Matters of moment, February 1953

Branded petrol returns

Coronation Year will be a happy time for those owners of high-compression sports and high-performance cars which for over a decade have “pinked ” under the accelerator foot in protest at being required to consume low-octane “Pool” petrol.

From February 1st the petrol purveyors will be permitted to come back on the market with their own ideas of what petrol should be and the dreadful “Pool” era ends. Whereas “Pool” had an octane rating, for practical purposes, of about 70, the premium grades of branded motor spirit will have an 80-octane rating, perhaps even higher. This will make a lot of difference to the pleasure of motoring behind the better forms of modern i.c. engine. Overseas visitors, who will visit us in great numbers for the Coronation, would have fared badly on our former poor petrol but will find our new premium grades the equal of fuels they use at home. A special article on what the various petrol firms have to offer and other aspects of branded petrol appears in this issue.

The battle between the rival petrol companies, with its accompanying advertising campaign launched by some of the most affluent business concerns in the world, should be worth watching. At present motoring and other journalists are engaged in sampling the rival brands and publishing erudite and, we hope, unbiased opinions about them. It is largely to the credit of the big petrol concerns themselves that “Pool” has been banished from the pumps and in fairness we should really list all the brands and buy them in rotation. But some will no doubt prove superior to others and individual preferences will prevail. If you were to enquire what is the Editorial choice between Shell-Mex & B.P., Cleveland, Esso, Power, Regent, Fine, Dominion, Mobilgas and National Benzole, we should retort at this juncture that our middle daughter, when in doubt on similarly perplexing subjects, chants “Ena, dena, dina, do. etc.”  Later, tests concluded, we may, too, have an individual preference.

This brings us to the absorbing question of whether there will be a really big demand for the premium grades of petrol. On the face of it, so hampered are efficient engines by 70-octane spirit that the answer would seem to be favourable. But it has to be remembered that the cost of petrol in the British Isles is now regarded by most motorists as excessive and the 3d. or so extra which has to be found for each gallon of premium spirit, bringing the total per gallon up to circa 4s. 6d., may cause a large proportion of drivers to “fight shy.”

It would be a libel to say that as the Editorial car has been running for years on straight paraffin we are biased in this connection but the fact is that “Pool” and its shortcomings have come to be accepted as a necessary post-war evil and users of the less-exciting cars may see no reason to increase the annual petrol bill appreciably by changing to the premium grades.

If the petrol companies were selling their spirit at pre-war prices the difference in cost would ensure the bulk of sales being in the better fuels, the public reserving the “regular” grades, at around 1s. 3d. per gallon, for their autocycles, lawnmowers and bulldozing appliances. But, even with a general rise in wages and salaries, motoring is a good deal more expensive than it was pre-Hitler, and the 4s. 6d. per gallon of the premium grades may be a stumbling block to really vast sales, especially after the initial excitement of banishing from piston crowns the destructive “little men with tiny hammers,” and if the regular grades of branded petrol are themselves superior in ways other than octane rating (better volatility, for instance) to the hated “Pool” spirit. The argument that the extra threepenny bits will be balanced by the better fuel consumption obtainable is not likely to apply to sports cars, because the better they run the harder will they be driven.

If this stumbling block to sales does occur it may well be a disguised blessing, because then the petrol companies will seek to find a way of reducing the price of petrol and perhaps of exerting their not inconsiderable influence in persuading the Government to diminish the savage tax of 2s. 6d. which we pay on every gallon we buy — and which is added to the Road Fund Tax that is spent on everything except better, safer roads.

Meanwhile, readers of this paper will welcome the arrival, in this Coronation Year, of better fuels for the cars on which they lavish so much care and derive so much pleasure front driving. They will realise the importance to their country of the great petrol companies and the sporting motorist, in particular, will look back with appreciation to the support the leading firms gave to competition motoring all through the dreary years when all they were allowed to market was “Pool.”

Now that branded petrol has returned, the publicity value of motor racing to the petrol purveyors will take on its pre-war significance and no doubt the competition driver will benefit considerably from this increased importance of advertising successes and signing-up with drivers able to achieve such victories.

So, all in all, we welcome the return of good fuel, appearing in rival pumps under a fascinating variety of grade designations, and we can shed not a tear for the passing of those little devils who started to hack bits from our pistons every time we strove to pass more “Pool” through the gummy jets.—W. B.