||'Whistling Billy' The Racing 'White' Steam Car.
Whistling Billy History Part 2
Dr Robert R. Dyke
Six weeks later Webb Jay was seriously injured crashing into a pond when the Whistling Billy hit the barriers while he was unsighted through dirt from the other car in overtaking. He sustained nine broken ribs giving a flail chest, a broken leg, a broken arm and a head injury. The New York Herald announced next day that he has “Sustained fatal injuries.” He did however survive but he never raced again and Whites decided to pull out of motor racing. The White brothers set up Webb Jay with a White agency as recompense as they felt so sorry about his injuries.
Charlie Bair, a wealthy sheep farmer from Billings, persuaded Whites reluctantly to rebuild Whistling Billy and sell it to him probably in a deal where he also purchased two 1906 White tourers and a 1906 White runabout. The repair and preparation for racing on the Pacific coast of America was reported in “The San Francisco Call” on 12 December 1905 with the driver to be Albert H. Piepenburg. Charlie did not drive the racing car or even the other Whites but employed drivers and mechanics.
Whistling Billy was reported as having taken the Five Mile Track Record in 1906 as well as winning more races. I do not have much information for this year.
Another report reads “On September7th 1907 A.H Piepenburg in a White Flyer and Bert Dingley in a Thomas Flyer succeeded in making the mile in a minute flat. By an accident in the White, these two men were not able to compete in the race of the day.” I have no more reports of this accident to Billy but it seems that Al Piepenburg was also competing in his own 30hp White tourer at the race meeting. I believe that Piepenburg retired from track racing just two weeks after this as his friend Roy Rehm was killed on 21st September while racing a50hp Matheson. Al was attending the racing while on his honey-moon.
Whistling Billy was rebuilt again in 1907 by Eddie van Luenen of Chicago- perhaps after the above accident. It was reported in a letter back to Charlie Bair that the car was now capable of two miles per minute in a straight line (120mph).
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 and I have no pictures of this accident.
Whites rebuilt Billy for Bair for 1909. It is likely at this time that the 1909 engine was used with its double piston valves and Joy valve gear and this is shown by the shorter bonnet as this engine has the valves beside the pistons rather than between them. This engine is almost bullet–proof with few moving parts. The steam pressure was then raised to 1200psi. What was now the maximum speed of the car? –I have yet to find out for sure! It now weighed 1700lbs (400lbs less) and was 18 inches shorter than the original car. I believe that it also had smaller lighter wheels and tyres.
Whistling Billy then went on tour on the Pacific coast of America for the season’s racing. In January 1910 the car was returned to Billings after a successful tour and Bair announced at a celebration dinner ” 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. By 1910 the motor racing was becoming part of the show rather than all of it over the weekends. Flying displays were now the great new thing. This started putting motor racing more into the background. The first wood tracks had been built and stone and concrete ones were coming soon. The long distance tours and rallies were still quite prominent in the USA partly as the roads were so poor.
On July 9th 1912 at Portland, Oregon, Billy crashed and broke in half after going over an embankment 30ft high. and is seen in a photograph upside down, broken in half with the body crumpled beside it. The driver I believe was Chris Dundee but I have seen one report which stated that it was the usual driver Fred Dundee, his older brother. Anyway the driver sustained two broken legs and a broken arm, plus some broken ribs.
I assumed that this was the end of Whistling Billy’s racing history but I have heard one report of the car racing in 1914. Whites had stopped producing steam cars by 1911. It is said to have ended up rotting at the back of the premises of Charlie Bair’s solicitor in Portland and then the bits being sent to a farm.
References come from;
“The White Bulletin Volumes 1-12 which I have in a leather bound volume believed originally presented to T. H. White, the father of the three White brothers who developed the White steamers. The White Bulletin was produced by the company as advertising literature from 1903 to about 1908.
Newspaper cuttings; I still have many gaps to fill in Whistling Billy’s history but they tend to come in small batches such as came recently when someone approached Jay Leno at a garage when he was out in his Doble, telling him that he had a late relative A.H. Piepenburg who used to drive Whistling Billy and that he had his newspaper cuttings about his exploits. Jay Leno put him in contact with me and I now have a copy of those cuttings. Al Piepenburg was a racing driver who became a garage manager and probably owner. He initially raced Billy as a hired driver but later seems to have used his own cars for cross country races or tours. From the cuttings it appears that he was also involved in developing the aeroplane and later was a Studebaker dealer.
Another contact is Bob Ohnstad, who is researching Charlie Bair for a possible film score and has delved into many local newspapers of the period. Charlie has had at least 4 books written about him and The Bair Museum saves many memories of him and his family in Montana. Bob has done much research into Charlie’s activities which of course involve at times Whistling Billy.
Charlie Bair came from farming stock and when his father died his brother took over the farm. Charlie worked for him for a couple of years and then set out on his own (one book on him is called “Fourteen Cents and Seven Green Apples” –what he set out with). He worked on farms and was a ticket collector on a train going through the new town of Billings where he set himself up. He started banking as a ticket collector on the trains for people coming home for the weekends or needing money going away and bought land to run sheep with any profit made. He soon joined in running the town bank. He went to the Klondike goldfields where he made a small fortune selling heated power ground cutters (a form of thermic lance) to the other miners which cut through the permafrost and could do a normal week’s work in a day. He then purchased and rented land in Montana and Yellowstone Park to run up to 300,000 sheep. He ran large numbers of sheep for the rest of his days, tending them in storms and looking after his employees and the local Indians well. He gave much of his wealth away for such things as building schools and hospitals and even setting others up in business. He was often “the power behind the throne” and new most of the presidents of the USA over many years. In one book, “The House of Bair”, there is a picture of his eldest daughter Marguerite sitting in Whistling Billy in about 1909. He also went to see the Wright brothers when they were first flying their aeroplanes.
Some pictures and information has come from Australia and France and I expect that there will be more in other countries.
What I do not have are any pictures of Whistling Billy without the bonnet on. I always want more information and newspaper cutting on the car. Please send to me anything you find on Whistling Billy!
The Condensing Car
There was a second similar car built in 1905 which is sometimes muddled with Whistling Billy but is usually known as “The Vanderbilt Cup Car”. It had a 30hp engine and was a true two seater with a 30hp engine and probably a 40hp steam generator. It also has a black condenser wrapped all the way around the bonnet so it is easily recognised. It was hoped that it would be good in long distance races but it was never a great success.
There were other White steamers raced over the same period as Billy but they tended to be lightly modified tourers or unmodified tourers for the standard car races. The 30hp cars seemed well capable of 60mph but they were not as fast as Billy especially on the bends.
Back - Part 1