This week we heard General Motors tout the fuel efficiency of its electric Chevy Volt at an astonishing 230 miles per gallon. The Volt, set for a 2010 debut, is one of many alternative fuel automobiles under development. Honda this week reiterated its commitment to a hydrogen-powered car. Others will be powered by ethanol, natural gas and bio diesel.
There's a lot of excitement over these cutting-edge technologies, but alternative fuel vehicles are nothing new. In fact, they have been around for a very long time. One of the trailblazers was none other than my father-in-law Joe who tried something entirely new on a 1950 Plymouth, similar to the one pictured--converting its six-cylinder gasoline engine to run on propane!
Joe was always a tinkerer. Too financially strapped to finish his education in the engineering school of the University of Illinois in the Great Depression, Joe always maintained his dreams while working in his father's restaurant on North Avenue in Chicago.
He produced elaborately detailed and precisely lettered drawings of a locking mechanism for which he hoped to get a patent. Decades later, he did get a patent for an unique swinging-arm depth gauge for a hand saw.
But Joe always loved cars. In the 1950s he was supporting his family by driving a taxi in Chicago, and over the years he got to know a variety of oddball characters. There was Al, the mechanic in the alley somewhere near Devon and Western who supplied my husband, then a child, with ball bearings to use as marbles. There was the body shop man off Broadway who had a big old dog whose fur was covered with the grey dust of paint primer.
The Racing Granatellis
And then there were the Granatellis. Three brothers, Andy, Vince and Joseph got their start in the automotive world when they pooled their resources and opened an auto-repair garage on Chicago's North Side.
They not only repaired cars, they also tinkered, and eventually their interest in engine performance and speed led them to develop racing cars for the Indianapolis 500.
Andy Granatelli was a household name in the 1950s and 1960s. After many attempts, he won the 500 in 1969, not as a driver--Mario Andretti was behind the wheel--but as the owner of the car and the developer of the engineering that made it win.
My father-in-law Joe got to know the Granatellis, and this acquaintance led to to discussions about whether there might be a better, cheaper way to power a car.
Certainly, gasoline was cheap in those days, selling for maybe 25 cents a gallon. But father-in-law Joe owned the taxi he drove, and a car on the road so many hours of the day burned a lot of gasoline and ate into his profit.
Maybe propane would be better, so with the help of the Granatellis, the experiment began, not with the taxi, but with his own Plymouth. My husband was only six years old at the time, but he remembers seeing the big propane tank housed in the trunk of the car, and he remembers the garage where the Granatellis worked.
Joe loved the conversion. He said the engine ran smoothly and had plenty of pep. He concluded that he, indeed, got better gas mileage, and he felt proud that his Plymouth polluted far less than gasoline-powered cars of the day.
Before Its Time
So what happened? The world wasn't ready for a propane-powered car. Joe abandoned the experiment and converted his car back to gasoline because of a lack of fueling facilities in the city. Propane wasn't available at gasoline stations, so he had to seek out dealers who supplied rural homes that relied on the fuel to heat their homes and operate their stoves.
Sound familiar? Honda's hydrogen plans are stymied because of a lack of infrastructure to supply the fuel, and this week the CEO of General Motors said apartment dwellers may have a difficult time with the Chevy Volt because there'd be no place to recharge their batteries if they parked on the street.
Maybe it's time the infrastructure caught up with American ingenuity! What do you think?