Matters of Moment, January 1974




The older drivers used the term strangulation to imply the richening of the mixture in order to get an engine started from cold. But in the present context it means what will happen to motoring if the life-blood to the World’s carburetters is cut off. The way in which the approach of probable petrol rationing in Britain, which the non-motoring media of all kinds seems so anxious to see imposed, has been handled is another example of the muddled thinking and lack of planning one has come to expect from politicians. One minute all was reasonably well and rationing, if needed at all, was to be indefinitely postponed. The next, the position had worsened and the outlook was said to be grim.

At the time of writing it distresses us to hear, if the media is correct, that the multi-millionaire Oil Barons are bringing petrol rationing closer by diverting some of the oil the Arabs have condescended to let Europe have, to customers outside Britain. Oil people should be our friends, for we cannot do without them. They provide the carburetter’s life-blood, sponsor motor racing, give away presents and stamps and keep us guessing as to how much the next increase in the cost of a gallon will be. Their present reported action smacks, not surprisingly, of avarice.

In some ways, if it comes, fair rationing might be better than the prevailing uncertainty, whereby those who are first at a Self Service garage can presumably have all the petrol they want, when at other places it is cap-in-hand to get what the attendant thinks he can spare. A proper rationing system would enable businesses to plan their transport and the private car-user to know at least where he or she stands, even if it be thumbing a lift at the roadside, after running dry. Even then there are bound to be anomalies. For instance, Mr. Beeching killed off the branch-lines of our once-virile railway network. But if the availability of private cars is seriously curtailed, will the country ‘bus services be able to cope? Will it be as fair to those whose “basic” ration will have to be used for essential shopping in remoter districts, as to others who can burn theirs going to the pub, Bingo or indulging in other pleasures?

The pre-rationing panic measures are pathetic. We are asked to observe a voluntary 50 m.p.h. speed-limit (and soon afterwards this became compulsory, anyway) and in almost the same breath we are told that those exceeding it on Motorways are likely to be stopped by the Police. Why only on Motorways? What of cars which will not pull overdrive at this pedestrian pace and so use more fuel by being run on normal top-gear?

Is coasting still illegal, when apparently every globule of petrol should be conserved? And in Heath’s name, why should the chap who likes to use a modest amount of petrol enjoying an accelerative 70 m.p.h. drive, be any more of an unworthy citizen than he or she who goes a bit further at a feeble fifty? Meanwhile, we shall have the criminals “milking” tanks. And the experts informing us how to save the stuff by reducing jet sizes, altering the sparking-plug gaps, clinging to top cog, and all the rest of it, while the World’s air-lines, RAF aeroplanes, the Army’s tanks, and Government VIP cars progress much as before.

Meanwhile, it obviously behoves drivers to conserve the costly fuel as far as possible. There are various ways of doing this and it should be remembered that the Mobil Economy Run showed how a worthwhile saving could he achieved without crawling about or avoiding hilly terrain. Thus it is all the more unfortunate that Mobil, who have sponsored this event for so long and which has been so ably organised by the Hants and I3erks Motor Club since Holland Birkett invented the contest, have now withdrawn their support. So far as economy modifications go, by all means weaken the mixture. But do remember a possible lesson taught wheo Vauxhall had the idea of using a thin mixture in conjunction with simple but effective ignition alterations, so that their post-war Ten would return around 40 m.p.g.. It worked splendidly when the car was new, but resulted in very dubious starting when things became somewhat worn and damp

. . . The Editor says that by using his own (secret!) methods he is able to get around 40 m.p.g. from the fuel-injection BMW 520i, which normally gives a petrol consumption of about 27 to 30 m.p.g. and increase that of a Fiat 126 from a normal 45-46 m.p.g. to some 55 m.p.g. And BMW have announced that a BMW 2002 Tii did 43½ m.p.g. averaging 50 m.p.h. from London to Bristol and back.

We read somewhere not long ago about a farmer who was running an aged Hillman, was it, on fuel made from pig manure. We do not know who the man was or what sort of hills were involved. But having had some experience of ingenious low-cost fuels we think the performance would have been disappointing, to say the least. Moreover, this gas would surely be illegal, for to deprive a Government of its taxes is to go straight to the gallows.

We doubt whether you would do better on Calor or Butane gas, for which carburetter conversions are apparently available. A better gambit is to buy a really smallengined car, of which seven different makes of under 850 c.c. are available here, not counting three-wheelers, led by the spaceand fuel-saving Fiat 126 and the more roomy Citroen Dyanes. In October last, on SMM&T statistics, 881 Fiat 126s and 353 Renault 4s were sold in this country.

We do not pretend to understand all the political-commercial aspects of the oil game but if, especially to any reader who remembers the articles which C. G. Grey of The Aeroplane wrote on the subject every so often from about 1920 to 1939, it may seem that the situation and the intrigue has not changed all that much in the last halfcentury. Recently we had American nuclear war-heads at the ready in this country against Russia, in this oily situation, so the sooner we get good supplies of the stuff from beneath the North Sea the better. Except that then this off-shore European island will be the target of any larger or more powerful country which finds its own oil supplies running short . . . Nevertheless, let’s concentrate our skill, technical know-how and finance on this vital project, instead of squandering the last-named on things like the Channel Tunnel which will apparently serve only about 18% of the cross-sea traffic, on Maplin and other new air-ports which will be useless if there is no fuel for aircraft to use, and on trying unsuccessfully to quieten Concorde, which will make no noise at all if deprived of its essential paraffin. And if petrol rationing comes, or is in being by the time you read this, let us hope it will be generously and fairly allocated, which somehow we rather doubt.

Petrol Rationing Postscript.— Since writing the above, the issue of petrol coupons has been announced and the whole situation seems to have been badly handled, to express it kindly ! Apart from PO clerks (who earn a £10 subsidy doling out the ration books we cannot yet use, at the time of reporting) being confused over such things as the c.c. of a vintage car whose Log Book quotes 12 h.p. when it has a 2-litre engine, the thirst of Wankel engines and so on, why on earth was it assumed that those whose surnames commence with “A” or “B” would all have taxed cars for November, the month in which their coupons were issued? What of those not proposing to re-tax, or tax a newly-acquired car, perhaps an economy model, until December? Ask a PO clerk what happens then, if you want the blank look!

Worse, how could a responsible Government department confess that when demanding that we take both car Log Book and Tax disc to the Post Office, they had overlooked the fact that it is illegal to have a car on the road on which the disc, or licence, is not displayed. The Police spot the absence of the disc quickly enough, St. Christopher knows, and while they may turn a blind-eye when the disc is on its way to a Post Office, the requirement serves to emphasise how unthinking are those who will be responsible for rationing if it comes . . .

Another stupid thing they did was to ban the filling of spare cans with petrol. Obviously, filling big containers had to be banned, to obviate selfish home-hoarding and the fire-risk. But when fuel is scarce a can is even more desirable than before and surely the replenishment of one-gallon metal containers could have been sanctioned? If anyone had purchased scores of these and taken the trouble to fill them at scores of different petrol stations, he would have been in a minority that would scarcely affect the general rule!

Now, with Mr. Peter Walker telling us rationing is unnecessary, we have the astonishing spectacle of long queues of vehicles waiting outside garages for whatever allowance the keeper-of-the-storage-tanks cares to sell, sometimes at inflated prices, and there is the wastage of Police man-power to ensure that those using self-service shall not obtain an unfair advantage.

Meanwhile, Ford, BL, Lotus, Esso, Castrol, National Car Parks and others are busy churning out advice about how to save petrol and the DoE is pontificating about the future of British railways (£225 million in 1977/78). But no-one seems to be asking whether, if we are rationed to 50 miles a week or some similarly pathetic distance, there will he a proportionate rebate, or reduction, in car taxation? In the midst of all this economy thinking and hysteria, it is alarming to find that no-one, Police, Customs & Excise, etc., could tell us definitely whether it is legal to use Calor gas, propane gas, etc. in road-using motor vehicles (paraffin is illegal) until a Welsh C & E office rang hack and said it is legal, quoting a recently-revised law. Calor Gas themselves finally told us that although using bulk supplies of their gas, on which duty is declared, is not illegal, much trouble could be incurred by those using “a cylinder in the boot” and a simple carburetter conversion. So forget this and especially pig manure ! (Incidentally, as propane gas stems from the same sources as petrol, using it is not going to ease the fuel shortage, except perhaps for selfish indivi duals who reckon it won’t be rationed.) So far as the sport is concerned, the VSCC cancelled its December Driving Tests at Silverstone as a matter of ethics, only three of the 15 Committee members being in favour of holding them and, as Ford’s Competition Department has observed, we are going to have to battle for our sport in view of the rationing threat and the strength of the motoring clubs in the coming months will he the key to its survival.—W.B.