'Ajax,' the Woodburning Steam Truck

A steam truck was the author's solution to gasoline shortages.
By Tony Kowalczuk
May/June 1980
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Tony Kowalczuk has found an unconventional answer to the energy crunch: a steam truck.

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Since the profit-raking oil companies are continuing to gouge us all while government persists with a head-in-the-sand attitude, we "plain folks" are going to have to find our own ways to cut loose from our dependence on fossil fuels. Now as you may know, steam power is a viable alternate source of energy — particularly for many rural applications — that engineers played around with at the beginning of this century.

However, steam research was pretty much abandoned when the automotive industry convinced us we couldn't live (much less get around) without petroleum-fueled vehicles. But any do-it-yourselfer can put together an efficient, easy-to-fix, steam-powered car or steam truck like "Ajax" . . . after all, I did it, and I'm just a shade-tree mechanic!

Way back in the very first issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS in 1970, "Mason" (of the Berkeley Tribe) suggested the conversion of internal combustion engines to steam power . . . and that article really started me thinking, especially since I've been in love with steam engines from childhood on. Unfortunately, the early steam-powered cars — such as the Doble, the White, and the Stanley — all burned kerosene or fuel oil in their boilers . . . achieving much less efficient "gas" mileage than does a modern internal combustion engine.

Free Fuel and Parts

I decided to see whether I could design a steam-powered truck that would run on an alternative fuel. At the time, I was homesteading in the Northwest, where there's a ready supply of surplus firewood to be had for free . . . so I applied to the Bureau of Land Management for a license to gather the commercial logging companies' leftovers.

Armed with an ample supply of timber to stoke a furnace, I began to scrounge around for spare parts . . . most of which I salvaged from Idaho junkyards. Ajax's engine is an 1884 steam shovel motor, the large boiler is a 1847 model made in Oregon, and the pressure gauge was supplied by a surplus dealer in Boise. The cylinder oiler came from an auto graveyard in Eagle, Idaho . . . while the whistle and safety valve were discovered in a Billings, Montana trading post. Ajax's body was originally a truck owned by the city of Emmett — where it had already done 25 years' service hauling a water tank — before I bought it.

To convert Ajax to wood/steam locomotion, I first adapted a two-cylinder steam engine to "mate" with the original V-8's flywheel and transmission . . . and stuck it all back in the engine compartment. The clutch, gearshift, and foot and emergency brakes were left in their original positions and still operate the same way they did in the internal combustion setup. The woodburning truck uses only high (fourth) gear for forward motion, but I left the transmission in so I could shift to reverse and neutral.

Starting Procedure

Firing up Ajax is a lengthy process. . . which is begun by filling the boiler with water. I remove the plug at the top of the heating chamber and insert a garden hose, after making sure that the blowdown valve (or boiler drain) is closed. While the boiler is filling, I have time to build a fire in the firebox (which occupies the lower third of the boiler unit).

Once the tank is full of water, I remove the hose and replace the plug securely. Then — over a half-hour period — I feed the fire with a total of about two bushels of wood . . . until the gauge indicates a slight pressure, rising slowly at first and then gaining rapidly. When the boiler reaches five pounds of pressure, the engine will begin to idle . . . and I let it do so for a while to warm up the bearings and cylinders (leaving the cylinder condensation drains open).

About 45 minutes after I've lit the fire, the pressure will be up to 60 or more pounds . . . and that means Ajax is ready to roll. I restock the firebox with wood, close the condensation valves, blow the whistle, put the transmission in high gear, open the throttle . . . and we're off! Ajax can accelerate up to 12 MPH in a distance of 15 feet, and I've run it as fast as 30 MPH . . . although that was straining the engine's capacity.

The truck's powerplant and its boiler aren't really as efficient as they could be . . . its nonreversing engine reaches a maximum of only 500 RPM, and the boiler is twice as big as necessary. (It weighs more than two tons when it's full of water!) Ajax is, however, a practical answer to the sky-high cost of fuel . . . and it could be built to run more efficiently, using better parts.

Make One Yourself

You can assemble your own Ajax from recycled Detroit iron for under five hundred inflated bucks . . . as long as you have access to welding equipment, cutting torches, a grinder, and a drill press. Since it's doubtful you'll be able to find an antique engine as I did, you can either convert a six-cylinder internal combustion unit or buy a new lightweight steam engine (such as the Semple).

My steam wonder may not be the fastest or most powerful vehicle on four wheels, but Ajax is reliable, is simple to repair, and runs cheerfully on wood-and-water power instead of nonrenewable, high-priced pollutants!

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