Throwback Thursday: Henry Ford, alcohol-fuel visionary

We might think of oil and automobiles as inextricably linked. But the earliest mass-produced vehicles were designed to run on multiple fuels, not just gasoline.

Henry Ford brought us the original mass-market flex-fuel vehicle. That fact made him one of the biggest stars of the Fuel Freedom-produced documentary PUMP the Movie, which is available on Netflix and DVD.

Ford’s Model T, introduced in 1908, could run just as well on alcohol fuels as on traditional gasoline. The driver could easily switch from one fuel to the other simply by turning a brass knob to the right of the steering column. This turned a screw in the carburetor, allowing either more or less fuel to enter the engine and mix with air. Alcohol fuel doesn’t contain as much energy as gasoline, so more of it needs to be injected to run the engine as well.

As David Blume, another PUMP star, shows in this video, drivers needed to switch between fuels because they wouldn’t know which fuel source would be available when they were out on a drive.

Henry Ford22Ford grew up on a farm in Michigan and always held farms, and farmers, dear to his heart. As historian Bill Kovarik’s fascinating study of Ford’s alcohol-fuel dedication shows, he clearly wanted to help cash-strapped farmers get into new markets by promoting agricultural products as fuel sources — not only corn, but anything else that could be fermented.

In 1919, Ford told The Christian Science Monitor (according to this New York Times account): “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumach [a flowering plant] out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust — almost anything.”

The movement to run vehicles on ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, was dealt a severe blow by the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, known as Prohibition, which banned the “manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” even alcohol (ethanol is also known as grain alcohol, or “moonshine”) used as a fuel. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and by then the ethanol market was severely weakened in America. Read Bill Ganzel’s truth-stranger-than-fiction account of what happened next, when the U.S. became convinced that leaded gasoline was the best way to raise gasoline octane levels.

But ethanol has staged an epic comeback: More than 13 billion gallons was used in 2013, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. That figure could reach 36 billion gallons by 2022 if the federal government continues to mandate blending an increasing amount of ethanol into the nation’s gas supply, under the Renewable Fuel Standard guidelines.

Make your voice heard: Sign Fuel Freedom’s petition urging major independent fueling retailers like Costco and Walmart to offer ethanol as an option for their customers.

Because unlike back in the day, you don’t even need a knob to make the switch to ethanol.