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1936-1968 Mobil Oil coast to coast MPG competition

1936-1968 Mobil Oil coast to coast MPG competition

Old 12-25-2006, 10:17 AM
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Default 1936-1968 Mobil Oil coast to coast MPG competition


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December 24, 2006
Coast to Coast in the Pursuit of Economy

YOUR mileage may vary” is so common a catchphrase, in contexts that range far from fuel economy (you may like the movie less than I did; you may have side effects from the medication) that Y.M.M.V. often stands in.

Of course, fuel economy really does differ, for many reasons. By now, the public knows that mileage estimates on a car’s window sticker are often impossible to match in the real world. This is why the Environmental Protection Agency has announced revisions to the estimates.

The E.P.A. computes its numbers from automobiles running on a chassis dynamometer, not a road, in a climate-controlled environment. The fuel is not measured; the figures are calculated solely on the basis of emissions samples.

There was a time when automakers advertised real mileage numbers, as determined in an event that took place every year from 1936, except during World War II, to 1968.

Sponsored by the Mobil Oil Corporation and known as the Mobil Economy Run, the coast-to-coast test captured the public’s imagination, with spectators sometimes lining the test route for a glimpse of the cars.

While fuel economy was not then an overriding factor (for most people) in deciding which model to buy, results of the economy run were heavily promoted by carmakers — at least by the ones who scored well.

All the leading automakers fielded teams of drivers. To guard against illict modifications, the cars were bought at dealerships by the United States Auto Club, which sanctioned and operated the event.

After the cars were in hand, they were checked to ensure that they had standard production parts. Once certified as “stock,” seals were applied to the hoods and chassis and the cars were shipped to the city where the run was to begin.

Cars competed in classes based on wheelbase, engine size, body size and price. Each was assigned a driver and a relief driver.

In the 1964 Mobil Economy Run, I drove for the Chrysler team and was assigned to a Plymouth Valiant compact sedan. My relief driver was a fellow engineer, John Galicki, from the Chrysler Proving Grounds. At the time, I was in the company’s road test department; I had previously worked on the development of the original 1960 Valiant, Chrysler’s first true economy car.

The cars — 45 in all, in 8 classes — set off from Los Angeles and finished in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, at the Socony Mobil Pavilion of the World’s Fair. The run covered 3,243.8 miles and the total allowed running time was 70 hours and 40 minutes.

The smallest car to make the ’64 run was a Chevrolet Corvair and the largest was a Chrysler Imperial. One significant sign of how times have changed: imported cars then accounted for so little of the market that none were included.

While the main event took place April 3-9, my introduction began a few weeks earlier. After the sealed cars were delivered to the teams — the first time I saw the Valiant I was to drive cross-country — each was allowed 2,500 break-in miles. The object was to become familiar with the particular car and to figure out which driving techniques would coax the best mileage from it.

Since we could not tinker with the cars (the auto club’s monitors kept them under watchful eyes), we started a rigorous break-in schedule. The enemy of fuel economy is friction, both inside the engine and in the running gear — all the moving parts that can sap energy. We set out to reduce the cars’ rolling resistance.

Each day when we took our cars from the impound area we drove them as close to wide-open as was prudent in the mountain roads around Los Angeles. One Chrysler driver who had been there before told us, “They only check mileage on the run itself — so get the worst mileage you can now.”

I had been looking forward to this part of the assignment, and though my Valiant was not exactly a sports car, it did well enough in spite of its slow manual steering. I scrubbed the tires mercilessly in corners and thoroughly wore down the brakes — to create clearance between the shoes and drums and prevent any brake dragging, however slight.

The run was conducted like a sports car rally, in that the driver must follow a certain route in a given time and is penalized for arriving late (or early) at designated checkpoints. The Mobil Run not only followed the time-distance criteria of a rally, but added another dimension: very carefully measured gasoline consumption.

Each car’s trunk held a special tank, filled with fuel that had been painstakingly measured, with corrections to take account of the ambient temperature. (The factory fuel tank was disconnected.)

In addition, each car came with a U.S.A.C. observer whose job was to carefully observe — and penalize — any course deviation, traffic violation, speed limit infraction or rolling stop. The observers were rotated daily, lest they become friendly with the drivers and overlooked some rule-breaking.

Thus, it was like driving with a very attentive mother-in-law in the back seat, an eagle eye on the speedometer. You had to be sure you halted completely at every stop sign, and while you could roll through a yellow light, you had to be through an intersection before the red light was visible.

If penalized, a driver had to spend time idling just after the morning start, when other cars were already taking to the road. Time spent idling meant that the daily run had to be made at a slightly higher speed, in addition to gasoline wasted from the cold start in the morning.

The route was secret, and maps for each day’s run were handed out the night before.

The 1964 run had overnight stops in six cities: Phoenix; El Paso; Fort Worth; Memphis; Indianapolis; and Harrisburg, Pa. Temperatures ranged from 34 to 87 degrees and the altitude from 47 feet below sea level to 5,280 feet above. The weather included, according to the official highlights published afterward:

“Heavy rain for 40 miles north of Tucson. Snow, rain, and ground fog between Bisbee and Douglas, Ariz., with winds up to 30 m.p.h. Light showers at start in Memphis. Sections of highways were flooded northeast of Memphis. Overcast with winds to 30 m.p.h. from Harrisburg to end of the run. Very light snow at Staten Island.”

Clearly, these were not the laboratory conditions of the E.P.A.

My car was a Valiant V-100 with a 273-cubic-inch V-8 rated at 180 gross horsepower. It had a three-speed automatic transmission — all the cars had automatics — but lacked any power assist for the steering, brakes, windows and seats. Nor did it have air-conditioning. It was not a lot of fun to drive.

Once break-in was over, the grind began. Although as a test driver I was used to long stints at the wheel, the seven days of high-concentration driving were daunting.

After driving with some abandon during break-in, the economy run itself consisted of driving at fairly high speeds (where legal) to build up a time cushion so that you could slow down when the going became difficult — in city traffic, for example. With my Valiant, the trick was to get to high gear quickly and then back off the throttle just a bit without losing speed. I soon found this to be natural and I still drive that way today.

In those days, the Mobil Economy Run received a lot of national publicity, but even so it was strange to see spectators lining the road in small towns. Our arrival in Phoenix, the first big city, seemed like a holiday parade: flags were flying, bands were playing and crowds of people were waving. I soon got used to this reaction, and it gave me a sense that I was doing something special.

Next day, in El Paso, I received a certificate signed by Mayor Judson F. Williams proclaiming me an honorary citizen who “shall hold a place of high esteem in the minds and hearts of the people of this City.”

Although arriving in each city was an event, the biggest thrill came in Indianapolis, where the whole fleet drove a lap on the Indy 500 track. Approaching the first turn, with the tall grandstands making the track feel like the bottom of a canyon, was an unforgettable experience even at 50 m.p.h.

The last leg into New York City was fairly short (184 miles) and easy. And by that point, there was little I could do to alter the overall fuel economy average reached over the previous six days.

I and my Valiant ended up taking third place in Class B. Our competition included a Rambler American 440 6-cylinder driven by Les Viland, an American Motors engineer with several economy run victories under his belt; a Chevy II 100 6-cylinder; a Dodge Dart 170 V-8; a Chevy II Nova V-8; and a Ford Falcon V-8. Class results were tight except for the Rambler, which averaged 27.8336 m.p.g. and ended up with the best mileage in the entire 1964 economy run. The Chevy II 6 was second, at 23.2182, and my Valiant V-8 finished third, at 23.0851.

Fast forward to 2006, with fuel economy once again a driving concern. Gas prices are higher now, with AAA reporting a national average of $2.327 for regular last Thursday. In 1964, gas was selling for about 30 cents a gallon (about $1.95 in current dollars). The price of each gallon, along with concerns over Middle East imports and global warming, may make 2007 a good time to consider a revival of the economy run. It would not surprise me if, just as in 1964, curious spectators lined the streets when the caravan rolled into town.

Bob Knoll, an engineer who retired in 1997 as auto test director of Consumer Reports, is a frequent contributor to The NY Times.
Old 12-25-2006, 03:24 PM
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Default RE: 1936-1968 Mobil Oil coast to coast MPG competition

I remember the commercials they used to put on TV about that event. It WAS a big deal for the areas that the cars went thru, almost like having the Indy 500 in your town.

I hadn't thought about in years though. Thanks for bringing back the memories!


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