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Chrysler looks at steam engines and variable-displacement engines

by Warren "Bob" Steele, December 2015

When I worked in cost estimation, we did a lot of work with the advanced research people. They're the ones that handled the turbine engine. We once had a program where they were going to design a steam car, in the days when the Arab oil crisis was going on (roughly 1973-79).

They actually designed components for a steam car, the engine part of it, anyway. Our advanced research people gave us the various tubes, the boilers and such. The steam car would not operate on water, of course, because water would freeze in the winter. Somehow, we got into contact with Bill Lear, of Learjet; they had a secret formula for something they were going to call Learium, that would not freeze.

We met Bill Lear and a couple of his engineers down in our officials' office in the engineering division. I explained that I couldn't finish the estimate until I knew how much fluid there would be, and how much that fluid's going to cost. They said, "Well, we're working on that. We can't tell you that."

I said I couldn't finish up the estimate until I have that. So they said "Well, we don't know if we can ever let you have that."

I said, "How are we going to do an estimate here?" It would all be all finished, except it won't run because there's no antifreeze or whatever the Learium stuff was.

A little while later, Bill Lear died, and that was the end of the steam engine project.


The mystery motor

They would send a lot of advanced engineering down to us to get some kind of a feeling for what it might cost.

I remember once they said, "Hey, we have a power plant here that could replace the 318 cubic inch gas engine." We met one time with the people in some university somewhere, that had designed a chemical reaction sort of a thing. They never were able to explain it very well. I said, "How can I cost it if you can't give me some of the descriptions of it?"

I finally got some sketches out of them and asked, "Tell me, is it aluminum or steel or cast iron?" They handed me something that looked like an air conditioning unit that you might see out in front of your house. This thing was supposed to put out some kind of electrical . . . maybe it was, I don't know, something like they use up in the space capsule. Anyway, I was never able to estimate anything there because it was impossible.

The postwar variable-displacement engine

When we bought Rootes over in England, we discovered this engineering fellow and his mechanic in some back alley in London. They had been very engaged in the war effort, and afterwards, this engineer and his assistant continued to work for Rootes, and now they were part of Chrysler.

The two of them had come up with a variable displacement engine; it looked like a six-gun, with a rotating cylinder holding five or six cylinders, all connected together with a scissors-type crankshaft. As the scissor would change its angle it would change the stroke of the pistons, changing the displacement from, say, one liter to two liters. So if you were cruising and wanted to pass a car, you pushed down the accelerator, the scissors thing would change its attitude, and it would make the engine twice the capacity.

These two guys had been working on this thing since World War II, and someone said, "Well, it's just going to be a real shame if we have to sort of tell these guys that's not a real slick idea. Bring them over, give them to Warren Steele and his group, and I'm sure that they'll come up with a cost that'll kill it."

The engineer was aristocratic-looking, and his mechanic was somewhat rotund; both were nice guys, with those wonderful accents. We did feel sorry about them. They were billeted at a Howard Johnson's motel on Woodard Avenue, not far from Chrysler Engineering offices. I think they stayed there for two weeks, and I even invited them out to our home in Birmingham one evening for dinner.

They showed us their layout drawings; the engine was held together with something like ball joints for connecting rod ends. We got into the thing. My estimators would say "Wait a minute, don't you have a lock nut on there?"

They said, "No, no, we're going to use that Loctite that you guys invented here, that you're using for everything."

So as it turned out the entire bloody engine was going to be held together with a Loctite. I told my management, "This thing is ridiculous but I'll try to let him down gracefully."

I put together the story on cost compared to a couple of our regular engines, and they were let down very gently, and that was the end of that. But we did see some very, very unusual, very interesting things.

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