A few years ago, a group of nuclear engineers from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, branched out and decided to try their hands at making a steam powered car. The Mobile Steam Society, as they called themselves, researched the topic as only nuclear engineers could and decided to shoehorn a steam power plant into a Volkswagen Beetle.
They bought an orange 1963 VW, the color a nod to the University of Tennessee. The MSS men designed their own boiler to jam into the Beetle, one which would produce 500 pounds of steam per hour. To test the basic dimensions, they borrowed an antique Stanley Steamer and removed its boiler. They used those measurements for their own which included a vaporizing burner and monotube construction. They also added electronic controls, something that a Stanley Steamer couldn't have, for fairly obvious reasons.
They also acquired a Hirth snowmobile engine, perhaps thinking a German-made block would feel at home in the German car. The Hirth block was a 3-cylinder, 2-stroke, converted to work with steam. They wedged the boiler where the rear seats used to be, bolted it all together and voila, they had a steam-powered Beetle.
Upon examination, it was clear: The steam engine they jammed into this car could not have been any bigger–nor could the car have been any smaller–for it to work. But it did work. They drove the car all over and demonstrated it but, as you'd expect, a steam powered Beetle didn't catch on as the next big thing in alternative fuels. The car eventually wound up in the collection of Tom Kimmel. When he got the Beetle, it did not run. Kimmel tracked down some members of the MSS and asked them about helping get the car back on the road.
Soon, Kimmel’s workshop was overrun by retired nuclear engineers, helping him dismantle and rebuild the engine for the steam Beetle. They eventually got it running. People who see it are fascinated–or, more accurately, perplexed–by its appearance. But when they hear what it is, they are amazed.
Since the car was originally air-cooled, it had no radiator that could be modified to become a steam condenser and no convenient place to install one. Apparently not caring what the finished product looked like–or maybe they thought this looked cool?–they placed it over the windshield and placed plexiglass “elephant ears” under the ends of the condenser to drive the airflow up through it.
Adding to the Sci-Fi look is the plumbing which snakes up and over the driver’s side of the car along with the wacky controls on the dash. In the accompanying pics and video, the engine cover has been removed for a better look at the car’s insides but it would be in place when the car is being driven. And yes, the car runs and drives once again. But Elon Musk hasn't called to find out how to put this system in a Model S...
Steve Lehto is a writer and from Michigan. He specializes in Lemon Law and frequently writes about cars and the law. His most recent books include Preston Tucker and His Battle to Build the Car of Tomorrow, and Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbird: Design, Development, Production and Competition. He also has a where he talks about these things.