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Are We There Yet...?

Posted on 9/27/16 with No comments


In my younger years I spent more than my fair share of time hanging out at the local gas stations. I learned a lot from the older retired "experts" who used to hang out in the office, and tell stories. They got me involved every now and then when they needed a good laugh, and it usually came at my expense. I knew I had to pay my dues.

One thing I always remember is that nearly all of those early stations had a display rack of road maps next to the cash register. They used to be free to the customers, and there was always a bundle of them under the counter to restock the rack. All of the local stations gave away road maps in those days, While still free when I came along in the late 1960's, they were not nearly as colorful or as detailed as the early maps.

Derby Map rack from The 1960's

In the early days the oil companies tried to establish brand loyalty by offering a number of free services. Beginning in the 1920's oil companies started posting road maps on the wall of their stations. They would provide weekly updates of road conditions and detours. Because road signs were neither common or standardized in those early years, traveling even over to the next county was an adventure, especially if you were not familiar with the local roads and routes. Weather also played a big factor because few roads were paved in those early days.  Gravel was considered a luxury.

Often times the local sheriff would help identify impassable roads and roads under construction. When customers saw the sheriff getting gas at a certain station and providing the road condition updates it made the information credible. It was also good for that brand of gasoline. After all... who needed dependable quality gasoline more than the Sheriff?

1929 Atlantic Road Map

In the mid 1930's CONOCO began offering "trip planning" for their loyal customers even going so far, as to provide personalized booklets of maps, and travel information, including suggested stops and suggested routes, with all of the CONOCO stations identified along the planned route. Many other oil companies soon followed suit. You could write a letter to the company tell them where you wanted to go and when, and they would plan you trip, figure out your route, the miles you would travel, put it in book form and send it to you at no charge.

One example I have in my collection provided for a CONOCO customer in 1939 that details a complete trip around the USA with stops at the New York World's Fair, and the Golden Gate Exhibition. The personalized booklet contained over 200 pages and highlighted all of the best roads and motor courts. In all, the customer's route covered 10,799 miles with a suggested driving time of 39 days. I often wondered if the customer actually took that trip. Not many people could afford to travel for 39 days and 10,000 miles.

1930 Standard Oil

By the mid 1930's...full service was the rule of the day with "service station attendants" wearing white uniforms complete with five star pointed hats displaying the company logo. They greeted you on the driveway, offered to check the oil, and wash your windshield, at no extra charge. Gas stations were truly full service, and service with a smile. (Up until the 1970's is was illegal in some states for customers to pump their own gasoline, Washington State was one). In addition, most service stations had a "mechanic on duty" who did oil changes, install new tires, and did engine tune-up work.

1940 ESSO Map

By the end of the 1970's, the free maps were disappearing as were the free trip route service. That was soon followed by the introduction of the "self-serve" gas station with just one attendant on duty to collect money. With cars more reliable and requiring less maintenance, the "mechanic on duty" also disappeared. The full service "service station" was becoming a "thing of the past". I am glad I got to at least experience some of what a "full service, service station was like in my younger days.

1941 Tydol Map

One thing I do as a result of those early years is collect road maps and travel guides from the 1920's through the 1960's. When I travel, if my time allows, I use those old road maps from the 1940's and 1950's as a guide. They identify the old routes, through the small towns. Many of those old maps also identify the exact location of the early gas stations. If you collect the old oil company signs and related advertising from gas stations like I do, these old maps become treasure hunt maps. They will lead you right to the location of the old service stations. Many are long gone but I have gotten lucky on occasion and found a building still there and still untouched after all of these years. The owner may have died and the family just locked the door and left everything. It's like walking into a time warp!

Parco Oil Road Map From 1931

So... if you see me out and about in some strange locale and you say to yourself "what in the word is he doing out here in the middle of nowhere" you know.

More Oil Company Trivia...The Teapot Dome Scandal
The Teapot Dome scandal was a bribery incident that took place in the United States from 1921 to 1922, during the administration of President Warren G. Harding. Secretary of the Interior Albert Bacon Fall had leased Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming and two other locations in California to private oil companies at low rates without competitive bidding.

In 1922 and 1923, the leases became the subject of a sensational investigation by Senator Thomas J. Walsh. Fall was later convicted of accepting bribes from the oil companies and became the first Cabinet member to be sent to prison. No person was ever convicted of paying a bribe, however.

In the early 20th century, the U.S. Navy largely converted from coal to fuel oil. To ensure that the Navy would always have enough fuel available, several oil-producing areas were designated as Naval Oil Reserves by President Taft.

In 1921, President Harding issued an executive order that transferred control of Teapot Dome Oil Field in Natrona County, Wyoming and the Elk Hills and Buena Vista Oil Fields in Kern County California from the Navy Department to the Department of the Interior. This was not implemented until 1922, when Interior Secretary Fall persuaded Navy Secretary Edwin C. Denby to transfer control.

 The Teapot Dome (so named for the shape of the rock) oil fields were located  in Natrona County, Wyoming.

Later in 1922, Albert Fall leased the oil production rights at Teapot Dome to Harry F. Sinclair of Mammoth Oil, a subsidiary of Sinclair Oil Corporation. He also leased the Elk Hills reserve to Edward L. Doheny of Pan American Petroleum and Transport Company. Both leases were issued without competitive bidding. This manner of leasing was legal under the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920.

The lease terms were very favorable to the oil companies, which secretly made Fall a rich man. Fall had received a no-interest loan from Doheny of $100,000 (about $1.33 million today) in November 1921. He received other gifts from Doheny and Sinclair totaling about $404,000 (about $5.36 million today. It was this money changing hands that was illegal, not the leases. Fall attempted to keep his actions secret, but the sudden improvement in his standard of living was suspect.

Oil businessman Edward L. Doheny (second from right, at table) testifying before the Senate Committee investigating the Teapot Dome oil leases in 1924

In April 1922, a Wyoming oil operator wrote to Senator John B. Kendrick, angered that Sinclair had been given a contract to the lands in a secret deal. Kendrick did not respond, but two days later on April 15, he introduced a resolution calling for an investigation of the deal.

Republican Senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr. of Wisconsin led an investigation by the Senate Committee on Public Lands. At first, La Follette believed Fall was innocent. However, his suspicions deepened after his own office in the Senate Office Building was ransacked.

Democrat Thomas J. Walsh of Montana, the most junior minority member, led a lengthy inquiry. For two years, Walsh pushed forward while Fall stepped backward, covering his tracks as he went. No evidence of wrongdoing was initially uncovered as the leases were legal enough, but records kept disappearing mysteriously. Fall had made the leases appear legitimate, but his acceptance of the money was his undoing. By 1924, the remaining unanswered question was how Fall had become so rich so quickly and easily.

Money from the bribes had gone to Fall's cattle ranch and investments in his business. Finally, as the investigation was winding down with Fall apparently innocent, Walsh uncovered a piece of evidence Fall had forgotten to cover up: Doheny's $100,000 loan to Fall.

This discovery broke the scandal open. Civil and criminal suits related to the scandal continued throughout the 1920s. In 1927 the Supreme Court ruled that the oil leases had been corruptly (fraudulently) obtained. The Court invalidated the Elk Hills lease in February 1927 and the Teapot Dome lease in October. Both reserves were returned to the Navy.

Senator Albert B. Fall, the first U.S. cabinet official sentenced to prison.

In 1929, Albert Fall was found guilty of accepting bribes from Doheny. Conversely, in 1930, Edward L. Doheny was acquitted of paying bribes to Fall. Further, Doheny's corporation foreclosed on Fall's home in Tularosa Basin, New Mexico, because of "unpaid loans" which turned out to be that same $100,000 bribe. Sinclair served six months in jail on a charge of jury tampering.

Although Fall was to blame for this scandal, Harding's reputation was sullied because of his involvement with the wrong people. Evidence proving Fall's guilt only arose after Harding's death in 1923.

Another significant outcome was the Supreme Court's ruling in McGrain v. Daugherty (1927) which, for the first time, explicitly established that Congress had the power to compel testimony. In February 2015, the Department of Energy sold the oil field for $45 million to Stranded Oil Resources Corp. after extracting 22 million barrels of oil over the years.


The 1949 Chevrolet Car Building Project...

Posted on 9/20/16 with No comments


I started my business in a large two car garage in 1987. By 1991 I was out of space and began looking for a building in downtown Clay Center.  I wanted a building at least a half a block long so that I could have a storefront, and also warehouse storage in the back, to work on projects. In my demented mind I also wanted to cut up an old car and put it on the front of my store.  I looked for a store front building with that in mind.

I found this building in the spring of 1992. It had been used mostly for storage the previous ten years and with the owner passing, it became available. After I purchased the building and doing some remolding, I went to the local City Hall to see what the local sign ordinance rules were. (I kept my car on the front of the building idea to myself.) The city clerk stated the rules and then I asked for them in writing. Basically there were three requirements...had to be so many feet above the sidewalk, couldn't be flammable, and had to be securely attached to the building. With copy in hand I was off.

Next up I hunted down a donor vehicle. I wanted something from the 1940's or 1950's. My original plan was to cut the car length wise and install it onto the building, make the wheels spin and then use the exhaust pipe as the vent from the furnace so when the furnace came on in the winter, smoke would come out the exhaust. After some measurement I determined the building front was not tall enough for that idea.

Plan "B" was to cut a car off width wise, and attach it to the front of the building. Of course the headlights would still have to work, along with the park lights and the horn. I found my storefront car on the outskirts of Vining Kansas (population  45). Two old bachelor brothers lived together on the farm and used the car to go to town on Saturday night. Being of German heritage they enjoyed having a beer...or three.

One Saturday night on their way home they sideswiped a bridge. The bridge had metal guard rails and the bolts were installed backwards. The protruding bolts caught the right front fender and acted just like a "can opener", and tore a two inch wide gash the whole length of the passenger side of the car.

Not hurt, the two brothers walked home. The next day the drove their farm tractor back to the scene of the crime hooked onto the car with a chain and towed the car home and parked it in the hedgerow. That is where it sat until I found it some 25 years later.

I had never cut off the front of a car to install on a building, but how hard could it be...? I soon found out it is much more difficult than it looks. I took the car up to Ed Gunter's welding shop in Morganville Ks and told him what I wanted to do. After he got done laughing and figured out I was serious, we got to work.

Cut number one... we measured eight inches back from the headlight rings (on both sides) where the headlight rings attach to the fender, and snapped a chalk line across. Ed fired up his plasma cutter and cut it off. "This is gonna be too easy"... I say to myself. When we flipped the car front upright onto the shop floor, it quickly became obvious that the "easy" plan did not work. We ended up with a two inch gap at the hood curves.

Cut number two... we measured  from the opposite end (where we had just cut) and tried to straighten things out and get rid of the gaps.  As often happens, that only made things worse!

Cut Number three... We were running out of car and had enough for one more cut. If this didn't work it was going to the junkyard. We turned the car up on end measured from the floor about every two inches all the way across. We connected the dots then stood back and admired our handiwork. We both had the same terrified look on our faces. The line was as crooked as a snake! Nothing to do but try it. We double checked our measurements and fired up the plasma cutter.

When we got done and flipped it back upside down and no gap!! It was perfect!! Amazing!! Time for celebration! Next it was off to the body shop. I painted it 77 Corvette Sunflower Yellow to help hide some of the damage to the RH fender. The yellow color also draws a lot of attention. Once painted, I did the wiring and installed the original 6-volt headlights and horn.  The car runs on a 6-volt  car battery, that was originally connected to a battery charger that I plugged in once a week. Now it is connected to a 6-volt battery tender. Simple is good!

On the Monday of Labor Day 1993 while the residents of Clay Center Kansas were out enjoying the holiday Ed, myself and about half dozen close friends attached the car front to the front of my store. You always attract plenty of adult supervision when doing a project like this. I wired things up and the headlights worked, and the horn honked. Better than I could have wished for!!

Tuesday morning the citizens of Clay Center discovered the yellow car on the front of a building downtown. Word spread quickly. All were impressed except the city fathers who determined that the car front was not in keeping with the "aesthetics" of the downtown area. A check of the sign ordinance confirmed I was in compliance.

Now some thirty years later the yellow car has become a local landmark. When out of town customers stop and ask for directions, everyone in town knows where that yellow car on the front of the building is located. It has been the best advertisement I could have ever hoped for.

And for those of you in a panic thinking I cut up a perfectly good car you can relax. The RH front fender still has a few wrinkles even though we did the best we could after welding the hole shut made by the guardrail bolts. The metal was stretched pretty bad from the wreck. With a few coats of body filler, hanging it fifteen feet in the air, and painting it a bright color helps hide a lot of the damage.

As for the rest of the car it went to a good home. I had a local customer who was restoring a 49 Chevy car and need a few interior parts and the LH rear side trim. He bought all of the side trim (which was in perfect condition) for $100.00 and he got the car that was attached to it for free.


Nitromethane Was Discovered As A Racing Fuel Way Back In 1954...

Posted on 9/13/16 with No comments


I have a large library in my office consisting of Hot Rod "How-To Books" and Annuals from the 1940's 50's and 60's. During one of my recent review sessions I found a chapter introducing nitromethane and its use for Drag Racing. Keep in mind this is 1954 technology…

The article began by explaining that today's hot rodders (in 1954) have exploited every possible means of inducting more oxygen into the cylinders of an engine through improvements in volumetric efficiency. Not matter how much fuel is delivered to the cylinders; the point has been reached that not enough oxygen can be introduced to make the fuel burn efficiently.

 This has lead to experiments being conducted using oxygen bearing chemicals. Among the oxygen bearing chemicals that is showing good promise is nitromethane that is currently being manufactured as an industrial cleaning solvent. Nitromethane burns rapidly when heated, without the aid of outside oxygen.

Nitromethane is however, quite dangerous and has a lasting harmful affect on everything it touches. If spilled on the painted surface of a race car, nitromethane will run off onto the ground, taking the paint of the car with it. If nitromethane is left in a metal storage can, it will eat the bottom out within a week’s time. It is also very toxic to humans. Care should be exercised to avoid exposure to the skin and lungs.

Larger fuel lines, bigger carburetor jets and dump tubes, are some of the changes necessary when converting to nitromethane. An excess of nitromethane is needed within the cylinder so that enough water is created during the combustion process to cool the valves and pistons. Not enough nitromethane will cause an engine to meltdown… literally. Popular proven mixtures include 95% nitro methane, 5% alcohol / water and castor oil. 

It is also common to see the tachometer read 2000 -2500 for up to ten seconds after the fuel is shut off. This is common until the cylinders cool down enough to stop igniting the leftover nitromethane.

Lower compression ratios are also necessary with the use of nitromethane. The top Flathead Fords on the West Coast now run a compression ratio of 6:5 to 1. However… when the engine is running at top speed, the cylinders build compression higher than conventional 12:1 full race engines.

Nitromethane is not for everyone; it can cost as much as nine dollars a gallon in some locations compared to methanol alcohol that typically costs sixty cents a gallon. Other less expensive combinations have been tried including…nitro / hydrogen peroxide, nitro / benzene, nitro / benzoyl, nitro / acetone, nitro / di-ethel ether, nitro / picric acid, and nitro / propane. Dyno testing results have proved however, that nothing is as efficient or as consistent as nitromethane.  

Currently the only other alternative to nitromethane is a secret formula developed and recently introduced by Wilcap Automotive in Los Angles California.  This formula costs ten dollars a gallon and burns at the rate of 3/4 gallon per mile. It is used at no more than 30 percent strength and is said to provide the same results as a 90% mixture of nitromethane. Many records have been broken at southern California tracks using this new mixture. The only drawback is the solution is extremely destructive to engines not specially built for its use.
                                                                                                          - (Hot Rod Handbook 1954)

What Exactly is Nitromethane…?
Technically...Nitromethane is known as a monopropellant fuel, which means it has the potential to combust without any air at all. That's why nitromethane was once used as a rocket fuel. Fortunately for hot rodding, nitromethane also has industrial-world uses-primarily as a dry cleaning solvent, which makes it readily available. 

Enter Vic Edlebrook...
According to most hot rod historians, nitro's first competition use in America was by Vic Edelbrock Sr. and his associates. In the late 1940’s, Midget racer Ed Haddad came into Vic’s shop with a gallon can of nitromethane he’d been given by one of the Dooling brothers, who manufactured slot cars (the tethered miniature cars that ran on a circle track popular in the 1940’s and 1950’s) Ed didn’t want any part of the new fuel because he had heard "it will blow up in your face." 

Edelbrock, Bobby Meeks, and Fran Hernandez added 10 percent nitro to the methanol in their 136ci V8-60 Midget car engine. With no tuning or familiarity with nitro, Vic Jr. recalls that the strange brew "just about broke the beam on Dad's old 200hp-capacity Clayton dyno."  The spark plugs were so hot they turned into glow plugs. When they tried to shut it off, the engine kept running. They finally had to throw a towel on it to get it to quit." The engine was toast, but eventually they learned to add lots more fuel, colder spark plugs, and stronger internals to stand up to both the higher output as well as nitromethane's corrosive effects. The Stromberg 81 carbs had to be nickel-plated, as did the fuel containers (hidden from prying eyes inside cardboard boxes). 

Eventually, Edelbrock settled on a 20 percent nitro / 80 percent methanol mix that added 40 hp. Edelbrock was able to keep the fuel a secret for a while, but with flames coming out of the exhaust, fellow racers knew something was up. Vic disguised the distinctive odor by blending in a little orange oil. 

By 1952, an Edelbrock Ford flathead running 40 percent nitro had run 201 mph one way at Bonneville (before the exhaust valves got sucked into the ports). With the word out on the new fuel the article appeared in the Hot Rod Handbook 1954 edition.

How Come So Many Flames Out Of The Exhaust Headers...?
The simplest explanation is that much more nitro is being delivered to the cylinders than can be burned. That is done on purpose, not for the horsepower advantage but to help cool the cylinders, to keep the engine from melting down…literally!

The excess nitro fuel goes out the exhaust, where it immediately ignites on contact with atmospheric oxygen, burning with a characteristic yellow flame. If the rich mixture has entered into the monopropellant phase, hydrogen and carbon monoxide are produced as a byproduct. Bright white flames are then generated, by the burning hydrogen. The burning of this excess fuel is what provides that distinctive crackle sound. It will also burn your eyes and your skin. Not all of the nitromethane coming out of the exhaust headers will burn because of the volume of fuel present.

Starting a Nitro Burning Engine
Initial start-up with high nitro concentrations is very tricky. According to those in the know… "You must get the engine cycling. It won't start up spinning at 200 rpm like a gas engine would. You need to get some heat in the engine and spin it at 1,800 to 2,000 rpm." 

There's so much fuel pouring into the cylinders that failure to get the engine spinning fast enough before controlled ignition can hydro-lock the engine, or even blow a head off. The common practice is to start and warm up the engine on gas or alcohol then switch over to the nitromethane.

The high percentages of nitro have led to massive breakthroughs in ignition technology. Today's top-of-the-line MSD units put out 50,000 volts and 44 amps on the top end. That's about the same output of an arc welder at each cylinder-and today the top fuelers run two of them.

Once you get a nitro engine going, it may not want to stop. At 7,500 rpm on the top end, there's so much heat in the engine it may keep running under auto ignition even if you shut off the magnetos. Essentially, it becomes a diesel. Fuelers today shut down by turning off the fuel pumps as well as the ignition.

Who would have thought that the fuel used to power 1/24 scale tethered slot cars would end up being used as fuel in Drag Racing? Imagine how excited Vic must have been to gain 40 horsepower simply by switching the fuel he burned in his race car?

Now that you know the history of nitromethane as a racing fuel, you will never look at the local dry cleaning store the same again. 


About Me

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Since 1987, Fifth Avenue owner, Randy Rundle, has been making antique, classic and special interest vehicles more reliable and fun to drive.