Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The New Chevy Volt And An Old Nash Rambler

GM is touting the Chevy Volt as getting 230 miles per gallon. Big deal. Been there, done that, never had to buy gasoline.

This is a tale of what could have been done a half-century ago - and wasn't - to save energy, save the planet and save billions of dollars.

In the late 1950s, my dad bought a new Nash Rambler. It had a thimble of gas in it so he filled the tank as soon as he left the dealer. A month later, the gas needle hadn't budged off full so he took it back thinking there was something wrong with the gague. Nope, it worked fine. Another month of driving and it was still showing more than 3/4 full. Back to the dealer, still nothing wrong.

Convinced there was something amiss, my dad stopped at a gas station to "fill 'er up" as people said in those days. (Windows got washed and oil checked, too, by "attendants" who often wore white uniforms and a cap.) It took less than a dollar to top up the tank. Totally befuddled, he kept driving but couldn't shake the feeling that at any moment the gas gague would suddenly show empty and he'd coast to a stop somewhere on a lonely highway late at night.

Until George Romney at The American Motors Co. sent him a letter.

It seemed that, somehow, an experimental car with a new engine that wasn't supposed to leave the factory did. Dad ended up buying it. Nash told him that if he'd return the car, he could pick any Nash model in the showroom - free, and Nash would pay off his $900 bank loan on the Rambler to boot. Acting out of greed rather than smarts, he immediately turned his then-five month old car in for a big, honking, gas guzzling, Nash Ambassador with huge fins and no loan. The Rambler's tank was still more than half full when he exchanged keys with the dealer.

Dad spent less than one dollar on gas in his five months of driving it, during which time he logged more than 10,000 miles.

American Motors and Nash have long-since disappeared. But if the auto industry could build that kind of fuel efficient, gas powered engine in the 1950s, why did it stop and why is the Volt such a big deal?