Matters of moment, April 1979

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The end in sight

When we were younger, between very small and adolescent, a sandwich-man bearing placards inscribed “THE END IS NIGH – PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD” put the fear of the Lord into us. It wasn’t that we were any more sinful than most developing male children, simply that there was always the latest Meccano model to finish or other enjoyable tasks to complete, which called for unrationed time. The motorised communities of the World must feel much the same alarm and depression when informed that petroleum-oil is running out, that perhaps by the 1990s motoring as we now know it will have ended. Such pessimism was brought home by the fuel shortages caused by striking tanker drivers.

This threat was rife in the 1920s and petrol has not dried up yet, in spite of the amount of gas guzzled by America’s giant automobiles and high-power central-heating systems.

But we do not wish to appear ostrich-like over this matter, with our heads buried in the sand hoping the dire threats of politicians and scientists will evaporate. We know that in the midst of all his other anxieties President Carter has thought up legislation aimed at smaller, less petrol-thirsty cars for his country’s citizens. At home, those odd, make-by-make, model-by-model, m.p.g. estimates of the DoE were instituted not only to endorse the Trade Descriptions Act but to remind those who buy cars that these actually consume petrol – like those stupid TV advertisements we pay for, telling us that all cars have dip-switches.

So saving nature’s most precious gift to commercial, capitalist mankind is much in the news, although we have tried not to take too seriously those sponsored contests to see who can build freak vehicles to do 2,000 m.p.g. or so under artificial conditions, although recognising that these have something of the appeal of the Great Egg Race, won we believe by a Rolls-Royce entry.

If the fuel crisis exists and is to be taken seriously, we suggest there are some things the ordinary, not very scientific, car owners should be told. For instance, we hear much, especially from the Government, about the great blessings the discovery of North Sea Oil has conferred on this country, expensive as it is to drill for and recover, although it does not seem to give Mr. Callaghan much control over inflation. What we would like to know is just how much this ocean-bed benefit is saving us annually, how much of it actually goes into our petrol tanks, and why other oil wells have been gushing forth oily fruits since before the beginning of motoring but those under our oceans are expected to run dry by 1990 or thereabouts? Our concern over Middle East oil, with some petrol companies already operating their own unofficial rationing of garages as supplies of it diminish in our direction, indicates that Great Britain cannot survive on North Sea Oil alone.

So what is being done about alternative fuels? The pathetic hope of substitute steam and electric power seems to have been largely forgotten. However, we are ancient enough to remember gas-bags billowing above cars during WW1 and fuel-producers being towed behind ‘buses and cars in WW2. Wars drove us to look for alternative fuels, so surely the present crisis, if it exists, should accelerate such research? Cylinders of Calor-gas and LPG have been substituted for the petrol tank, but perhaps we should consign to cranks the running of cars on pig-dung and chicken-manure. As recently as last February Motor Sport referred in its Editorial to benzole produced from British coal as a possible fuel for i.c. engines. Benzole was a fuel much publicised and favoured in the 1920s and earlier. It would be interesting to know what proportion of benzole there is in today’s National Benzole petrol, now that the Company’s tankers and pumps proclaim only NATIONAL. Perhaps an appropriate PRO, a breed unkindly referred to as “presstitutes” by Gilbert Harding, but who have been mostly very helpful to Motor Sport, will tell us, and also whether the use of more benzole could postpone the threatened petrol famine?

Motor racing has endeavoured to point the way to alternative fuels. Just after the turn of the century the French Minister of Agriculture tried to help that Nation’s great and expanding sugarbeet industry to get the alcohol it distilled into motorists’ tanks. The Minister of the Interior (no connection with an alcoholic hang-over) wanted to ban racing but was over-ruled and the 1902 Circuit du Nord was run, solely on this alternative to petrol. It was won by Farman’s Panhard at 44.8 m.p.h. for the 537 miles, a Darracq taking the Light car class, a Renault the voiturette category. In memory of the 56 competitors who faced horrible rainstorms to prove that their cars would run well without petrol, and of Jarrott who finished second, also on a Panhard, colliding with the Commissaire of Police in doing so, might we not investigate the possibilities of alcohol as motor-fuel? Its use cannot have been a fluke, for Rigolly ran his Gobron-Brillie on alcohol in other races and Louis Coatalen took records at Brooklands in 1913 with a Sunbeam that was drinking alcohol. In 1936 the idea was revived, in the Mille Miglia no less, with alcoholic Ferraris, Alfa Romeos and Fiats fired from charcoal, and other cars burning a distilate of asphaltic rocks taking part. II Duce, Benito Mussolini, made his chauffeur, Eroole Boratto, compete with his Alfa Romeo, running on Italian national benzole – so it works. Whether it could be made economically practical is another matter.

Since TV has materially reduced patronage of the public houses and the rightly strict edicts about not drinking-and-driving have still further reduced beer and spirit consumption, those who dabble in alcohol should surely be anxious to have a stake in this fluid finding its way into our tanks as well as into our glasses. Ironically, although alcohol has been used for racing engines for many years, this has been to cool the internals (the opposite effect of alcohol on humans), at the expense of good m.p.g. returns, and present-day F1 cars have to run on pump petrol, although permitted wide-tread tyres, aerofoils, side skirts and other advanced aids about the chassis.

If motoring is really going to come one day to a petrol-less halt, shouldn’t some thought be devoted now to the employment of sugar beet, benzole made from coal, alcohol, or whatever, for burning in internal-combustion engines? However, should this seem nonsense to the boffins, may we remind them that this Editorial is due to appear on April Fool’s Day . . . .

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