Arguably the most famous steam car ever produced, ‘Whistling Billy’ was one of the fastest cars of the American dirt track races in the early 20th century, before being all but destroyed in a crash in 1912 and left to rust on an American farm.
Built by the White Sewing Machine Company in 1905, Whistling Billy was engineered specifically for racing. It originally featured a compound 18hp White steam car engine with Stephenson’s link motion, but it was soon modified to include a piston valve instead of a slide valve on the high pressure side. This highly successful modification influenced the design of further White cars and from 1907, all their engines had this feature. The steam pressure was 800psi – twice that of the touring cars of the time – with a temperature of 750 degrees Fahrenheit, making the steam pipes red hot.
Originally known as the ‘White Rocket’, the car was lovingly renamed ‘Whistling Billy’ by the crowds who watched it race due to the howling noise that came from its burners as it went down the straights. It won numerous races in its early years and in 1905, it shaved nearly 4 seconds off the world track record for the mile on a dirt round track with a time of 48.45 seconds.
The driver at the time, Webb Jay, believed he was driving the fastest car in the world, but his racing career would soon come to an end when six weeks later, he crashed Whistling Billy into a pond and was seriously injured.
Against the odds Jay survived, but the White Sewing Machine Company deemed racing to be too dangerous and withdrew its interests from motorsport, reducing the car to nothing more than an exhibit and putting Whistling Billy on display in their Chicago branch.
In 1907, Charlie Bair, a wealthy sheep farmer, persuaded White to rebuild Whistling Billy and sell it to him in a $20,000 deal – eight times the cost of an average steam tourer at the time. Bair proceeded to enter the car into the dirt track races once again, where the car was highly successful. It won the Kansas Post Chase in 1907 and in 1908, broke the five mile world track record at the event, earning the owner $50,000 in prize money.
However, in 1908, during a race at Ascot Park in Los Angeles, a front tyre blew out on a curve and the car flipped over three times in the air landing in the middle of the track where it was almost destroyed by fire. But Bair refused to let the car go and had it rebuilt in 1909 with a new 18hp double piston-valve engine with Joy valve gear. The car became 18 inches shorter and 400lbs lighter than before, although many parts were likely reused. Despite being officially renamed as the ‘White Flyer’, the car was still known as Whistling Billy by the public, and went on a successful tour across the west coast of the USA, winning all of its 29 races that year.
After a string of near misses, 1912 would eventually prove to be the end for Whistling Billy. During a practice run in Portland, Oregon, the car crashed over an embankment and was found upside down, broken in half. The driver, Chris Dundee, was seriously injured, but survived. Following the crash, the car was said to have ended up in storage at Charlie Bair’s solicitor’s premises, before being moved onto a farm, with the engine being put into a boat.
Whistling Billy has been legendary in steam car circles ever since, and in 2004, current owner Bob Dyke began the long journey to rebuild it – although that wasn’t his original intent.
Bob has been passionate about steam cars since his youth, inspired by his father who owned a number of steam traction engines and steam cars throughout his lifetime. He bought his first White steam car in 1987, and owns a number of other White steamers.
In 2003, the organiser of Race Retro telephoned him and said that they wanted to showcase the White steam racing car because it had won so much. “I told them that they couldn’t find it as it was written off in 1912 – so I said I’d rebuild it for them!” Bob commented.
On a road trip to America, Bob purchased a 1906 White steamer and by chance, discovered the rear axle used in Whistling Billy for the last three years. Sadly, it was sold and going off to be used in another steam car, but Bob also found a recast rear axle casing, crown-wheel and pinion with a two-to-one ratio that had been manufactured for Whistling Billy, and took these home with him.
As well as the parts he had acquired in America, Bob took many parts for his recreation from a 1907 20hp White tourer that he had bought in 1990. The car was an ideal starting point as it had featured many of the modifications that Whistling Billy had originally pioneered. He used the compound steam engine, the water pumps, the air pump, the heat exchanger, the oiler, the pedals, the instruments and some chassis members from the 1907 tourer.
“It’s a faithful, accurate rebuild using mainly correct, original parts from White steamers,” continued Bob. “I had nine or ten photographs of Whistling Billy at the time, which were very helpful in figuring out how to put it all together, and allowed me to get the exact dimensions.”
“However, it was impossible to find everything and some parts needed to be new for competition, so I have manufactured some parts in order to get it into a useable state. I copied some parts from the 1906 tourer, as this would have been the planned model when Billy was being constructed – White tended to work a year ahead of each model.”
The rebuilt car also has an underslung chassis almost identical to the original but inverted, made with American oak and has steel flitch plates either side. The rear axle is geared two-to-one, instead of three-to-one on the standard tourers to allow the car to go as fast as possible.
The project was completed in 2012, and Bob has demonstrated the car at numerous venues, including Prescott Speed Hill Climb and Castle Combe. However, until September 2015, the MSA banned steam cars from taking part in any competitive motorsport – and it’s largely thanks to Bob and other members of the Steam Car Club that the ban was lifted.
“I’ve been writing letters and communicating with the MSA for a while now to try to get permission to compete,” said Bob. “One of the first answers we received was that we couldn’t race because of the iron wheels on the cars and the coal left on the track – well, we don’t have any iron wheels, and we don’t use any coal. The next reason was that they might be too competitive compared to standard petrol cars!”
The Whistling Billy’s current top speed stands at 70mph, but according to Bob, there is a lot more throttle to open yet. Despite its dirt racer past, Bob is confident that the car will perform well on hill climb tarmac, even at 14 foot long.
“I think that Billy is a class above, really – when it’s going well, it goes like stink! The real challenge is to get it on the hill and going, but there are a few months of tinkering left before Chateau Impney,” concluded Bob.