Matters of moment, December 1989

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Petrol!

The great oil-barons have made vast fortunes out of refining crude oil into consumer fuels. Recently they have been treating vehicle-owners, one of their prolific outlets, rather shabbily. Not only have petrol prices been fluctuating, but the withdrawal of readily-available 2-star — 5-star went long ago — is not acceptable to the users of the older cars.

It would seem that in the commendable desire to introduce lead-free petrol alongside leaded 4-star without increasing the number of pumps, 2-star is being phased out. Vintage-vehicle owners are concerned that unleaded fuel will damage valve-seats and valves and alarmed that leaded 4-star will cause overheating and boiling of the petrol. The latter fear is a little irrational, remembering that when 2-star was freely available the only argument against running low-compression engines on 4-star was that this put a few extra pennies into the pockets of the oil companies — nothing more! Now, however, many experts and non-experts are expressing varying views on the burning of unleaded fuel in the older vehicles. We just hope that some of them will get it right.

Conservationists, indeed all of us, must be heartened that so many modern cars can be run on unleaded petrol — the number runs into many hundreds, with other models able to do so after conversion. Only naughty cars such as Rover Vitesse, Turbo Bristol, Dacia, De Tomaso, Ferrari, Lamborghini, some Lancias, Lotus Exal, Maserati and a few others demand a lead content. Let it not be said that it is the rich who contaminate us! All credit to Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Vauxhall and others whose entire range of cars are now in the lead-free league.

But spare a thought for those who devised the knock-additive tetra-ethyl lead, hailed as a great breakthrough in the 1920s and developed by the late F Rodwell Banks, CB, OBE, as fuels for the Rolls-Royce racing engines in the Supermarine Schneider Trophy seaplanes that earned much prestige for Great Britain, and led to the war-time R-R Merlin engines. Never forget that: The Battle of Waterloo may have been won on the playing-fields of Eton.

But the Battle of Britain was decided over Calshott Water. …

Whatever non-leaded fuel does or does not do to ancient engines and however high petrol prices go, thank St. Christopher that the panic about the world running out of crude oil has evaporated, a myth circulated even in 1920. Even so, one shudders at the massive gallonage lost when oil-tankers sink (more pollution!) and might wish for other means of carrying such an essential commodity. Like the 1200-mile pipe-line opened between Kirkuk and Haifa nearly 55 years ago and first forecast, not in the newspapers but in CG. Grey’s outspoken weekly The Aeroplane, on which WB to some extent based Motor Sport when he became its Editor in 1945, and which today continues as a more-documentary-type aviation monthly … But as CGG. observed: “The great pipe-line itself is going to need quite a lot of expensive protection, for any desert Arab with a hacksaw and a box of matches, or a stick of dynamite, will be able to hamper supplies for our motor-cars and aeroplanes or, at any rate, send up the price of petrol.”

The petroleum world has changed in other ways, from cans to roadside pumps, from sooty fuels to today’s clean pink-free petrols. Presumably motorists still have their favourite brands, even though the days are gone when National Benzole meant a benzole, Cleveland Discol a cooling alcohol content.

Petrol may be expensive compared to the shilling (5p) at which a gallon of regular retailed in 1920, but fortunately today’s power-units are remarkably thrifty. We hear that Stuart Bladon has gone into the “Guinness Book of Records” with an RAC observed high (or low?) Economy-record of 112.01 mpg, driving a Lucas-Diesel Systems’ Citroen AXD on ten gallons of oil up and down the M 11 — just the place where you shouldn’t run dry … WB

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