First trials with producer gas

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[We have refrained up to now from publishing descriptions and road-test reports of producer gas-driven cars, because the subject is not of any great interest to sports-car drivers. However, the abolition of basic fuel rations and the reduced allowances of petrol for business motoring render alternative fuels of some moment, if only as a means of keeping a reasonable-sized car in commission for full business travel. In another part of this issue Peter Clark gives us the benefit of his enquiries and researches in this direction, and in the following article K.N. Hutchison, the famous trials driver, gives an account of practical experience of a gas-producer-propelled Morris Fourteen. Should such fuel be permitted in lieu of the now withdrawn basic petrol ration, later in the war, perhaps we may be forgiven for thus encroaching on the preserves of the out-and-out speed merchants, this unhappy August, one thousand, nine hundred and forty-two! – Ed.]

Since the outbreak of war the gradual tightening up of motoring regulations, notably the ever-increasing scarcity of petrol, has caused many engineers and motorists to seriously consider alternative fuels.

As in everything, we in this country started investigating and experimenting in these directions too late; and all the British made and designed plants appear to be out of date compared with the Continental ones, many types of which had been in regular service for years even before the war. The fact that a motor-car, however modest, enables a man to set about his work in half the time and at about one tenth of the inconvenience of public transport cuts no ice whatever when one applies for petrol to promote production, or whatever one’s war job may be. Always they say, “Use the railways – the wonderful nation-wide network of railways they will get you anywhere.” The fact is, that to-day travelling about the country on business by rail takes on an average just about twice as long as by road.

A combination of the factors mentioned above caused me to go in for a producer gas-driven car, and accordingly I approached Messrs. Harris Garages, the fitting agents for the Cowan up-draught plant, and arranged to have one fitted to a Morris 14-h.p. side-valve six-cylinder car. I found Messrs. Harris most helpful and in no way inclined to exaggerate their claims for performance; they frankly told me it would be poor, and poor it is, but it does the job. Of course, a Morris Fourteen is a pretty hopeless sort of machine anyway, but it seems to suit gas or gas suits it, I don’t quite know which, and altogether it does get me along. I will deal first with performance and consumption before giving an outline of the working of the plant.

First of all, the fuel container, which one fills either with Rexco, an activated coke, or Progasite, a cleaned small screen anthracite, holds, in my car, about 80 lb. of the former and nearly 220 lb. of the latter. For short journeys I use the coke, which stays alight better than the anthracite, and on it can do 100-120 miles per hopperful, whereas on anthracite I can do 240 miles. My car stands often all day and night with the fire alight; in fact. it is my practice to light the fire on a Sunday evening and not let it out for cleaning, etc., till the following Saturday afternoon. I find the 56 lb. of Rexco is a suitable “charge” to use, as it is sufficient to stand burning all night, do a journey of 70 miles and stand most of the next day. I rake the fire religiously (it is the only thing I am religious about, anyway) before starting a journey and on completing it. This is to break up the clinker which always forms and, if left, would tend to clog up the hopper round the fire. These special fuels only cost £6 or £7 a ton, and so one can see the extremely low cost of miles per ton. The real cost is the £125-£135 paid for the plant, which personally I think is excessive, as when examined in detail the whole job is simple and crude in the extreme and is purely a blacksmith’s grade of engineering. I find that now that I have become expert with the ”fiddling” manipulations required that I am on to gas in about two miles from every start, and I can improve on this when starting either in the country or on a downhill section of road. One can, of course, pull up the fire by “revving” the engine with the car stationary and get on to gas before moving off, but as this uses petrol without any forward movement of the vehicle, I prefer to at least travel on the petrol I must use anyway. It is a matter of opinion which is the better method. I get a maximum speed of 34 m.p.h. on third gear and 46 m.p.h. on top gear on the Morris and acceleration to match. I agree this sort of progress somewhat matches that of our railways, but as the engine is only 14 h.p. and, an important point this, it is always carrying a plant weighing some 500 lb. plus 112 lb. of spare fuel plus usually two people, I do not think one can expect better. As a direct comparison, I would say the power on producer gas falls to about 50 per cent. of that of petrol on level going and to about 25 per cent. on hills.

Naturally when going down hill one can increase speed a little. I have, in fact, attained a speedometer reading of 68 m.p.h. on my machine on gas, but even if the road is level at the foot of the hill the car will drop back to its usual natural maximum, even after a downhill boost. So far (touch wood) the plant has functioned perfectly within its limits, and, as an alternative, I can honestly say it will work, although somewhat laboriously. I find the extra weight on the back does not affect me or the car at all; perhaps this is because the average English car is so grossly over heavy, anyway, that even 4 or 5 cwt. extra does not matter. Also the question of the necessarily slow progress must help in this respect.

Once a week I let the fire out and declinker the grate and brick lining of the hopper. At the same time I clean out the two coolers and various pipe lines and renew the filtering compound, which consists of putting in some new clean sizal – a fibrous material which is meant to trap all the soot and dirt and gritty particles which pass over from the hopperful of fuel with the gas to the engine. In a week, which may be 500 miles, I estimate I remove about half a bucketful of soot from the coolers and pipe lines. As no filter is 100 per cent. efficient and most are only about 85 per cent. efficient (of this type, I mean), quite a considerable amount of abrasive “muck” finds its way into the engine. Obviously a proportion of this (probably at least half) does no harm at all, being deposited on the inside walls of the induction, piston crowns and passing into the sump, but, nevertheless, some does get to places where it can do harm, and thus engine wear on any plant on any car given average use and maintenance must be considerably greater than would normally be the case. I estimate 20 per cent. increase in engine wear over normal at least, and I think engineers will agree with this, although salesmen may not.

The construction of the plant is very simple and merely consists of a circular hopper, fire-brick lined at the bottom and with a fire grate about 4″ from the floor. There is a fire door leading to this, which obviously must be removed to rake the fire. The fire is lit immediately on this grate and the gas formed by burning of the coke or anthracite, in conjunction with a water spray, is called water-gas. The outlet at the top of the hopper is connected by a large bore flexible pipe to two gas coolers and thence by a similar pipe to the filter, which, as already stated, is filled with a material called sizal. The gas, after being filtered, goes straight to the engine via a gas carburetter, which is merely a highfaluting name for a secondary air valve.

Various levers and whatnots control the quantity of gas and mixture of same to the engine and others cut out the petrol carburetter. A good point about these plants is that one can change over instantly from gas to petrol and vice versa whilst in motion. This is very useful if one ever needs a sudden spurt to pass a cyclist or other fast-moving road user.

I have not attempted to describe the working and construction of the plant in detail, but if any Motor Sport readers are interested I will happily give them any information and help I can on this subject. I have no business connection with any sort of gas producer or, come to that, any make of motor-car, and so, having no axe to grind, am quite prepared to be as rude as necessary about any apparatus, car, or person connected with transport generally.

I have personally tried a number of machines off gas and firmly believe that it is the design of the induction and engine rather than mere engine size which has the biggest influence on performance.

My Morris and an Austin Twelve I know of are very little slower than several American cars of twice the size that I have tried out. Compared in terms of power/weight ratio I should say the Morris Fourteen or a Wolseley o.h.v. or Vauxhall were actually better than certain American cars.

I think an old type 4 1/2-litre Bentley might prove a suitable car to convert or a “30/98” Vauxhall. Large bores, slow engine speed and simple straightforward inductions give the best results. Also I think gas cars need supercharging, but only when filtration has been greatly improved over existing filters and used in conjunction with a plant capable of producing enough gas to serve the engine under forced induction conditions.

Summing up, then, producer gas is a workable alternative fuel provided one is prepared to take trouble over maintenance and put up with slow travel – but personally I prefer my Allard Special.