by Eric Peters
Remember those ’80s-era PSAs that warned, “this is your brain on drugs” – cue video of an egg frying in a pan? Well, here’s your old car’s engine on ethanol
I don’t have a video – just these pictures – which show what ethanol-blend fuel did to a plastic component inside the carburetor that feeds fuel to my classic muscle car (1976 Trans-Am). It disintegrated the plastic – chunks of which then migrated to the carburetor’s primary jets, which have tiny orifices through which the fuel is supposed to flow into the intake manifold and from there to the engine’s cylinders via the intake ports. But not much fuel flows when the tiny orifice is clogged with a piece of debris. My car ran not unlike a mechanical version of a human with advanced COPD – or coronary artery disease.
I discovered the pictured pieces of debris upon disassembly of the carburetor. They were chips off a fuel filler bock that Rochester – manufacturer of the Quadrajet carburetor – had installed circa Fall of ’75, when my Trans-Am was made. It was made at a time when gasoline was in fact gasoline – not a blend of gasoline and alcohol
. It – and other such fuel system parts – was not made to withstand immersion in alcohol-laced fuel, which is corrosive to such parts.
If you own a car made before the 1990s, you should be concerned. Here is a partial but by no means necessarily all-inclusive list of the parts at risk if exposed to ethanol-laced “gas”:
* Carburetor needle and seat; accelerator pump, float, all gaskets.
* Fuel pump (diaphragm).
* Fuel lines (if steel) and fuel hoses (rubber).
* Gas tank.
Ethanol hardens (or eats away) rubber not made to withstand it. This can cause problems from the minor and mildly annoying – such as sputtering acceleration because of an inoperative or failing accelerator pump – to the downright dangerous, such as a fire caused by a fuel leak. The latter is a particular concern for “modern” – that is, fuel-injected – cars that were built before the Ethanol Era. These cars – which include cars built from (roughly) the mid-late 1980s, when fuel-injection began to replace carburetion, through the early ’90s – the era before ethanol-laced “gas” became commonplace.
After the early ’90s, as ethanol-laced “gas” became the default standard fuel, the car companies built their cars to be ethanol compatible. Or at least, compatible with “gas” that contained 10 percent ethanol (E10, the fuel commonly sold today as regular unleaded). E15 – “gas” that’s 15 percent
ethanol is another story – and another article.
Anyhow, the danger of fire is real – and serious – in an older, pre-ethanol-compatible, fuel-injected car. Or rather, much more serious than in a car fed by a carburetor. Reason? Orders of magnitude more fuel pressure. A carbureted car’s fuel system typically operates at 3-6 PSI or thereabouts. But fuel injection routinely runs at 35-40 PSI or more. It’s the difference between a fuel drip or sip – and a high-pressure arterial spray. There were more than a few ethanol-related engine fires back in the late ’90s and early 2000s involving older, FI cars from the mid-late ’80s and early ’90s. If you own one of these cars today, you’d be smart to have the entire fuel system closely checked – and any pre-ethanol rubber fuel lines, o-rings (and so on) replaced.
Steel fuel lines – and gas tanks – are another problem. Alcohol-laced fuels tend to attract moisture, which leads to rust. . . . from the inside
a very comprehensive technical article on the properties of ethanol-laced fuels.) As the rust develops, bits and pieces flake off – and enter the fuel stream. Inevitably, some of these small bits of debris will get past the fuel filter (especially if the lines rust ahead
of the filter) and make their way to the small passages inside the fuel delivery system, where they will cause you endless headaches. Endless, because cleaning out one piece of debris won’t permanently fix the problem. Unless you replace all the fuel lines (and the metal gas tank) with stainless, it’s inevitable that another
bit of rust will make its way through the pipes to clog a small passage and cause the car to run like scheisse
– if it runs at all.
And if the car is carbureted – like my classic Trans-Am – then the carburetor must be torn down and all internal parts that were not originally made to be ethanol-compatible must be replaced with ethanol compatible parts. Same goes for the mechanical fuel pump. If you don’t do it, it’s inevitable you’ll have problems. Your choice is wait for them to develop – and deal with them then. Or deal with them now, before they cause you headaches. But deal with them you will.
The good news, if you can call it that, is you can readily buy ethanol-compatible replacements for the parts described above. The bad news is it’s another expense imposed on you be federal fiat (and for the rent-seeking benefit of the corporate AG cartels that make billions off the ethanol mandate, a mandate that has the additional noxious side-effect of making your food cost more, too).
And the really scary news is the very real possibility that the Feds will mandate E15. Even modern cars (stuff built as recently as this model year) will have issues with “gas” that’s really 15 percent ethanol. That’s not merely my wild-eyed Libertarian Car Guy assertion, either. Read the owner’s manual (or warranty booklet) of almost any recent-model car and you’ll find BLOCK LETTER warnings about using E15 (let alone E85, just 15 percent gasoline) in the vehicle.
What this stuff will do to classic cars is anyone’s guess, but it’s not likely to be an improvement over what E10 is known to do.
Owners of older cars may end up having to buy their fuel (non-ethanol) by the drum – kind of like race teams buy Sunoco 260 leaded premium. It’ll be expensive as hell, for sure. And it’ll mean most of us have to stop driving our older cars except on very special occasions.
Which may be exactly the point of this exercise.
Eric Peters is a longtime car/bikes/Libertarian-minded journalist. His book, “Road Hogs,” came out June 2011.
Peters has been writing a weekly column about cars for almost 20 years now. He is the author of “Automotive Atrocities” and “Road Hogs” (MBI). He lives in rural SW Virginia with his wife and a polyglot crew of animals