NEW ZEALAND CLASSIC CAR PRICE ON Petrol — no, make that ethanol!
Why couldn’t we have just stuck with leaded petrol?
Our esteemed editor recently drew my attention to a news clipping from Hawaii, of all places, indicating that legislation was to be introduced there to repeal the provision in Federal law that requires petrol sold across the US to contain a percentage of ethanol. Being a conspiracy theorist from way back, I had already been researching the topic, primarily on the basis that ethanol is no good for our classic cars.
There has been much press about the topic, and it seems to have started in the US in or around 2003, when there were lower gasoline inventories and higher prices than in previous years. Prior to that, one must recall the demise of leaded petrol — hastened by the Environmental Protection Agency, which determined that ‘leaded’ petrol was dangerous to your (our) health. Petrol companies struggled to find a suitable replacement for octane boosting, and early experiments with methyl tertiarybutyl ether (MTBE) ultimately found this wanting. In New Zealand, the highly dangerous and cancer-causing toluene was initially added at rates in excess of 54 per cent. The result — numerous breakdowns and fires — was hotly (no pun intended) denied by the New Zealand oil companies.
One outcome was an official acknowledgement that piston-engined planes, racing cars, and motorbikes, not to mention jet boats, simply couldn’t run on anything other than avgas (high-octane leaded petrol) — and that type of fuel can still be accessed today.
Around 2003, some US states started phasing out MTBE in favour of ethanol. Ethanol, for those who are unfamiliar with the substance, is derived from sugars fermented by yeasts, and, according to my research, the drive to add it to petrol came from the global oil industry and, to a lesser extent, the European Union. As you would expect, the Federation of Historic Vehicles in the UK was quick off the mark in trying to ensure that the classic car fraternity was not disadvantaged by the addition of yet another dubious additive and, in the case of ethanol, one of questionable consequences for older cars.
Here in New Zealand, Gull markets an ethanol blend that, at present, does not exceed 10 per cent. The next local step is apparently to increase the percentage to 15 — thus, the fuel will be known as ‘E15’. The worry for the classic car enthusiast is the proposal to increase this, internationally, to 85 per cent (E85). E85 is already available here.
So why is Hawaii legislating ethanol out of its petrol? Well, I have always believed that it is no good for older cars; if it is that good, why can’t piston-engined planes, racing cars and bikes, and jet boats use it? The fact they cannot is why they can still legally access avgas.
However, it would seem that the new Hawaii legislation is more about officially recognizing that the addition of ethanol does not produce any economic benefit to Hawaii, and its import (separately from petrol) creates an economic burden for Hawaiians. Further, ethanol increases water formation, which can corrode metals and dissolve plastics and rubber, especially over the time when a vehicle is not being used. Current high-performance speciality parts, along with pre-2001 cars and parts, may be the most susceptible to corrosion. The lifespan of such vehicles and equipment can be dramatically reduced with the wrong fuel, and owners could be confronted with breakdowns.
If any readers have been to Hawaii, they might recall that there is a thriving rentalcar industry that rents out classic cars; the industry, therefore, may be affected by the addition of ethanol.
Looking into the topic a bit further, I noted that other US states are contemplating legislating against the requirement to add ethanol to petrol. Florida ended its mandate in 2013, and Maine is not far away from doing the same.
New-car manufacturers are already producing cars that will run on the ethanol-based E85 fuel, but these are clearly labelled as ‘flexi-fuel’ cars.
As far as my vehicles are concerned, I would not use an ethanol-blended fuel in any of them. In fact, I periodically have the odd ‘senior moment’ and forget which petrol goes in which and end up (mistakenly, I hasten to add) with some higher-than-normal-octane petrol in a tank. This is evidenced by a nice grey exhaust pipe and the fact the affected car or bike runs so much better.
As an aside, did you know that in the years following the demise of our leaded petrol back in the mid 1990s, the actual reported lead levels in the atmosphere increased markedly?
Various experts tell us that, under ideal conditions, a petrol-ethanol blend is perfectly acceptable. But all would add the proviso that, as consumers, we cannot control those conditions, and so we have no way of knowing if the fuel has been contaminated. And don’t lose track of the fact that the whole issue of adding ethanol to petrol arose out of the US’S inability to access reasonably priced oil — a problem it has since resolved by producing enough for its own needs, so it is no longer dependant on the Middle East for its requirements. This is why some US states are now reviewing the need to add ethanol to petrol.
Back in the very early days of motoring, Model Ts used to run on ethanol, and during the rationing period of World War II, creosote was one of the weird and wonderful things that enterprising Kiwis used.
In the meantime, if you want my advice, don’t use any petrol blended with ethanol at 10 per cent, and certainly not any at 15 per cent, in your classic vehicles, unless you want to spend much of your spare time with your head under the bonnet, replacing those hard-to-get parts.
You have been warned!