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British team breaks land speed record with near-140mph steam car

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A British engineering team has bested a land speed milestone that has stood unbroken for more than a century with a steam-powered car that raced into the record books in the California desert.

On Tuesday at 8.19am local time driver Charles Burnett III successfully cracked the land speed record for a steam-powered car with an average speed of 139.843mph on two runs over a measured mile in a three-tonne, 25-foot long car named Inspiration.


Burnett, the project’s chief financier, piloted the car for both runs reaching a peak speed of 136.103mph on the first and 151.085mph on the second.

The new international record, subject to official confirmation by the FIA, breaks the previous record of 127mph.

The team had hit problems during its trip to California’s Edwards Airforce Base and only had a day in hand to break the record before its scheduled return. Its first attempt, staged on August 19, failed after a problem developed with the throttle.

The FIA is now the sanctioning body for such records, according to the team website, and it recognises the average speed of two passes made across the same measured distance in opposing directions within 60 minutes of each other. The time of the two runs is then averaged to obtain the official recorded speed.

The team’s feat exceeded the 1906 speed set by Fred Marriott who drove a steam-powered vehicle built by the Stanley Brothers in excess of 127mph at Daytona Beach. At the time land speed records were measured across a marked mile in a single direction and a single pass.

In 1985 the Barber-Nicholls team set a speed of nearly 146mph – but this was never an official world record partly due to the fact that driver Bob Nicholls was unable to make a second run. The British team, however, had been anxious to beat it and they did manage to surpass it during one of the runs.

The car, which is constructed from carbon-fibre and aluminium on a steel space frame chassis, features 12 boilers and nearly two miles of tubing. It is now due to be brought back to England and put on display at the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu.

Driver Burnett is a Canadian-American who was born in the UK and who is based in Lymington, Hampshire. His father raced hydroplanes and restored Hudson automobiles. With a passion for car and boat racing, he already features in the Guinness Book of records for a 1999 offshore water speed record of 137mph.

He says his passion is to advance environmentally friendly vehicles on land, water and in the air without sacrificing the “fun quotient” or the sales potential.

As he climbed out of the car following the record attempt, he said: “It was absolutely fantastic I enjoyed every moment of it.

“We reached nearly 140mph on the first run. All systems worked perfectly, it was a really good run. The second run went even better and we clocked a speed in excess of 150 mph. The car really did handle beautifully.

“The team has worked extremely hard over the last 10 years and overcome numerous problems. It is a privilege to be involved with such a talented crew, what we have achieved today is a true testament to British engineering, good teamwork and perseverance.”

Project manager Matt Candy added: “The first run took place at 7.27am when the air temperature was a cool 63 degrees Fahrenheit, the team turned around the car in 52 minutes (with just 8 minutes spare) in preparation for its return run.

“The British Steam Car takes 2.5 miles to accelerate and after the measured mile, a further 2.5 miles to decelerate — so each run was over 6.5 miles.

“Compared to the testing we did in Britain, the British Steam Car ran 12 times the distance and twice the maximum speed ­— all within one hour. It’s been a huge challenge for all.”

Pam Swanston, wife of the late project manager and racecar engineer Frank Swanston who died in August 2007, said: “If only Frank was here today, it was his vision that made it a reality.

“He would be incredibly proud of the team’s achievements and always believed we would succeed. Today we celebrate this record for Frank.”


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