|1959 Opel Set Guinness Mileage Record -- 377 mpg -- in 1973|
|February 20, 2008 From Seattle Post-Intelligencer|
|Under the Needle: Hybrids, meet your rival
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER February 20, 2008
Finally something to wipe the smug off you hybrid owners, you high-mileage acolytes, you global-cooling zealots who wash your Priuses (Prii?) with graywater while wearing reclaimed plastic fleece and hemp undies.
Don't choke on your organic soy-double-decaf-fair-trade-carbon-neutral macchiato, but how does 376.59 miles per gallon sound? Makes your Honda Civic hybrid look Hummeresque, doesn't it?
That number doesn't come from some manta ray-shaped, wind tunnel-vetted carbon fiber space car. No, it's from a chop-top, steel-frame 1959 Opel T-1 (think melting jelly bean, but uglier). And the record was set in 1973 in a contest sponsored by Shell Oil Co.
Yes, that Shell Oil, better known now as Royal Dutch Shell.
Evan McMullen, owner of Seattle-based Cosmopolitan Motors, rediscovered the Guinness world-record-setting but forgotten car in Florida.
The buzz of the automotive engineering circles in the early 1970s and winner of the Wood River Competition for the planet's top mileage car, the little Opel had been bought by the France family, owners of NASCAR, and gifted to the museum at Talladega raceway.
And there it sat, mostly in anonymity, until McMullen, 45, heard about it and made his move. He now owns the car and hopes to sell it, maybe to a technological museum at an auction in September in Indiana.
He has a few questions about the car, about its worth mainly, but the provenance seems genuine. Guinness listed it in its 1975 record book. Technological journals from the era waxed about the Opel's simple but effective modifications and engineering.
But McMullen's biggest question is why? Why didn't this technology find its way into the mainstream? Why did the car sit unremarked, unremembered for so long?
"If this is something they could do back in the 1970s, what happened?" he asked, poring over paperwork, including patents, for the car.
"Certainly in 34 years we could do something to make this work."
Especially with gas climbing and then bivouacking above $3 a gallon. Especially when its relatively ancient technology bettered the best hybrid mileage by a 6-1 ratio.
To be sure, the Opel isn't much on looks, luxury or performance. The team that built it stripped the interior of everything but a seat, chopped the top to lower its wind resistance. They narrowed the rear axle, used super-hard low-friction tires and a chain drive to save weight.
The mileage from the mostly stock four-cylinder came from heating and insulating the fuel line so the gas entered the engine as lean vapor. Then they drove the car on a closed course at a steady 30 mph.
So some of that wouldn't work in the street, McMullen concedes. But if the car were made more drivable and lost 200 mpg -- it still would get 176 mpg.
"Here's a car that was 20 years old at the time of the contest that was the project of a couple of guys in a garage," he said. "You can't tell me we can't do better than this with cars today."
So McMullen wants to see who wants the car.
And he hopes there's something to be learned about the future while looking at the past, in an era when even the oil companies sometimes responded to OPEC fuel crises by promoting conservation.
"They tell us hybrids are the answer," he said. "I think the answer, at least part of it, is right here."
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