Submitted by Karl Breckenridge
Whenever I motor past, or see Mrs. Lear’s theater in the news, I’m reminded of her hubby Bill, billed by many as the world’s greatest inventor, or by others, as the world’s greatest adaptor, of other people’s inventions into something with the Lear name appearing on it. He’s been tagged as the founder of Motorola, Inc.; he’s installed in the Aviation Hall of Fame, and one of his airplanes – a LearAvia – hangs in the Frontiers of Flight museum in Dallas, so in some respects he’s the Real Deal.
In the early 1970s the fuel crunch affecting the entire nation reached the bus industry, specifically the buses that ran within cities – Citifare, if you will. De facto contests were held nationally, to see who could build the best bus that didn’t use traditional diesel fuel. Water, or steam, became the accepted alternative – heated to a boil by some sort of heat source, then eventually connected to the bus’ driving axle.
William Powell Lear Sr. entered the fray, from his domain carved out at the recently-acquired Stead Air Force Base, recently acquired by the City of Reno from the Defense Department. Lear had a hangar at the west end of the air patch, where he had been developing the LearFan aircraft.
Always on the lookout for a new invention, he became interested in re-building a score of California Highway Patrol cruisers with steam engines, built a small-enough steam engine to power a Chevy Monte Carlo, and, ever the dreamer, engaged the City of Reno to build a racetrack at Stead for automobiles, with city money, natch, of which he of course would enter his steam-powered race cars. And, looking east to the Bonneville Salt Flats and their need-for-speed, he harbored the dream of a steam engine for the so-called Steamin’ Demon, to take a shot at the world land speed record. And he might even try to set the record on the Black Rock Desert.
In typical Lear fashion, he confided to the press that he would use not water but “Learium” as the steam’s origin (Learium appeared to have much the chemical makeup and appearance of what we called “H2O” in college, but who knew?)
Regrettably, nada ever came to fruition.
But the bus, now there was an opportunity. He acquired a new bus – and I think a second one – from GM Truck & Coach – for a buck-a-bus (I’m unable to find archival media reports which I know existed in that early 1970 period of time). GMC was leading the bus engine industry with their Detroit Diesel subsidiary, was not in the steam business and did not want any involvement or liability. The buses Lear acquired – in fact some say were actually Flxbles, spelling OK there – were sold, not donated, to keep GMC off the liability hook.
But what could possibly go wrong? I traveled to Stead as a journalist, one brisk spring morning in what I think was 1972. A bus was sitting on the tarmac, squeaky clean, the tires recently blacked with goop, the paint fresh. In the Lear hanger were reps from San Francisco’s Muni (the City-owned transportation system, one of the nation’s best) and from SCMTC, Southern California’s counterpart. And from a few other agencies, and of course, the press. I was not on the ride-the-bus press list, so I watched from the tarmac.
I watched as all these gents walked from the hangar to the bus. An engine access hatch was open at the rear of the bus. So they could ooh and ahh at the shiny steam engine in the rear of the bus. They boarded. A person in a bus-driver’s uniform walked to the bus.
And next – I could not believe what I saw: A dark-skinned man wearing a turban – that’s t-u-r-b-a-n, walked out from the hangar, carrying a bucket, in which was a broomstick with what could have been a dozen pairs of sweat sox wrapped around it. With a Zippo lighter, he lit the sweat sox which were soaked in what was apparently kerosene. They leapt into a smoky flame.
Into the dark void of the bus’ engine compartment went the burning tip of the broomstick. And again. Then, it was dipped once again, into the kerosene. Back it went into the engine compartment.
A resounding “bump” emanated from the compartment, followed soon by a fair amount of blackish smoke, and then a cloud of what might have been steam from the Learium now boiling somewhere in the bowels of the turbine, that’s t-u-r-b-i-n-e, now totally enshrouded in steam. Or something.
The man in the turban withdrew from the growing steam cloud. And a screaming noise with what seemed like a much greater volume than the GE J-57 jet engines then being flown by the Nevada Air Guard’s RF-101s, howled. And howled. And howled louder. The cloud of steam, by then turning yellow, began emanating not only from the rear of the bus but from under it, all along its 32-foot length. The windows of the bus were now obscuring.
The howl of the turbine was piercing – a press release pegged the bus’ turbine idle RPM at over 50,000 – twice that of a modern jet engine’s. The orangish-yellow steam continued to build. I was becoming glad to have been excluded from the “ride-the-bus” press list.
The bus moved, slowly, along with a cloud of yellow steam surrounding it. Then picked up speed, affording all these souls within their ride in a steam bus.
Suffice it to say, the Muni, on my last visit to San Francisco, neither owns nor operates any steam buses. Nor do they employ to my knowledge, any men in turbans to wait at the drivers’ restroom at the end of the Judah line and stick a broomstick-full of burning sweat sox in the engine compartments of the drivers’ waiting buses.
The Lears were lauded as show people. Going to the max to sell a steam concept in the 20th century, only to light a turbine with a burning torch, bespeaks the judgment that has kept Mrs. Lear’s theater a loser for a score of years.
Well, until next time…See you soon, and ‘til then, be safe, huh?
Karl Breckenridge was slowly going nuts. So he decided to help out This is Reno by writing a daily out-of-his-mind column for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Now that it’s over he’s back to his usual antics, drinking coffee with the boys at the Bear and, well, we’re not sure what else. But he loved sharing his daily musings with you, so he’s back, albeit a little less often, to keep on sharing. Karl grew up in the valley and has stories from the area going back to 1945. He’s been writing for 32 years locally.
Read more from Karl Breckenridge
Karl’s pal Jody shares the rich history of bootlegging, decorating, and engineering within the confines of the Truckee River’s banks and its picturesque islands.