Is there something about cars and car companies that make people tend to believe that there are all sorts of conspiracies keeping us from driving the car of all our dreams? I ask the question because I can think of at least a half dozen urban legends, conspiratorial glosses put on actual events, and outright conspiracy fantasies that are or have been popular among car enthusiasts and the general public.
I suppose the grandaddy of them all is the 200 mile per gallon carburetor but there are many others. The EV equivalent to the Fish carb would be Nikola Tesla’s radio wave powered experimental Pierce Arrow. The theorists tell us that were it not for the car companies buying up patents to keep those technologies away from their competitors, we’d have access to those technologies. Somehow the idea that the owners of that intellectual property would exploit it for commercial and competitive purposes seems to be lost on those that believe these tall tales. In some versions, of course, it’s the nefarious oil companies that are suppressing technologies that would threaten their profits.
A related conspiracy theory has to do with John D. Rockefeller and Prohibition. Rockefeller was in the petroleum business, first making a fortune selling kerosene, which was used for lighting. When Edison, Westinghouse, Steinmetz and Tesla made it possible for electricity to be used for power and lighting, Rockefeller, looking for a use for a toxic and almost explosive refinery byproduct he’d been throwing out, started to encourage its use as a fuel, converting the stationary powerplants in his refineries from steam to gasoline and, according to some historical sources, subsidizing the sale of gasoline engines to farmers, who were a primary market for stationary engines, to run farm equipment.
Now the above paragraph is historically reliable, at least to my own satisfaction. However, it took me a while to get the information. You see, when I started to enter [Rockefeller, gasoline engines] into a search engine, the first two pages of results were almost all about how John D. Rockefeller was the head of a conspiracy that led to the United States adopting Prohibition. It seems, according to the conspiracy theories, that Rockefeller put his money behind prohibiting drinking alcohol because he wanted to suppress ethanol as a fuel, which could, theoretically, compete with gasoline.
Another quasi conspiracy theory also involves gasoline and alcohol. It’s related to General Motors’ and DuPont’s development of tetra-ethyl lead as a gasoline additive to prevent pre-ignition knocking and allow the use of more powerful higher compression engines. In the late teens and early 1920s, before the large oil deposits in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Mideast were discovered, there were concerns about running out of petroleum. “Peak oil” is not a new concept. Casting about for alternative fuels GM’s Charles Kettering started looking into gasoline/ethanol blends, which can have reduced octane due to phase separation and the ethanol absorbing water, so they started looking into ways of boosting octane. GM and the DuPont chemical company were joined at the hip for much of the 20th century and a joint research project ended up with the development of leaded gasoline. In the meantime, new petroleum deposits were discovered and tetra-ethyl lead ended up as an octane booster for gasoline. Where the conspiracy theories start is at just how much GM and DuPont suppressed information about the dangers of leaded gas.
So there is some basis in fact for some of the conspiracies, but then the Talmud teaches that no lie can be believable without some grain of fact. Failed EV entrepreneur Ed Ramirez has claimed for decades that his Amectran EXAR-1 was foiled by a conspiracy at the Environmental Protection Agency. I happen to think that Ramirez started believing his own PR, but the idea that a bureaucrat or government agency might kill a promising technology is not that far fetched. When the then young EPA started a program to encourage new clean air technologies, hybrid car pioneer Victor Wouk’s hybrid 1973 Oldsmobile Cutless showed great promise and met all the test criteria that the EPA demanded, but the project was indeed killed by EPA administrator Eric Stork.
Getting back to General Motors, not only did they supposedly conspire to give us all lead poisoning, but the big automaker also allegedly conspired to eliminate environmentally sensitive electric streetcars, so they could make money selling polluting city buses.
Sometimes the conspiracies just percolate in the public mind. Other times they get a boost from Hollywood. Lots of car companies have failed. You don’t need a conspiracy to have the cards stacked against a startup car company. Literally thousands of car companies have gone belly up, and Preston Tucker’s business plan had some big holes in it, so the Tucker company’s failure was no surprise. According to some Tucker faithful, and amplified by Francis Ford Copolla’s film, though, Tucker didn’t fail because he bit off way more than he could chew, with a car that had to be developed on the fly, he failed because the Big 3 got Washington to go after him for securities fraud.
So what automotive conspiracy theories have you heard, and which of them do you believe? Being a Learned Elder of Zion I’m a bit allergic to conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists in general, but you can try to convince me.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS