Nothing New Under the Sun

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It is rather curious that recent announcements concerning a French project to introduce a new fuel to be called “carburol” and containing 10% methanol derived chiefly from beetroots seem to have made singularly little reference to earlier efforts in this direction.

Even the name, though said to be “newly coined”, is not as new as all that. It was current shortly after the Second World War, when, however, it was applied to an upper cylinder lubricant. In those days, if one was lucky enough to have some petrol coupons, one could ask for petrol at a filling station; and some of these employed “gallon girls” who were trained to reply “and carburol?”. If one acceded to their blandishments, they not only put the petrol in one’s tank but added a few squirts of “carburol” from a syringe. Motoring journalists were, of course, the aristocrats of those days, since they were apt to have more petrol coupons even than farmers, and on one occasion. while enviously watching Laurence Pomeroy, the Technical Editor of The Motor, having his tank filled up, I took the opportunity to ask him whether the “carbuurol”, which he had been offered and politely refused, served any useful purpose. “As far as I know”, he replied in his best oracular style. “it does no positive harm”. Apparently, however, not many people thought it did any positive good, and it soon seemed to vanish from the motoring scene.

All this is of course quite irrelevant to the project for the new French fuel to be called “carburol”, except that petrol was then scarce and is now expensive. What is more to the point is that as long ago as 1902, the French authorities were already concerned because France had no indigenous source of oil. At the same time the country seemed to have an unlimited supply of beetroots, and it occurred to the then Minister of Agriculture, M. Jean Dupuy, that it would be a good idea if motorists could be induced to run their cars on alcohol derived from them rather than on imported petrol. Not, he it noted, that they should just use fuel containing 10% methanol, but that they should take their alcohol neat. The Commission which he appointed to see how this could be achieved reported, much to the annoyance of M. Dupuy’s governmental colleagues who had just announced a ban on motor racing, that the best thing to do would be to organise a race for cars using exclusively alcohol fuel, and apparently the “beetroot vote” was so important that this was promptly put in hand.

The race, on May 15th and 16th 1902, was to be from Paris to Chalons-sur-Marne and then to Arras, a distance of 238.1 miles, and then back to Paris via Boulogne-sur-Mer and Dieppe, a distance of 299 miles. Known alternatively as the Concours du Ministre or the Circuit du Nord, the race, although run in pouring rain, was an outstanding success and was won by Maurice Farman on a 40 h.p. Panhard et Levassor at 44.8 m.p.h. This was a respectable speed, since it compared with Fournier’s winning speed of 44.1 m.p.h. on his 60 h.p. Mors in Paris-Berlin the previous year, particularly having in mind the weather conditions and the bad road surfaces which where characteristic of some parts of the north of France; and indeed Charles Jarrott, who was second in the big car class, also on a 40 h.p. Panhard et Levassor, considered that the use of alcohol fuel had made little difference to his car’s performance. “I had been much interested to find out exactly what the running of alcohol instead of petrol essence really amounted to”, he wrote afterwards in “Ten Years of Motors and Motor Racing”. “I found that an alteration was necessary to the carburetter, but beyond this the change of fuel made no difference to the running of the car, with the exception that the fumes emitted from the exhaust were acrid and exceedingly nauseous. The race was a success beyond all question. It proved that alcohol could be used with great advantage to run vehicles driven in the ordinary way by petrol. It also proved that the actual speed and power of the motors were not affected by its use.”

Gerald Row, on the other hand, took a contrary view. “As an advertisement of alcohol as a fuel”, he wrote, “the race was not a success. The drivers disliked it, and filled up their tanks with petrol again as soon as they could. It made a slight reduction in the speed also. . . .” One can well believe that they disliked the smell, but they could be tempted to put up even with that and as far as performance is concerned, Jarrott’s evidence seems preferable to Rose’s. At least in the Paris-Vienna, run a month after the Circuit du Nord, Rene de Knyff used alcohol fuel again because by so doing he made himself eligible for a cup presented by Count d’Arenberg for the fastest time by a user of it over the first stage to Belfort, and suffered so little handicap in consequence that his time was more than 11 minutes better than anyone else’s. Admittedly he failed to win the Gordon Bennett Cup because he fell out on the next stage, but as this was due to the breakage of his car’s differential casing, the alcohol fuel can hardly be blamed for the breakdown of his 70 h.p. Panhard et Levassor.

It is curious, nevertheless, that thereafter singularly little more seems to be recorded about the use of alcohol fuel in racing cars until much more modern times. In this connection it may be significant that 1902 represented something of a watershed year in racing history, because in it there really appeared the writing on the wall for the automatic inlet valve. The Mercedes using mechanically operated inlet valves had made its debut in 1901 and in 1902 it was followed by the brilliant 16 h.p. Renault light car, similarly equipped, which beat all the big cars in Paris-Vienna. In 1903 even conservatives like Panhard et Levassor had to fall into line and adopt the new system. Was it, perhaps, that the more efficient engines which resulted from this change were less well suited to the doubtless somewhat crude alcohol fuel produced by M. Dupuy’s beetroot growers? Was something more fundamental than an “alteration to the carburetter” necessary before they would accept it satisfactorily? Did Gerald Rose have them in mind when he contradicted Charles Jarrott and declared that alcohol “made a slight reduction in the speed?”

It would be interesting if some of our more erudite readers would care to expound the technicalities of the matter. – Kent Karslake