Common Tread

Video: A steam-powered Hayabusa? Why not?

Mar 29, 2018

It’s been quite a week for world record attempts. While Valerie Thompson went in search of the all-time motorcycle land speed record, Isle of Man vet Chris Wedgwood was preparing for an assault on a different kind of title: fastest steam-powered motorcycle in the world.

That’s about as niche of a class as you can find, but for some racers, the competition is just as serious as any mainstream event. With the Straightliners World Record Weekends approaching, the final preparations are underway for Wedgwood and his team. 

Speedy steam vehicles are nothing new. Steam-powered engine tech had decades of development before internal combustion came along, and people loved speed during the Industrial Revolution just like they do today. In 1906, Fred Marriott set a record for a steam-powered vehicle by reaching 127 mph in his Stanley Steamer (no, not the one that gets your carpet cleaner). Ford hadn't even introduced the Model T yet! No steam car would officially beat Marriott for 100 years, though internal combustion quickly replaced kettle-power on the road. 

Postcard showing Marriott and his Stanley Steamer. Virtual Steam Car Museum photo.

In motorcycling, the competition is a little closer. In 2014, American racer Bill Barnes set the two-wheeled steam vehicle record at just over 80 mph. Wedgwood is convinced he can top that, and what better choice of bike than a Hayabusa?

Where the magic happens. Check out the massive coils in the background. Keltruck photo.

Not much remains of the original Suzuki donor except the front end, the frame, and some bodywork. An extended swingarm keeps the bike stable during high-speed runs. In the engine’s place sits a steam generator, which is controlled and monitored from the electronics up front. Kerosene heats the steam to 950 degrees Fahrenheit, where it produces 2,000 psi used to drive the chain.  

Even steam-powered Hayabusas aren't safe from extended swingarms, though it's a must-have for straight-line racing. Keltruck photo.

Wedgwood’s shooting for 120 mph, which should safely net him the record for a few years until someone stuffs a nuclear reactor in a ZX-14 or something. Mostly joking, but stuffing a strange powerplant in a bike can be a beautiful thing. After hearing Wedgwood’s bike, I can’t say I’d rather hear just another Hayabusa.