Mad Max: have carburetor, will travel­


After waxing nostalgic last week about my dad’s fireworks fiasco, I’ve been thinking a lot about his Silver Bullet. That’s what he called his favorite car, a 1973 Lincoln Continental Mark IV. By the time it was handed down to me it needed considerable restoration but I settled for a lick and a promise, just enough to enjoy slinking through Fraser’s highway and byways looking all cool and gangster. But then, miraculously, my brother came through and took it off my hands. Let him find the 40 grand to rehab the beast! But I sure miss the slinking part.

Then I read about a Finn named Vesa Mikkonen who converted a ‘79 Lincoln Mark V to wood power, claiming he got about two kilometers per kilo of wood. I looked out the window at a billion standing tanks of gas and my first thought was “Gimmee my car back!” but then reality intruded and I decided to let sleeping Lincoln’s lie. But in researching wood-powered cars, I discovered that far from a rarity, there were over half a million cars running on “producer gas” around Europe by the end of WWII! Producer gas is created by the burning of organic material, primarily wood or coal, in an enclosed space with just enough air to smolder a combustible gas.

Interestingly enough, very little needs to be done to vehicles that still have carburetors (think Dodo Bird). Just disconnect the gasoline and hook up a pipe to feed the smoke in. I know that may have sounded like an offhand plug for Colorado Cannabis but it was strictly automotive talk.  

The first use of wood gas was back in the 1870s, when it was used for street lighting and cooking before natural gas came on the scene.

Georges Imbert, a German engineer developed a wood gas generator for cars in the 1920’s. By 1930, the Imbert generator was being mass produced and by 1939, there were thousands of wood-powered cars on European roads. That number rose quickly to a peak of 500,000 as the war consumed all the available fuel.

So what did you do if you were stranded in a place with no available trees? It still wasn’t considered a good thing to chop down your neighbor’s cherry tree, so the governments of Europe set up a network of more than 3,000 “wood service stations” where you could stop in, check your air and toss a couple more logs on the fire. The wood had to be extremely dry hardwoods, resinous trees like juniper and fir worked well but also gummed up the works, causing breakdowns and extra maintenance. Charcoal was slightly more efficient but much more moisture sensitive.

Not just cars, but during WWII much transportation turned to wood. Ships and trains, tractors, trucks and even tanks were wood fueled.  The main drawback to wood gas is the fact that it is only about 60% as powerful as gasoline and larger loads made uphill treks problematical. Hills were often traversed in reverse gear as the lowest gearing the car had.

North Korea depends heavily on wood gas today, even flying some planes (gulp) on it. But wood power never caught on in America despite dozens of failed start-ups. Not even during the war because even though it was rationed, there was still some gasoline available.

Someday we will stop pumping oil and digging coal; likely when we’ve burnt it all and are scratching for wild grain outside of caves.  I think I will ask for the Lincoln back.

It’s got a carburetor.