NEW ZEALAND CLAS­SIC CAR PRICE ON Petrol — no, make that ethanol!

Why couldn’t we have just stuck with leaded petrol?

New Zealand Classic Car - - Prcie On - By Greg Price

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.

Ethanol added

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.

Al­ter­na­tive fu­els

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!

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