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WERE WE LIED TO, AND IF SO, BY WHO?

New Zealand Classic Car - - CONTENTS -

Sift­ing through some old mag­a­zines re­cently, I came across the Fe­bru­ary/ March 1987 is­sue of the Au­to­mo­bile As­so­ci­a­tion’s (AA) Mo­tor World, and noted its front-page ar­ti­cle en­ti­tled “Un­leaded Petrol … Just for the birds? But at what cost to the mo­torist?” I must have ac­quired this mag­a­zine post 1987, as, on read­ing it, I dis­cov­ered that it con­tained some in­for­ma­tion that would have been very use­ful for my sub­se­quent Price On un­leaded ar­ti­cles that I be­gan writ­ing for this mag­a­zine in the mid-to-late 1990s.

I can re­call tak­ing the AA to task back then about why it didn’t (seem) to be tak­ing up the cud­gels on be­half of the hap­less mo­torists. Quickly re­cap­ping for those read­ers who have only ever known un­leaded and its vari­a­tions: we were thrust into the fi­asco in 1995 when un­leaded petrol was in­tro­duced with dra­matic con­se­quences — such as fires and me­chan­i­cal prob­lems — which were at­trib­uted to the qual­ity of the petrol, or rather, the lack of qual­ity.

At the time of the in­tro­duc­tion of un­leaded petrol into New Zea­land, Trish Duffy was New Zea­land Clas­sic Car mag­a­zine’s writer of choice, and the then-ed­i­tor Greg Vin­cent asked me to step up to the plate and take over, as Trish had been in re­ceipt of threats and the like. Not just lov­ing con­fronta­tion, but thriv­ing on it, I hap­pily stepped up, armed with much of the re­search that Trish had con­ducted — but miss­ing this spiel from the 1987 AA mag­a­zine. Un­for­tu­nately, when the prover­bial hit the fan, both Trish and I were out of the coun­try (I was in the US), and Greg Vin­cent was left to front the me­dia. Pretty much like to­day’s pol­i­tics, we saw the then–prime min­is­ter Jim Bol­ger tell us via TV news that, “If the petrol is un­sat­is­fac­tory then the oil com­pa­nies will be made to with­draw it!”

Yeah, right! Like that ever hap­pened! Five min­utes later, we were as­sured that it was OK and that the fires and me­chan­i­cal prob­lems were un­re­lated to the petrol! Which would ex­plain why there were con­fi­den­tial set­tle­ments ev­ery­where. Un­for­tu­nately, the sta­tis­tics pro­duced by the Fire Ser­vice didn’t sup­port the idea that petrol was the cause of the fires for some rea­son.

How­ever, the prob­lem with the petrol at the time was the re­sult of ex­ces­sive amounts of toluene (54 per cent) be­ing added to in­crease the oc­tane level. Toluene is highly de­struc­tive to older rub­ber parts, caus­ing the rub­ber to swell sig­nif­i­cantly with re­sul­tant leak­ing of fuel. Com­bined that with hot en­gine parts, and, nek min­nit, your pride and joy is ablaze. Te­traethyl lead (the ‘ lead’ in leaded petrol) was also nec­es­sary for pre­vent­ing ‘ knock­ing’, or ‘pink­ing’, in the older (and also high-com­pres­sion) en­gines, and, when this was re­moved, many en­gines failed. One might have thought that some­one would have seen this com­ing.

Well, the AA did back in 1987. Un­leaded petrol was set to be in­tro­duced into New Zea­land in Jan­uary of 1988. The AA main­tained that only be­tween 20 and 30 per cent of the ve­hi­cle fleet would be able to run on un­leaded. This fig­ure is close to what I was quot­ing in the mid-to-late 1990s; rather, I was claim­ing that some 80 per cent would re­quire leaded petrol. One of the myths be­ing pro­moted prior to its in­tro­duc­tion was that the ‘ lead’ was harm­ful to chil­dren. Other health con­cerns were al­luded to — mainly from overseas sources.

In 1986, the Mars­den Point re­fin­ery low­ered the ‘ lead’ con­tent from 0.84 grams per litre ( gl) to 0.45gl, with a fur­ther drop to 0.15gl planned by 1990. I’d have to say that, hav­ing the same car as back then, I didn’t re­ally no­tice any dif­fer­ence — but then I’ve been a bit naughty and ab­sent­mind­edly putting some of my rac­ing fuel in it!

While New Zea­land politi­cians were ex­tolling the ben­e­fits of un­leaded to us (which were be­ing fed to them by oilin­dus­try lob­by­ists), the AA (in 1987) mean­while was telling us that ac­cord­ing to the then Min­istry of En­ergy, “Re­mov­ing lead from all petrol would be ex­tremely im­prac­ti­cal be­cause three-quar­ters of our cars need lead. The in­creased oc­tane level from lead makes them run bet­ter and they need the lu­bri­ca­tion lead pro­vides for the valves.”

Dam­age con­trol

Once the dam­age sto­ries started to sur­face post un­leaded’s in­tro­duc­tion in 1995, the spin doc­tors (read: com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­agers) emerged on be­half of the oil in­dus­try, and the stand­out spin doc­tor for BP, one Bep­pie Holm, quickly be­came the spokes­woman for all the oil com­pa­nies — and she was very good at what she did. One ra­dio sta­tion con­tacted me in ad­vance of one of her ap­pear­ances, want­ing me to phone in and take her to task. This was, for all in­tents and pur­poses, an am­bush, but de­spite the ad­van­tage that I had of know­ing most of the ar­gu­ments, Bep­pie stuck to her script and was nigh on im­pos­si­ble to budge from her ar­gu­ments — even for me! Hind­sight is a won­der­ful thing, but, in an­swer to the ques­tion, “Why can’t the in­dus­try sim­ply sup­ply three types of fuel?” Bep­pie Holm replied that it would re­quire petrol sta­tions to have three stor­age tanks and that would not be eco­nom­i­cal. But what do you see when you drive into a BP sta­tion these days? Three dis­tinct pumps dis­pens­ing 91 oc­tane,

Te­traethyl lead (the ‘lead’ in leaded petrol) was also nec­es­sary for pre­vent­ing ‘knock­ing’, or ‘pink­ing’, in the older (and also high-com­pres­sion) en­gines, and, when this was re­moved, many en­gines failed

95 oc­tane, and 98 oc­tane. Now, when I went to school I was taught that that would mean

three stor­age tanks.

Myth busters

One of the myths sur­round­ing un­leaded that con­tin­ues to ran­kle me is the con­tention that lead in petrol is detri­men­tal to health. Yes, lead is poi­sonous and so much so that all cases of lead poi­son­ing must be re­ported to the Min­istry of Health. Yet, up un­til the last time I checked, there have been no cases of lead poi­son­ing at­trib­uted to the lead in petrol! All lead poi­son­ing to date has been at­trib­ut­able to the in­hala­tion of fumes from (wait for it!) leaded paint. And, with the re­build of Christchurch post the earthquakes and the cow­boys do­ing house ren­o­va­tions blow­ing old leaded paint par­ti­cles into the air, I’m sure those fig­ures will in­crease.

I would also ar­gue that if the so-called lead in petrol was that deadly, then where are all the dead road­side-teth­ered goats? And, since the abo­li­tion of leaded petrol as we knew it, would you be­lieve that the at­mo­spheric lev­els of ‘ lead’ in the air have ac­tu­ally in­creased?

Back then, I had some very in­ter­est­ing and long chats with some in­ter­na­tional in­dus­try play­ers. One oil ex­ec­u­tive told me that the main mo­tive be­hind the in­dus­try want­ing to get rid of leaded petrol was that the in­dus­try sim­ply wanted to make just the one grade of petrol (91 oc­tane). Another, who was as­so­ci­ated with the in­dus­try that pro­duced te­traethyl lead, wasn’t both­ered be­cause they would sim­ply be mak­ing the oc­tane booster.

Oc­tane boost­ers

And speak­ing of oc­tane boost­ers, here we are in 2018, and the oil in­dus­try seem­ingly still can­not make a high-oc­tane petrol with­out the use of te­traethyl lead! The jet-boat in­dus­try is still able to legally ac­cess av­gas (rac­ing fuel) for its high-pow­ered boats, and, as long as we still have pis­ton-engined planes and mo­tor sport, leaded fuel will be required.

It’s now some 23 years on from the in­tro­duc­tion of un­leaded petrol and while ‘ lead-re­place­ment’ ad­di­tives are still avail­able at petrol sta­tions, and var­i­ous ‘ lead­replace­ment’ gad­getry can be pur­chased on­line, and it’s ob­vi­ous that the in­dus­try could have con­tin­ued to pro­vide three grades of petrol, one might ask why it was ever nec­es­sary to go down this path at all? I re­call a prime min­is­ter in the late 1980s claim­ing that when leaded petrol was even­tu­ally in­tro­duced, only 22 per cent of the fleet would re­quire it. I re­mem­ber ask­ing at the time, where would the other 78 per cent of ve­hi­cles that still required it dis­ap­pear to? In­ter­est­ingly, they haven’t. So, why is that? Per­haps some of them haven’t cov­ered the 10,000–15,000 miles es­ti­mated to ex­haust the rem­nants of lead in the en­gines?

What­ever! I still reckon it was all a big con. Just say­ing!

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