Fuel and the associated problems of supply, demand and escalating costs remains a painful issue for motorists today, but spare a thought for car drivers of the Great War. In July 1916, petrol was rationed and a tax on fuel was introduced which doubled the cost of petrol by 6d. to a shilling a gallon.
In some ways, this increase in the cost of fuel made little difference to car owners who simply found they could not buy petrol, even if they could afford to. The Illustrated London News, in its 'Chronicle of the Car' column on 15 July that year, commented sarcastically on the dearth of fuel available for motorists remarking:
'...it is rather puzzling to know how the Chancellor of the Exchequer calculates he will get the amount of £1,000,000 out of this new tax if only doctors, veterinary surgeons, the commercial world and official and semi-official cars are to be supplied with petrol...'
They had a point. Petrol was strictly limited to the war's 'key workers' and 'tickets' were issued allowing small amounts for ordinary motorists who began to cast about for alternatives. Many engineering manufacturers advertised gadgets to improve fuel efficiency such as one company that claimed, 'Every motorist can reduce the petrol bill by fitting the Zenith patent carburettor.'
Other car owners opted for more enterprising ways to eke out their petrol allowance and experimented with some rather alarming potions. The Illustrated London News's motoring columnist reported on the results of mixing two thirds petrol with one third paraffin, and wrote of some more imaginative liquids making their way into car engines;
'The internal combustion engine is agreeable to work in an emergency on gin, whisky, methylated spirits, paraffin, and other vaporising oils.'
We can only imagine what the potency of Britain's air must have been like should everyone have taken to filling their cars with the contents of their cocktail cabinets. And little wonder that one cartoon, drawn by Wilmot Lunt for The Bystander in 1917, shows a lady visiting a chemist to buy fragrance and being shown a bottle of, '...petrol - our dearest and rarest perfume' by the shopkeeper.
There was one alternative fuel which enjoyed some popularity during the war. Coal-gas was a by-product of the coking process and, although it would not quite match petrol for performance, it was a satisfactory and far cheaper alternative.
'The regular coach service twice a week between London and Eastbourne by Messrs. Chapman and Sons, of Eastbourne and Lewes, was run at a cost of 10d. per gallon,' reported The Bystander in its Motor Note column in June 1917, but it added, with caution, '...although in ordinary unaltered petrol engines with coal-gas fuel 85 per cent of petrol power has been obtained, the use of the gas is still a matter for extensive experiement before it can unreservedly recommended as a substitute for "essence".'
Nevertheless, though its efficacy in all vehicles was unproven, coal-gas powered vehicles became increasingly popular in the latter years of the war. The main drawback was the problem of storing the uncompressed gas - as The Bystander pointed out, 'a couple of thousand feet of gas occupies some room.' The solution was tackled by various firms who began to manufacture a range of flexible and collapsible containers of balloon fabric, or, more commonly, rubber. These gas bags tended to be fixed onto the roof of the vehicle, and were often so gigantic, particularly when full to capacity, that they dwarfed the vehicle itself.
The British Postal Museum & Archive website quotes Major C Wheeler OBE, Chief Automobile Engineer at the GPO whose impression of coal-gas powered vehicles was of them as -
"large clumsy affairs which flopped about on the tops of hoods and canopies. We were much amused at the sight of these gadgets when visiting London."
Drivers had to keep an eye on their speed. It was not recommended cars carrying gas bags exceed 30mph and considering the radical change in height to the vehicle, care also had to be taken when going under bridges or other obstructions.
Despite their somewhat comical and unwieldy appearance, in an environment where even those who could afford petrol could not procure it and owning a private motor-car was viewed by many as an unpatriotic luxury, coal-gas powered vehicles became a familiar sight. After all, any transport was better than no transport at all - no matter how ridiculous and unstreamlined the result might be. The new innovation was adopted by some of the most prominent members of society. Ex-Prime Minister Herbert Asquith's Wolseley Landaulette motor car was equipped with a Lyon-Spencer gas container on its roof as was the 10 h.p. Calcott motor driven by Lady Idina Wallace (of White Mischief fame).
Even the Illustrated London News & Sketch Ltd converted their delivery van to coal-gas and published a picture of the said vehicle in The Sketch magazine in November 1917 as an example to all. In The Tatler magazine's 'Letters of Eve' column, illustrated by Annie Fish, the eponymous Eve is pictured travelling in the back seat of a 'gas-bag' car, wrapped in an embrace with one of her admirers, Fred.
Inevitably, 'gas-bags' were a sitting target for cartoonists. George L. Stampa mocked both the rubber bags and another novelty - the female chauffeur - in a cartoon he drew for The Sketch in March 1918. In it, a gas-bag car is seen floating away with a woman driver clinging on to the front grill, while her irate employer turns to her husband with the ultimatum - " "You'll have to get rid of the chauffeurette, Alfred - she's getting much too flighty." Another, by Leonard Dowd in The Bystander from around the same time, shows American soldiers in London viewing the strange inflations with the quip, 'Some kit bag.'
Gas-powered vehicles surfaced again during the Second World War, though often the gas was stored in far more compact cylinders. But at the end of the Great War, once petrol became more widely available, the gas bags were deflated and discarded, much to the relief, no doubt, of motoring aesthetes everywhere.