A front-page headline in the Appeal on Nov. 30, 1936, reads: "Claim Mystery Carburetor Will Give 400 Miles on a Gallon of Gasoline." The story underneath the headline, sent to me by Chic DiFrancia, who spends as much time reading old newspapers as he does new ones, details the invention of 38-year-old Charles Nelson Pogue, of Winnipeg, Manitoba, who turned the automotive world upside down for a time with his claims of outrageous gas mileage.
"Pogue has reported exhaustive tests made with a popular low-priced car, equipped with the new carburetor, showed an average mileage of 216 miles per gallon of standard gasoline," reads the wire-service report in the Appeal.
Pogue's invention is the stuff of legend - so much so, in fact, that it can be found among debunked Urban Legends. As it is usually told, the reason we don't have a 200 mpg carburetor today is that Evil Government or Evil Big Oil either stole Pogue's invention or paid him to shut up.
"As sometimes happens in the world of urban legends, desire for something to be true transforms a rumor into certainty that this very thing is fact," reports snopes.com. "Over the years, our legend about a 200 mpg car has bobbed to the surface in community after community, been debunked in numerous respected publications, and bobbed right back up in the wake of those debunkings. The need to believe in this wondrous technology and the evil car manufacturers who are deliberately withholding it from the market appears too strong to combat."
But wait. There's more to the story.
Pogue did exist, and he had a patent for a carburetor that supposedly vaporized the gas and made it burn far more efficiently.
A reporter tracked him down in Montreal in 1953 and tried to drag some answers from him.
"After some questioning, Pogue admitted that his own automobile ran for 10 years on one of his carburetors, but he refused to divulge performance figures for that period. Further, he denied that he ever claimed that the invention offered 200 miles per gallon - or even half of that. When pinned down, however, Pogue refused to name the figure he claims has been 'violently distorted by newspaper and magazine writers.'"
He also said he'd been pressured by politicians and oil company representatives and, along with a partner, spent $200,000 trying to manufacture the carburetor. But it wasn't cost-effective to make, "and then the war came along ... "
So forget it. There's no such thing as a 200 mpg carburetor, except that ....
The story resurfaced in 2003, when a retired mechanic named Patrick Davies supposedly found Pogue's long-last plans in an old toolbox.
"Davies had owned the tool box for 40 years but only recently decided to clean it out," reads one account. "As well as drawings of the carburetor, the envelope contained two pages of plans, three test reports and six pages of notes written by Pogue.
"They included a report of a test that Pogue had done on his lawnmower, which showed that he had managed to make the engine run for seven days on a quart (just under a litre) of petrol."
The drawings were to be examined by a university professor, who wanted to try to build a working model of Pogue's carburetor. Another researcher who looked at the plans said it might work "if you're prepared to de-rate the vehicle to a point where, for example, it might take you 10 minutes to accelerate from 0 to 30 mph."
And one other thing. Cars no longer use carburetors. They're fuel-injected.
The fact is that cars are now available - the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius - that get 60 miles to the gallon. Both are hybrids, which means they use a combination of gas-powered and electrical motors. (Among the worst gas-guzzlers, by the way, are the Hummer H2, Dodge Ram 1500 and Chevy Silverado C2500, which can get less than 10 mpg and are exempt from federal fuel economy standards.)
So the technology is there, but not many people are buying these cars yet.
I read with interest the story this week on the Appeal's front page about the Electric Highway, where California has set up free plug-in stations for people with all-electric cars. Sounds great until you find out that it takes five hours to recharge the batteries.
Don Quilici, who drives the same kind of 18 mpg pickup truck I do, gave me a list of gas prices around the world.
They're probably having a fit in Venezuela, where prices have shot up from 12 cents a gallon to 14 cents since April. Outrageous. That's a 16 percent increase!
Of course, Venezuala's government owns the oil wells there, and gasoline is considered to be something of a welfare benefit. I wouldn't move there just for the cheap gas, though.
On the other hand, there are places like Denmark, where the price was $5.08 a gallon this week, and Hong Kong, which was about $5.62.
The biggest differences in gas prices usually have to do with the amount of tax the government collects every time you hit the pump.
That means if you really did have a 400 mpg carburetor on your car, the tax on a gallon of gas would have to be about $16 a gallon. Otherwise, how would we continue to pay for all those highways?
n Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1221.