Aussie invention had a full head of steam
Australians are an inventive lot and never more so than when it comes to cars. We’ve invented the ute, race cam, which revolutionised car racing coverage, rack and pinion steering, the baby safety capsule and the panel van.
They’ve all been remarkably successful, but Australia has also had its share of heroic auto engineering failures as well, and one of the most interesting was Ted Pritchard’s steam-powered car.
What was the dominant form of propulsion in the early days of motoring?
Steam power was the dominant form of propulsion in the early days of motoring, with electricity second, and the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine a poor third.
Henry Ford’s T Model Ford and cheap petrol changed all that, with steam power, well, running out of steam and fading into the pages of motoring history.
Ted Pritchard was determined to change all that by inventing a practical steam powered car that was more economical and less polluting than the cars of its day. He was convinced that steam power was the engine of the future and throughout the 1960s refined and developed his ideas through his company, Pritchard Steam Power Pty. Ltd
All his hard work came together in 1972, when Pritchard installed a steam engine into a 1963 Ford Falcon and headed to Los Angeles to sell the technology to the US car industry.
Was low pollution important in designing a steam powered vehicle?
Air pollution from cars was a big issue at the time and Pritchard managed to get a hearing from state and federal governments and car manufacturers like Ford, GM, American Motors, Leyland, VW, Mercedes Benz and more.
Pritchard’s steam powered Falcon was an impressive engineering achievement. It was quiet with good power and driveability, low emissions and excellent economy. It had high torque at low speeds and didn’t need a conventional gearbox or automatic transmission. With all that going for it it was hardly surprising that car manufacturers were at least interested.
How efficient was Pritchard's steam powered vehicle?
Most remarkable of all it could be fuelled on petrol, kerosene, diesel or bio-fuels, making it extremely versatile. It used just two litres of water, which was condensed and re-used.
In every way it was a totally practical vehicle with just one minor downside – it took 45 seconds to fire up from a dead cold start. But to put that into perspective, many conventional cars were notoriously temperamental and slow to start first thing in the early 70s.
Ted Pritchard was still developing prototype engines in 1978 with funding from the Victorian government, though interest from car companies had petered out by then. According to the Encylopedia of Australian Science he completed the design of his final engine, the S5000 in 2007 but died before finishing the prototype.
Does steam powered technology live on?
Pritchard’s ingenuity and passion for steam power didn’t die with him. In 2009 his technology and inventions were bought by Perth company Uniflow Power Limited. It’s raising capital to manufacture a small-scale steam generator using steam power to produce heat and electricity fuelled by wood and waste fuel.
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