SI Vault
 
LET THERE BE STEAM
Bob Ottum
February 03, 1969
So decrees Bill Lear of Lear Jet fame, who is building steam race cars—honest—for Indianapolis to glamorize steam passenger cars to be and also is carving out an Indy test track (above) in Nevada
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February 03, 1969

Let There Be Steam

So decrees Bill Lear of Lear Jet fame, who is building steam race cars—honest—for Indianapolis to glamorize steam passenger cars to be and also is carving out an Indy test track (above) in Nevada

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This whole thing started, William Lear says, when he died. Literally died; his heart stopped on the operating table and all the systems inside him began slowly ticking to a stop while a team of doctors worked to pump his life back in. When that crisis was over and he was alive again, he began to look around with a new sense of purpose. He was 66 and retired. He had millions, and all he needed was a mission. He had been everywhere and done everything. He had developed a jet airplane that has become the darling of the business world. He had inventive talent and one more thing: he was an inspired crapshooter. All of which make up the best set of qualifications any man ever needed to go automobile racing.

Naturally, racing could only mean the Indianapolis 500—any man who has already died once is just about in the proper emotional shape for that crazy American spectacle, where racing's greatest pressures pile up. And just as naturally, not any old racing car would do. There would have to be a bigger goal than just the race. A more noble goal. Like How I Won the Indy 500, Shook Up the Establishment and Purified America at the Same Time. With those thoughts in mind, Lear announced last fall in Reno, "I am going to build a steam-powered passenger car. And to publicize it, I am going to build a steam race car. With it, I expect to win the 500."

Steam cars. Hoo boy. Here comes 1969, racing's fun year. Even if the thing never works, which is eminently possible, the steam-car project already has touched off an epidemic of jitters in the car-manufacturing and racing worlds. Indy is still suffering from a massive jet hangover—a condition brought on by the turbine racers of 1967 and 1968, cars that sailed along with whispery whooshing sounds instead of the honest clatter of good old-fashioned pistons and things. That uprising from the ranks was put down by a series of restrictions on the size of turbine engines. But hardly has the old calm and order been reestablished when along comes Lear.

Lear was weaned on controversy and he loves it. Loves it. Suddenly, here is the old fox of big biz, the man who took on the entire aircraft industry and beat it with the first successful business jet; here he is, back again, prowling restlessly around this rickety old surplus Nevada air base, most of which he owns, shamelessly pirating top engineers and draftsmen from his competitors and spending $300,000 a month. He is building a new plant, an elaborate machine shop. Bulldozers are pushing aside tumble-weeds and sand to make his own private racetrack. He has a special team of architects and planners laying out a model city to house all his new employees, and it will be built around a model lake for them to fish in. ("I think we might call it Lake Lear," one of his draftsmen said in the first big understatement of 1969.)

Things are popping again for Lear, even at the crap tables of Reno. Mrs. Lear, a serene, lovely matron, keeps his winnings (they were up to $6,000 the other day) in a special bank account; her husband always hands it over. He doesn't want to spend it, he just wants to win it. "You have heard of Mother's household account?" she says. "Well, this is Mother's craps account." She is continually delighted by everything Lear does, perhaps because she is a daughter of the late Ole Olsen, co-producer with Chic Johnson of an explosive stage show called Hellzapoppin, which was the Laugh-In of its day. And now the thing that pleases her most is that Lear, at 66, overweight, jowly, out of condition, is suddenly springy, dieting and living again. And building a steam car to save the world is as good a goal as any to start with.

Lear sits at his desk in a leaky wartime barracks in a ratty old red pullover sweater he fancies, his hands folded calmly, with the racket of construction going on all around him and the chill of the Nevada winter seeping in, and tells his story in the voice of a hoarse bear. In 1967 Minneapolis Publisher T.S. Denison & Co., Inc. produced a book called William P. Lear, Creative Designer and Inventor as part of its Men of Achievement series (other titles are J. Edgar Hoover, Modern Knight Errant; J. C. Penney, Merchant Prince; and Lyndon B. Johnson, Man of Reason). Lear's story takes up where his stupefyingly dull biography leaves off.

"I was technically dead," he says. "This was last January. For a minute or so my heart stopped; there was no pulsebeat or blood pressure. Nothing. I had a broken artery near my brain which they were repairing. My nose wouldn't stop bleeding; that's why they were operating.

"To make matters worse, before that I had broken my damned leg getting out of my limousine and this whole thing knocked hell out of me for about three months. When I came out of it all, I wanted something new to sink my teeth into. Something big—maybe even to compete with my old company, Lear Jet." Lear tried a couple of projects, but they turned out to be $5 or $6 million a year things, and "still too insignificant to warrant my total effort." He put some money into Montana oil for something to do and, first thing, six high-paying wells came in—which ought to give Indy an idea of what kind of year this could be. Still, Lear claims to be unimpressed with wealth. "I've never even felt wealthy," he says. "What counts is altering a way of life for the better. For instance, I can't play any musical instrument. Hell, I can't even carry a tune in a handbag. But I showed my love for music by developing the first really fine radio set, the Majestic. It was my first successful business of 1928; stock went from $10 to $1,600 a share. Then I pioneered car radios, and you will note that Motorola has not exactly been a failure. But my love of aviation exceeded all other loves, so I left Motorola to start Lear Aviation, which became Lear Inc., which I ultimately sold for many millions of dollars."

Lear also developed radio and navigation instruments that are still the standard of the industry (he holds more than 100 patents), and he is perhaps most admired for his autopilot. In 1950 it won the Collier Award, the highest honor the aircraft industry can bestow. And you'd better believe he's made a dollar or two from his Lear Jet stereo tape deck for cars.

But to Lear neither car radios nor autopilots nor jet planes nor tape decks were the Big Thing. Then he discovered air pollution. The stuff was there all along, hanging low and acrid over California, stinging lungs and reddening the eyes of millions and being thickened every day. A problem worth tackling.

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