As hot rodders, we're sometimes guilty of turning a blind eye toward the world's dwindling energy resources. To the rest of the world and even to our own countrymen, we're fat, dumb, happy Americans tooling the highways in our fuel-thirsty hot rods while baby seals are bludgeoned and Bangladesh goes hungry. We are in a dwindling minority, and if we are to preserve our hot rodding way of life, we've got to be prepared to defend it.
What got me thinking about this was GM's new "Live Green, Go Yellow" campaign, which features their line of flexible fuel cars. On the surface, it's one of those feel-good PR deals that reaches out to the environmental types, but I did some digging, and this technology has some great ramifications for hot rodders too.
If you don't remember anything else, remember this one word: ethanol. Turns out, it makes a great fuel for hot rods. When blended with ordinary gasoline (85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline), it turns into a wicked brew called E85. This stuff has an octane value that ranges anywhere between 105 and 113. And that's anti-knock index (R+M/2), not the over-inflated research octane rating used by the Europeans. Remember the Mach III Mustang concept that Ford built as a precursor to the then-new 1994 Mustang? It featured a 450hp supercharged DOHC 4.6 that ran on-you guessed it-E85.
The thing you may not realize is that E85 has been around for a long time. There's even a budding infrastructure to support the distribution of E85. In the United States, there are currently 98 plants that can brew the stuff to the tune of 4 billion gallons a year. Most of it goes into the 5 million flexible-fuel vehicles already on the road. Four billion gallons doesn't sound like much compared to the 140 billion gallons of gasoline American drivers use every year, but it's still a great start. In Brazil, about 75 percent of the cars sold run on E85, and they're on the verge of declaring independence from imported oil.
The big attention getter here is that the higher octane of E85 translates into more compression, more boost, or more of both. That means more horsepower. (I'll stop for a moment while you mentally calculate how much more power and throttle response your current engine would have with an extra three points of compression or another 5-10 pounds of boost.) The only downside is the amount of energy in a gallon of E85 is less by 5 percent to 15 percent. Basically, you'd need to carry 11 gallons of E85 to go the same distance you went on 10 gallons of gasoline. Big deal. This is not really the negative it appears to be on the surface, because E85 costs less per gallon.
Unlike Schwarzenegger's hydrogen highway, E85 is the real deal with no down side. For starters, vehicles running E85 pollute less. Compared to ordinary gasoline, E85 emits 10 percent fewer oxides of nitrogen, 40 percent less carbon monoxide, and 80 percent fewer sulfates. And as any college freshman can tell you on a Friday night, ethanol is a renewable resource. It's distilled from grain, and right now, the Arabs are wringing their hands over the frightening notion that we dumb, fat, happy Americans are on the verge of discovering it. Best of all, building E85-powered cars requires no big change in the way cars are built, maintained or hot rodded.
For once, hot rodders might find themselves on the same side of the fence as environmentalists. The key to discussing E85 with your neighborhood tree-hugger is to use hot-button phrases like "renewable resource," "pollution abatement," and "reduces global warming." Whatever you do, don't say things like "catching rubber in Third gear" or "more boost."