Racing 'White' Steam Car History.
The Whistling Billy must have been a sight to see in it's heyday travelling
throughout the country. Today watching cars travel at speeds is a growing
industry in the United States and travellers fill destinations across the
country booking a room at a Roanoke hotel or hotels across the country to
watch their favorite drivers compete for glory. Surely fans of autosports
today would have cheered the Billy's exploits
Whistling Billy History
In winter 1904/05 the White company built a steam works sprint car for the popular new motor racing on the dirt
trotting horse tracks throughout North America. Many of these were one mile ovals so owners could compare any
trotting horse across America on time.
The car was called Billy. Soon it became Whistling Billy because of the howl that it made from its burners
going down the straights.
The engine was a 1905 compound 20hp White steam car engine with Stephenson’s link motion but was soon
modified to have a piston valve instead of a slide vale on the high pressure side. All Whites after 1907 had
this modification. The steam generator was a 30hp mono-tube as used then in the 30 and 40hp cars from 1907
onwards. Most other parts were stock parts from the production cars.
The fuel was gasoline or kerosene and the burner jets were enormous.
This car soon started winning races; on July 4th 1905 it took nearly 4 seconds off the World track record for
the mile with a time of 48.35seconds (about 74 mph). Webb Jay was the driver and he believed that he was driving
the fastest car in the World.
Six weeks later Webb Jay was seriously injured when the car hit the barriers, crashing into a pond. He never raced
again and Whites decided to pull out of motor racing.
Charlie Bair, a wealthy sheep farmer from Billings, persuaded Whites to rebuild Billy and he took delivery in 1906.
Billy continued to win races including in 1907 the valuable Post Cup in Kansas City driven by Ralph Baker where it
broke Barney Oldfield’s previous records.
On December 25th 1908 this newspaper article appeared;
“One of the most spectacular accidents ever occurring in American automobile racing happened at Ascot Park, Los
Angeles, this afternoon when the front tyre on the White racer, Whistling Billy, broke on a curve while Gus Siegfried
of San Francisco was driving it at more than a mile a minute, the car turning three somersaults in the air, a blazing
ball of flame, and landing a broken wreck in the centre of the track where it was practically consumed by flames”.
No mention is made of the driver’s condition.
Whites rebuilt Billy for Bair for 1909.
In January 1910 the car was returned to Billings after a successful tour of the west of USA for 1909. Bair announced”
Billy has taken 29 races since the car left Billings a little over a year ago and it has been entered for just 29 events
with a clean record. The car is just about as fast a thing on wheels as there is in the country. It made a clean sweep
of the records on the Pacific coast and beat machines driven by Barney Oldfield and Strang…”
Billy continued to win races and take records including the 5 mile track record on a flat circular dirt track in 4.54
minutes at over 60mph.
On July 9th at Portland, Oregon, Billy crashed and is seen in a photograph upside down, broken in half with the body
crumpled beside it. I assumed that this was the end of its racing history but I have heard one report of the car racing
in 1914. It is said to have ended up rotting at the back of the premises of Charlie Bair’s solicitor.
Whistling Billy V
This is a faithful rebuild of the car from the photographs made easier by the statement by the White Sewing Machine
Company that their racing car was made almost entirely from standard parts. It still needs about 2 years work at
The engine is from a 1907 20hp tourer that was written in London in 1908. It has the required high pressure piston
valve and the original car's water pumps, oiler, pedals, instruments and other parts. The flywheel has been
The steam generator is an original 30 hp mono-tube but a new one will be made this winter to fit the new case. The
steam pipes are in. The fuel controlling “flowmotor” is yet to be found or made (this part was originally
developed on Billy) and will be under the water pumps on the left side of the engine.
The only rear suspension comes from the flexion in the chassis. The rear axle is geared 2 to 1. It has one gear and
neutral to run the engine and to bring the steam up to temperature before a race.
The temporary nose structure is only for making the bonnet. The water tank will then be fitted under the nose cone
behind the front axle.
The chassis is under-slung made from American oak with 1/8inch steel flitch plates. The wood work on the wheels was
done by Robert Hurford. The seat was from an early racing car. There are only rear wheel brakes.
Most of the driver’s compartment is complete but the simpling pedal for starting will be fitted after the
steering box which I am awaiting from the USA. There is no clutch – the torque is enough when the engine is
simpled. The middle “steering wheel” is the throttle (or rear wheel steering). The car was controlled
on dirt balancing the two wheels one with each hand. Apparently no other cars could keep up with it accelerating
out of the bends as the steam pressure had built going into them.
The main fuel tank is as originally made but not yet plumbed in. Pilot fuel will be hexane in a small tank behind
the driver. Much experimentation will have to be done with fuels and jets. At about 70mph there was a lever on the
dash that the driver opened to use the forced draft coming around the front axle on the right side where the water
tank was cut away.
The steam pressure will be 600 to 800psi (plus a bit!) with a temperature of 750 deg F. The top speed should be
near 100mph - one report puts the original at 130mph! The engine speed is up to about 2200rpm.
Billy was a dirt racer but will probably need re-gearing for hill climbing possibly using a standard rear axle
giving two gears but it will still be 14 ft long and a handful! The original weight was stated as 19 cwt (2128lbs).
One must not forget that this car was 1905 and then state of the art using steam power. There was little concern
for the brave (or foolish!) driver.
Dr Robert R. Dyke.
Latest pictures of the car as it is being got ready for Prescott