Classic Cars Don't Drink Ethanol
By Glenn Arlt
As a proclaimed-in-my-job-description automobile expert, I recently was asked a question about whether someone could, or should, use E85 fuel in a 1975 gasoline “collector” automobile.
In short, "NO."
E85, which is a mix of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, should not be used in any vehicle unless it is specifically designated at manufacture as a "flex-fuel" vehicle. If you do use E85 in any gasoline car, not even just a collector car, it may be severely damaged. E85 in a car not designed for it can cause corrosion in the fuel system, damage seals and hoses and wash lubrication off the engine's cylinder walls. In addition, both E85 and widely available E10 will loosen old sludge, varnish and dirt from the inside of the fuel tank, and once these are suspended in the fuel, it will cause clogged fuel lines and fuel filters as well as block carburetor jets or fuel injectors.
It's a well-known fact that the use of E85 in a "flex-fuel" vehicle capable of using gasoline, E10 or E85, will provide far fewer miles per gallon when using E85 compared to gasoline (officially and generally stated by the Ethanol industry as a 30% drop). This is because ethanol has far less energy per gallon than does gasoline despite a higher natural octane number.
In an old John Wayne movie called "The Quiet Man" there is a scene in which the old gentleman matchmaker is asked if he would like a shot of whiskey. And would he care for water in it? He responds "Straight! When I want to drink water, I drink water. When I want to drink whiskey, I drink whiskey!" I look at it the same way for our automobiles. Gasoline automobiles were designed for gasoline, not ethanol alcohol, not methanol alcohol. As far as I'm concerned, I want gasoline for my gasoline cars, and when I get an alternative fuel car, the required energy source is what I'll use, whether I plug the car in to the wall socket to charge it overnight, use bio-diesel, compressed natural gas, propane, or hydrogen. I’m clearly not going to pour gasoline or ethanol into the electric socket or natural gas filler, right? Therefore, how stupid is it to demand that gasoline automobiles are fuelled by alcohol mixes for which they were never designed?
I personally try my best to avoid E10 for my collector car and daily use cars, too. Corvair carburetors are difficult enough to keep going without the additional handicap of Ethanol blends. Unfortunately, locally, about 1/3 of the stations are blending 10% ethanol as a "filler" (since we are not required by the Federal Government to have it as an oxygenate fuel additive locally). You can tell the difference by the "sweet" smell of E10 compared to a normal gasoline smell.
I've noted in my wife's "daily driver" that the MPG dropped from 24 to about 18 on E10, which is a 25% drop in efficiency from a 10% ethanol solution in the fuel. The needle in the gas gauge dropped like a proverbial lead balloon. Clearly, the car used far more imported crude oil because of the ethanol in the fuel (in addition to emptying out my wallet even faster than normal, too). This reality would obviously be counter to the desired and oft publicized intent of mixing ethanol to reduce oil imports in the United States. But then, most of our politicians mandating this stuff have the apparent logic processing abilities of an amoeba.
In my own "daily use" vehicle, a Toyota Prius gasoline-electric hybrid (which has a mile per gallon computer and read-out) I've noted a 7% to 20% drop in MPG when (accidentally) using E10. Going from 50 MPG to 40 MPG dings the wallet quite considerably; this is the car we use most (my wife and I carpool). I've noted similar MPG reductions in every single car I've ever tested E10 in since 1979 (when it was called "gasohol").
The other “interesting” fact about corn-derived ethanol is that it can be said that it has a “liquid sunshine factor” of only 30%. That is to say, 70% of the derived energy (used in producing ethanol from corn) is derived from OIL. This clearly makes ethanol the most wasteful and wrong-headed “alternative fuel” available. Let’s also remember that most “flex-fuel” vehicles are huge 5000 pound dinosaurs of SUV, van or truck.
To make matters even worse, if that were possible, I recently read that one tank full (30 gallons) of E85 poured into a "flex-fuel" vehicle removes enough food from the global table to feed one human being for a year, and that already in Mexico there have been riots due to food prices doubling or worse. Mexican farmers can get more for their corn by selling it for ethanol production than for tortilla production, so they are. For myself, I cannot sanction unintentionally but knowingly depriving someone of food so I can drive a 5000 pound vehicle to Burger King instead of doing a burger on my barbeque, or so I can go bowling instead of walking my dog, or see a movie in town instead of watching a DVD.
Therefore, because the current Government of Michigan (the collective IQ of which is in the range of yeast) is looking to mandate E10 state-wide (joining Minnesota, Montana, and Hawaii as well as California, Chicagoland and most northeastern states under Federal oxygenate requirements), my next new car will be some form of alternative fuel vehicle (not "flex-fuel" ethanol). I'm hoping Honda will begin selling a compressed natural gas Civic for personal use in states other than California and New York within a few years. Otherwise, I may have to purchase a plug-in electric automobile before they are mass-production affordable and once again be an “early adopter.” In 2005, I bought a Prius before most other buyers even knew they existed, and fully 98.5% of the population have never even been in a hybrid car yet, never mind bought one.
I do believe that the purely electric car is going to be the way to go to eventually replace 1/2 of the cars on the road, simply because the "fuel infrastructure" is already in place: electric plugs. Driving 150 miles on $3 of electricity also appeals to me. Miles automotive are introducing a compact electric sedan in 2008 (80 mph maxima, up to a 150 mile range, "nearly affordable" at $32,000), while Subaru and Mitsubishi are apparently introducing subcompact electric hatchbacks by 2010. Not forgetting Phoenix SUVs and SUTs, in very limited production right now. GM recently also showed a mid-sized Volt electric concept car at the Detroit auto show, the production of which is about as likely as the Titanic refloating itself and sailing into New York under its own steam. Assuming GM even survives to 2010.
Can anyone else see the future possibilities of having U-Haul or Penske or Hertz or Enterprise, renting out 1-wheeled / 2-horizontal-pivot-under-bumper-connection trailers for purely electric vehicles, on which a diesel generator and (bio?) diesel fuel tank is situated under a cover and plugged into the electric car? This would clearly and obviously enable upwards of 90% of the vehicle fleet to be purely electric, and still allow the long-distance family vacation by car. (Why a 1-wheel trailer? Because most people cannot “reverse” cars with trailers, and a 1-wheel trailer needs no special skills to reverse while attached; the centrally placed wheel pivots around and simply carries the load above it).
Therefore, it would appear obvious that an “Electron Economy” is far and away a better transportation solution worldwide than an “Ethanol Economy” or even a “Hydrogen Economy.”
Glenn Arlt lives and northern Michigan and is the "auto expert" for Traverse City-based Hargerty Plus, a unit of Hagerty Insurance. He hopes that his grandchildren's future is a modern life rather than 1820's-style-post-oil-and-nothing-to-replace-it life.
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