This month the inimitable” Baladeur ” has struck a very topical subject in discussing racing possible only by the use of alcohol fuel! We have answered his request for additional information on alcohol fuel, in the light of modern practice, by enlisting the aid of that well-known expert, Mr. L. G. Callingham, who in his time has driven a wide variety of racing cars, and whose knowledge of fuel problems is unequalled. Mr. Callingham’s interesting observations, which he kindly submitted at our request, follow this instalment of “Sideslips.” — Ed.
“It should not be forgotten that the output of petrol is limited, that a necessarily diminishing product, and that, by reason of the fact that the use of petroleum as a fuel for locomotives is on the increase, petrol will thereby be rendered scarcer.”
Those words, one might reasonably suppose, were written in 1948; but, as a matter of fact, they are taken from an article by Monsieur C. E. Henriod which was published in the Bulletin des Halles in 1900. But then Monsieur Henriod, it seems, was one of those people who were continually before their time. I do not know exactly at what date he abandoned horology, “in which domain,” I read, “his studies represent an enormous work,” in order to make motor cars, but in 1896, I gather, he was attacking the problem of putting the gearbox in the back axle, which may have been misguided of him, but in which essay he was to have many notable successors. According to one of his admirers, he was the pioneer, in 1905, of the fully-floating back axle combined with a torque tube. It will be remarked that I do not make this claim on his behalf myself, because it is the sort of claim, I fancy, that is apt to be challenged by half-a-dozen pioneer designers. Besides, if a fully floating back axle is what I think it is, I cannot quite see why it required so much genius to float it ; and, anyhow, I have an idea that Decauville has some claim to priority in the matter.
However, at about this same date, Monsieur Henriod apparently removed his gearbox from the back axle and did some more pioneering by building it up in unit with the engine; and, not content with that, proceeded, in 1906, to try to remove it altogether by means of a “hydraulic coupling,” otherwise known, I suppose, as a fluid flywheel. Not finding this to his liking, he produced, that same year, a four-speed epicyclic gearbox contained in the flywheel, and went on from that to produce an infinitely-variable planetary gear of such incredible complexity that the present writer has freely to admit that he is quite incapable of understanding, let alone explaining, it. I do not even know, in fact, whether it ever worked.
But if Monsieur Henriod thought more than most people about transmission systems, they by no means monopolised his attention. On the contrary, he designed a rotary-valve engine in his spare time, which was used by Darracq, but whether it came before or after the similar Itala design in point of time, I do not rightly know. Earlier than that — back in the nineteenth century — he had favoured an air-cooled flat twin, “whose pistons,” explains Monsieur Gerard Lavergne, “act on cranks keyed at 180 degrees on the motor shaft between them; the two move inversely, and equilibrate each other.” “A Henriod 8-h.p. car,” adds the same author, “in 1899 ran from Paris to Bordeaux, a distance of 565 km., in 19 hr. 15 min.” On the same occasion, he might have added, a Panhard et Levassor 12-h.p. car did the journey in 11 hr. 48 min. 20 sec., and even the fastest 8-h.p. car of the same marque only took 13 hr. 49 min. 11 sec. over it ; but then, comparisons, perhaps, are odious.
Besides, Monsieur Henriod may have been more worried than were Panhard et Levassor about his car’s petrol consumption; a man so far ahead of his time may have had visions of his last petrol coupon expended long before the car readied Bordeaux. He had already invented a metering carburetter, but by the next year, when he wrote that article for the Bulletin des Halles, he had devised a means of doing without petrol altogether. “The output of petrol,” he wrote, “is limited… On the other hand the production of alcohol is unlimited, as it is capable of distillation from many descriptions of vegetable matter and refuse. By my latest patented methods, I render possible the profitable use of debased or denatured alcohol in all motor systems…”
He had had, it would seem, a good deal of trouble in the process. Not the least of his difficulties had been with the malachite vert, which I, in my ignorance, would have translated “green malachite,” had it not been for a friend of mine who tells me that the English for it is “malachite green”; which just goes for to show what a difficult language English is. Its presence in the alcohol, and therefore the difficulties in this connection which confronted Monsieur Henriod, were solely due, I gather, to an official enactment “for the purpose of rendering alcohol nauseous as a commercial product.”
“This objectionable substance,” I learn from M. Henriod, “is a carbonate of copper which frequently crystallizes, and the oxides of copper rapidly deposit on the inner surfaces of cylinders and carburetter and choke the small tubes and orifices.” He had high hopes that the Ministers of the Interior and of Agriculture will retain their present disposition to rescind the regulations “which obliged the use of this substance, with its coppery annoyances.”
I am not sure whether they did, but in any case, these were not the only “annoyances” which the ingenious Monsieur Henriod had to overcome. It is true that he could claim that “the exhaust gases have so great an affinity for water that they disperse without odour,” but “the lubrication of the cylinders of motors driven by alcohol requires the most careful attention, as even pure alcohol destroys the lubricants. Nevertheless, Monsieur Henriod claimed that he had overcome this as well as all the other difficulties of the problem by his “method of carburation and the position of the carburetter with regard to the motor.”
There remained the question of price, and unfortunately it had to be admitted that “alcohol is dearer than petrol, as methylene, a carburet of hydrogen, is present in such proportions as to augment its price considerably.” “Happily,” declares Monsieur Henriod, however, “I have been able to reduce the price considerably by carburetting it with other products 60 per cent. cheaper.”
Now at this point I had better confess that I should probably have been wiser not to embark on this article at all, because reflection on the problem of how the alcohol was carburetted with methylene or anything at all, suddenly revealed to me the appalling fact that I have lived all these years, or so it seems, in ignorance of the functions of a carburetter. However much my technical readers may deride me in consequence, I must candidly admit that I have always thought of a carburetter as a device for vaporising liquid fuel ; obviously the truth is much more complicated than that.
In any case the experiments of Henriod and others caused no little interest in France, where, it seems, there was a surplus of “vegetable matter and refuse.” In particular, there was apparently a positive glut of beetroots, though quite why this should have been so is something of a mystery. Admittedly, the French seem less prone to the direct consumption of this peculiarly revolting vegetable than are people in this country, where, not long ago, I noticed that one of my neighbours in a restaurant was eating it with smoked salmon, but on the other hand, they do make it into those delicious slabs of sugar which everyone who has ever been a child in France must have delighted to dip into his coffee. However, at the beginning of the century, there were, it seems, too many beetroots chasing too few children, and the idea of burning some of them (the beetroots, I mean) in automobile engines brought a new light into the lives of French farmers.
In spite of Monsieur Henriod’s enthusiasm, however, the majority of automobilists appeared to be uninterested in the project. “They have, indeed, shown so much apathy in taking to alcohol,” remarked the Autocar gravely in 1901, “that it was feared nothing would be done to encourage its extensive employment….” Something, however, was done; the Minister of Agriculture organised some consumption trials on the eve of the Paris Salon, which attracted 16 large cars, seven commercial vehicles, 14 voiturettes, a quadricycle and two motor-bicycles. The results, however, were not particularly encouraging, at least as far as “straight” (if denatured) alcohol was concerned. On the other hand, a fifty-fifty mixture of alcohol and benzine gave much more satisfactory results. Thus, in the course of a run from the Porte Maillot to the distillery at Achères, a distance of 25 kilometres, two 4-h.p. Georges Richard voiturettes, the one using 50 per cent. alcohol and the other “pure” spirit, consumed 1.95 and 3.67 litres respectively. An 8-h.p. Panhard et Levassor lorry, weighing 4,640 kilos, was set the more formidable task of covering 100 kms., and consumed 35.54 litres of alcohol-benzine mixture, “the large quantity recorded being due to the fact that the vehicle got lost on the road, and took 5-1/2 hours on the return journey.” The wonder, one would have thought, was that 8 h.p. ever managed to bring 4-1/2 tons back at all. On the other hand, the fact that a 9-h.p. De Dietrich lorry with the relatively moderate all-up weight of 2,396 kilos., consumed 70.874 litres of straight spirit, without, apparently, losing its way at all, passed without comment.
The most successful engines in the trials, it was noted, were the Bardon and the Gobron-Brillié, in both of which the mixture was burnt in the cylinders between two pistons, the Bardon design having a single horizontal, double-piston cylinder set transversely across the car at the front, and the Gobron-Brillié having the well-known vertical two-cylinder, four-piston engine. The calorific value of alcohol, it was generally admitted, was lower than that of petrol, but this was in part compensated for by longer expansion and more perfect combustion, virtues which were particularly appreciated by long-stroke engines such as those with opposed pistons.
The Minister of Agriculture, however, remained unsatisfied. Something more, he decided, must be done in order to shift those rotting beetroots, and, in the manner of Ministers faced with a problem to which they do not know the answer, he appointed a committee to tell him what. Most tactlessly, the committee replied that the best thing to do was to organise a motor race. As the French Government had just decided that it was going to ban motor racing for ever, this answer was far from popular, particularly with the Minister of the Interior. The committee, however, was dead right: no sooner had it reported in this sense than the hitherto indifferent autornobilists began to regard alcohol with as much interest as a dipsomaniac. When it becomes a question of racing on alcohol or not racing at all, history, it seems, is apt to repeat itself.
Reluctantly, the French Government, with one eye on the farmers, proceeded to eat its words, and itself organised a 537-mile race round the north of France in May, 1902, for cars using alcohol as a fuel. Although it is not quite clear from either contemporaty or later accounts, it seems probable that what the competitors actually used was alcohol-benzine mixture. Opinions with regard to the success of the event also seem to be rather mixed. “As an advertisement of alcohol as a fuel,” says Gerald Rose, “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 . . .”
To take the last point first. The race was won by Maurice Farman on a 40-h.p. Panhard et Levassor at an average speed of 44.8 m.p.h. for the 537 miles. A month later, over the first and fastest stage to Belfort of the Paris-Vienna race, the leading 40-h.p. Panhard, driven by Baron Pierre de Crawhez, which eventually finished sixth in the heavy class behind four of the new “Seventies” from the same factory and Count Zborowski’s Mercedes, averaged almost exactly 1 m.p.h. more, although the distance of 233-1/2 miles was less than half that of the Circuit du Nord race, the road from Paris to Belfort was one of the fastest in France, and the weather was fine, in marked contrast to the conditions ruling on the occasion of the alcohol race, which was run in pouring rain. Thus far, therefore, I can detect little indication of any improvement in speed consequent upon the use of petrol.
Next, with regard to the statement that “the drivers . . . filled up their tanks with petrol again as soon as they could,” it is at least remarkable that a number of drivers, including René de Knyff with one of the 70-h.p. Panhards, used alcohol in the Paris-Vienna race although they were no longer under any obligation to do so. Admittedly, de Knyff’s “Seventy,” the first ever built, had started in the Circuit du Nord, and would, perhaps, have had to be modified slightly to use petrol in Paris-Vienna. But no fewer than eight “Seventies” started in the latter race, and it is inconceivable that de Knyff, the head of the Panhard firm, could not have provided himself with a petrol-burner, if he had really seen any advantage in it.
Even more curiously, according to Mr. Rose, “The Serpollet drivers, all of whom finished (in the Circuit du Nord) complained that the alcohol gave poor results when compared with the petrol which they were accustomed to use in their burners, reducing their speed by almost 20 per cent “; and yet at least some of them continued to use alcohol in Paris-Vienna, which hardly seems to make sense.
Apart from that, we have the almost contemporary evidence of Charles Jarrott, one of the competing drivers, who says of the Circuit du Nord, “This race was a success beyond all question. It proved that alcohol could be used with very 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.” And again “I had been very much interested to find out exactly what the running on alcohol instead of petrol essence really amounted to. I found that an alteration was necessary to the carburetter, but beyond this the change of fuel made no difference in the running of the car, with the exception that the fumes emitted by the exhaust were acrid and exceedingly nauseous. I remember this one point being forced home to my mind as I was waiting at the starting-point with a car in front belching forth these objectionable fumes.”
This is a curious commentary on Monsieur Henriod’s claim that “the exhaust gases . . . disperse without odour.” Perhaps Jarrott’s sense of smell was keener than that of the ingenious French inventor. Perhaps here we have the real basis of Mr. Rose’s condemnation of alcohol on the grounds that “the drivers disliked it.”
In any case, the really mysterious part of the whole affair is that after this date so little more is heard, until quite recent years, of alcohol fuel. The French Government continued for a long time to be very difficult about granting permission for races; if it had really wanted to push alcohol, it could surely have made its use a condition of all future events on French roads. As it was, practically all designers soon reverted to the use of petrol, with a few notable exceptions. As has already been remarked, alcohol particularly suited the double-piston engine, and in 1908 there appeared the 110-h.p., four-cylinder, eight-piston Gobron-Brillié, a really remarkable vehicle, which in its prime was quite unbeatable in sprint events, such as hillclimbs, and which continued to hold its own in long-distance races with the most modern cars until about 1907. This machine was habitually run on alcohol, and in its description of it the Autocar remarked that “the old positive carburetter has been replaced by one of the constant-level type and the gases are conveyed to the other side of the engine by a pipe passing between the two (blocks of) cylinders. This pipe is jacketed, so as to be warmed by the water from the engine, this arrangement being particularly necessary in the event of its running with alcohol.”
The dimensions of this Gobron-Brillié engine were 140 by 220 mm., and the real cause of its penchant for alcohol was stated to be its long stroke. Does this, I wonder, mean a long stroke in an absolute sense, or a stroke that is long in relation to the bore? Really, I imagine, the latter. Now, curiously enough, the Circuit du Nord of 1902, which witnessed the introduction of alcohol fuel, was also the first race to be run under the rule which limited the big cars to a weight of 1,000 kg., and which lasted on until 1906. This limited-weight rule induced designers to build cars with engines that were as large as possible in relation to their weight, and for this, they found, the right thing to do was to increase the bore rather than the stroke. Thus, the 40-h.p. Panhard of the Circuit du Nord had dimensions of 180 by 140 mm., and the 70-h.p., which also appeared in 1902, of 160 by 170 mm. Thereafter, and until Panhard ceased racing in 1908, the stroke remained at 170 mm., while the bore was increased, to 170 mm. for the “square” 90-h.p. of 1904, and to 185 mm. for the 180-h.p. of the 1906 Grand Prix, the last race run under the old rules. Was it this process, in which Panhard et Levassor were typical of contemporary thought, that was responsible for the abandonment of alcohol?
If so, it is curious that the limited bore rule, which reached its apotheosis with the 100 by 300 mm. single-cylinder de Dion racing engine of 1910, the 80 by 280-mm. V-twin, and the 65 by 260-mm. four-cylinder Peugeot engines of the same date, did not re-awaken alcoholic reveries. Actually they were left, apparently, to the days of the supercharger and the petrol famine.