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What If?

Written by Jim Hinckley

June 9, 2021

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Are alternative fuel vehicles new? Before 1912, the year Cadillac introduced the first practical electric starter; almost 80% of all vehicles produced in the United States were either steam or electric powered. In 1899 an unfortunate fellow named Henry Bliss becomes the first pedestrian killed by an automobile in the United States. He was struck by an electric taxi cab in New York City.

Contrary to popular opinion the oil companies played only a small part of the story. It was the American consumer and science that are largely responsible for the death of alternative energy vehicles in the early 20th century. Then as now few buyers were willing to spend their hard earned dollars for a vehicle that requires a half hour wait to build a head of steam. As you may imagine, sales weren’t brisk for a car that cost more than a Buick but yet only had a range of 85 miles at 25 miles per hour.

History is a fascinating subject even though it often gets a bad rap resultant of bad teaching that presents it as something as dry as burnt toast and as exciting as a three day life insurance seminar. The more one delves into history the more we learn that solutions for modern problems can be found in the past. It is even more intriguing to find that increasing knowledge shows how little we know. No where is this more evident than in the subject of automotive evolution.

What about hybrid vehicles? The development of these vehicles offers some exciting glimpses of the future. I have a surprise. In 1917 the Woods Dual Electric was billed as the “Car That Soils the Air Less”. In essence the car, around town, operated as an electric car. At higher speeds it used a four cylinder gasoline engine with a generator that charged the batteries.

Is the use of composite materials for body panels new? No. Many early innovators realized the potential increase in fuel economy, as well as a potential increase in speed without a corresponding increase in horsepower, by lightening the weight of the vehicle. The Marmon Company pioneered the use of aluminum in automotive applications. Benjamin Briscoe took a different route with the Briscoe Cloverleaf roadster. The car featured laminated Papier-mâché body panels over a wooden framework. And Henry Ford experimented with a form of plastic made from soybeans. He even went so far as to build an experimental car with numerous panels made from this material. He eventually settled on simply producing dash knobs and ancillary components.

New cars with computerized fuel injection are more efficient? Yes and no. They are more efficient in combining fuel economy with what has come to be considered necessities of life – air conditioning, power steering and similar gadgets. However, the 1968 Checker was a roomy car that offered comfortable seating for at least seven and a Perkins diesel engine option. In this configuration testing indicated an average of nearly thirty miles to the gallon.

The diminutive Crosley, with almost no comfort of any kind, was, in 1941, found to have delivered 50.4 miles per gallon on a 6,517-mile endurance run. Hudson, one of the most comfortable riding cars ever built and almost large enough to get its own zip code, in economy runs, consistently rated in excess of 25 miles per gallon. Many Chrysler products, outfitted with overdrive, built in the 1930s obtained similar results.

Older cars, with original drive trains, are impossible to find parts for. Another myth. A Yale forklift, with Chrysler industrial engine, built in 1976 features many components that are readily available at many parts houses. These same components such as water pumps and fuel pumps will work on most any Chrysler product with a six-cylinder engine produced between 1934 and 1962. A lot of Chevrolet truck parts are interchangeable between vehicles produced from 1939 to 1970.

Older cars are better than new cars. Not on your life. In the years before 1970 most automobiles, largely the result of oil quality, required an engine overhaul by 100,000 miles. Surprisingly that phobia persists to this day. To keep a car running properly regular tune ups – including carburetor adjustment or overhaul, points, plugs and wires were needed. The difference, however, was that the average Joe, or Jill, could perform many of these tasks on a Saturday afternoon. The motorist with a willingness to get his hands dirty on occasion had independence.

American cars are the best. In a time not so many years ago this was the case without question. However, many foreign companies have scooped us in the quality department. And there is now enough international corporate incest to completely blur the lines. A Dodge truck may be built in Mexico with components produced in Japan as well as the United States. Toyota’s are built in the United States. The Chrysler story in the 21st century is self-explanatory.

One final myth buster. There is almost nothing new on automobiles except for electrical innovation, refinement of electrical systems and related components. This would, of course, include computer systems – mixed blessings at best.

Most everything else has been tried and done. Four wheel steering – Checker in 1941, numerous experimental models from 1900 forward. Disc brakes, first tried in 1906. Front wheel drive, earliest experimental models in 1903, successful production models, Ruxton and Cord, in 1929.

Cast aside any preconceived notions you may have and discover the adventure that is history. Seek the answers for the future in the past and be prepared to be surprised.

Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America 

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