Saving fuel goes back to the Fifties

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In the past economy runs, in which the results depended on fuel consumption, were part of the competition scene. Fuel tanks were sealed and consumption checked at the end of a suitably testing long run. It was the Cheltenham Car Club which virtually introduced this type of event to this country in the early 50s, and in 1955 the Hants and Berks MC organised the Mobilgas Economy Run, organised by Joe Lowrey and Bob Gotts. Mobil said that they would put in a lot of money and develop it into an international event provided it was not run by Joe and Bob, so in 1956 Holly Birkett took it over and ran it until his aeroplane crash in 1963.

The early Mobil Runs were scientific exercises to see how economically cars could run with no holds barred, but over the years more experience and stiffer routes brought the resulting mpg figures closer to those of normal drivers.

In 1960 Mobil’s Alex Mosley invited members of the motoring press to drive the last two days of the route, offering to produce any car the journalist cared to name! I decided on a Wolseley 1500 for its small size, comparatively large engine and high axle ratio; as co-driver I chose Miss Jill Donisthorpe, hoping that her private aeroplane licence and experience in driving across the Sahara would stand us in good stead.

This year the event was restricted to standard current British cars, maintaining an average of 30mph over the narrow lanes of Yorkshire and Cornwall. Each car carried an observer who would ensure the Highway Code was adhered to and that no downhill coasting occurred. Cars with overdrive had to cover a certain distance with these locked out. Scrutineering involved gearbox, sumps and back axles being drained and refilled, petrol tank levels scientifically checked and then the cars impounded before the early start from Weston-Super-Mare. Over dinner we observed competitors arriving from their first day’s drive up to Harrogate, returning via Whitchurch and Bath. Already some cars bore minor damage. At first I feather-footed through the lanes to conserve petrol but soon we were being left behind. The Wolseley made light of Porlock and Station Hill and then in pouring rain we gained time by cruising at 40/50mph to Truro. On Bluehills Mine the front-wheel-drive cars required three up in front to obtain grip. At Truro Jill took over and the route started to take us over narrow undulating lanes which slowed our schedule, and foolishly getting lost several times did not help.

By early evening we came into Plymouth and then on to Exeter via Dartmoor; but after getting lost again the idea of saving petrol was forgotten. We were now very much behind and came to controls as they were closing, RAC signs were being removed and the VW backmarker was waiting impatiently for us to pass. We arrived through fog at a damp and miserable Weymouth with the prospect of a 5.30am start for the last day. The run to Worthing via the Montagu Motor Museum was much easier, though our fuel gauge read ‘empty’ with 30 miles still to go to the next control. We just made the last control in Winchester, contemplating what a pleasant drive it would have been under less exacting conditions.

More cars had suffered minor damage. The Hants and Berks MC assessed the consumption and others worked out the results. The outright winner was E Jones who averaged 40.39mpg, in a Standard Ensign. Our Wolseley gave 36.28mpg or probably rather better as we had covered more miles than were strictly necessary, compared to a genuine competing Wolseley 1500, winning its class at 46.44mpg. At the celebration dinner the Mobil Company announced a ½d reduction on the price of petrol.

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