120mph, although anything north of 100mph would be very respectable.
It’s not exactly the Bloodhound SSC, and it could be argued that a steam machine isn’t even relevant at all in this day and age, but then surely record-setters like this are about aspirations and engineering for the sake of it, right? Whatever side of the fence you sit on, a land speed record is a land speed record however you achieve it, and this marvelous piece of traditional and electrical engineering stands every chance of doing just that and writing itself into the record books. Good luck to them!