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Monday, October 3, 2011

1940s - charcoal burning (gas producing) cars

To combat the petrol shortage, the comparatively few cars on the road were usually fitted with charcoal-burning gas-producers. These were Heath-Robinson contraptions, something like galvanized garbage cans…

During World War II petrol was largely reserved for essential services, so ordinary motorists were offered another source of energy, charcoal. This was turned into a gas by burning it in drums the size of washing machines perched on the rear bumper of vehicles, or squeezed into the boot space.

Gas producers, as these evil-smelling, hugely impractical devices were known, were universally hated by those compelled to use them. But with no other choice they were a common spectacle until well after the war, when petrol rationing was finally abandoned. 

An informative booklet of the time, Carrying On With Charcoal, describes the difficulties motorists had in getting from from A to B. The process began with the charcoal, which had to be clean, firm to the touch and "dense black in colour and showing the original grain". Each chunk was supposed to conform to Commonwealth specification, defined as being able to pass through a one-inch (2.5-centimetre) square hole but not through a ⅜-inch hole. Visions of motorists testing each piece come to mind.
Even with a hopper full of dense black, regulation-sized charcoal, getting a vehicle to go required a ritual worthy of starting a steam train. First, the water tank had to be filled. Loose charcoal needed to be poked down from the top of the hopper to fill the cavity made by the previous fire, and ashes cleaned out if necessary. The engine was started on petrol before the ash-pan door was opened, an asbestos wick or rag saturated in kerosene inserted and lit.
Once the fire was blazing the trapdoor could be closed and, in theory, the vehicle was ready to move, at first using petrol before switching over to gas. The petrol supply could then be turned off, the water valve opened and the gas/air mixture adjusted while on the move. This was fine art, a little like fiddling with the dial on a radio to get good reception.
The entire starting process took at least 15 minutes, and had to be repeated if the car was stopped for more than half an hour.
Stopping was equally traumatic. The gas produced by the burning of charcoal is carbon monoxide - "a deadly gas", as the booklet says - which meant that parking the car in the garage was, to put it mildly, unwise. "Even when garaging the car for the night, it is advisable to leave the doors and windows [of the garage] open for some time," warns the booklet. It was important that children be kept out of the garage when the car was inside.
Furthermore, "never work on the car while it is in the garage". It was recommended the windows of the car be left open while driving, to avoid the blacking out of occupants.
Other disadvantages were the obvious effects that half a tonne of metal balanced on the back bumper had on the handling of a car. Drivers were warned to approach corners with caution, keep speeds to a minimum and avoid low-gear work. Tyres had to be inflated well above normal limits, and fractures in suspension components were common.
Despite these and other drawbacks, large numbers of gas producers were made, especially - for some unknown reason - in Perth, which appears to have been the gas producer capital of Australia. Here were long-forgotten brands like the Ajax, Bawden, Victory, Star, Harris, Brig, WGK and Pederick, all helping to keep the cars of Australia moving, albeit slowly and dangerously. The manufacturers of the Victory Cleaner gas producer attempted to prove the efficiency of their small unit by driving a tiny Singer from Perth to Sydney and back powered solely by gas.
It was in the exclusive Perth suburb of Applecross that Australia's first, and possibly last, road race for cars powered by carbon monoxide was held. The Patriotic Grand Prix of November 1940 had a gas-powered production car race as the main support event. This was a chance to promote this brave new technology to a crowd estimated at 50,000. The race was won by Bill Stitt in a 1930 De Soto fitted with a Star producer, hotly pursued by Ossie Cranston in a 1938 Ford/Tomco combination. For the record, speeds were "very creditable".
Western Mail 28 March 1940


  1. Have you ever heard the name, Lincoln Low, mentioned in connection to being a charcoal burner in the 1930's at his family farm in Rosa Glen? He was my father, and I've just discovered that it was something he did, amongst many other things. I can't believe that I'd never heard about that before now. Jan Haddon, Augusta, W.A.

  2. my grandfather reeves straton was an engineer & invented a smaller gas producer the "straton" gas producer during WW2 and sold it to a Melbourne taxi company and became quite wealthy...I have the black & white pamphlet


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  6. A fascinating concept - especially in this time of alternative fuels. In many parts of Africa people cook with charcoal which has to be transported many miles - often on the back of a bicycle. Whenever I have watched these intrepid entrepreneurs toiling up a long hill with 75-100kg of charcoal bags stacked on their bikes, I have wondered what would be required to develop a charcoal burning power-assist engine for them. They are transporting all this energy but cannot use it to supplement their human motive power.

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  8. Charcoal burning to produce charcoal used for cars running on gas producers during the war was widespread in the red gum Barmah Forest on the Murray as described in my book 'Barmah Chronicles'.

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