Beware 'gas-efficient' gadgets

"Say, friend, d'ya want to cut the gas bill in your car? "I just happen to have this handy, time-tested device that's 'absolutely guaranteed' to save you money at the gas pump, clean out your engine like it was new, and extend the life of your car -- all for the low, low price of $9.95."

Sound familiar? Well it should. The fast-talk promoters are having a field day -- profiting mightily from a broad array of "miracle" gas extenders, pollution controllers, and carburetor adjusters. The problem is, very few of them do anything at all for the car, could possibly hurt it, but are guaranteed to do a job on your pocketbook.

The ads and high-pressure flimflam are as much a part of the auto business today as the $1.20-a-gallon-plus price of gasoline.

And with that price moving higher by the week, and the prospect of new gas lines somewhere down the pike, a lot of motorists are reaching for straws -- anything that can cut the cost of driving, no matter how improbable the proffered solution may appear.

One man wrote in to me about a device that will "burn" one gallon of water to three gallons of fuel. He tells about another device that overcomes gravity, thus eliminating the need for coal, oil, and the generating of all electricity.

No one really likes the high price of gas. But the surest way of "reducing" its cost is by driving less. The small plastic valve that claims to boost a car's mileage by 20 or 25 percent or special gas-saver pills that squeeze more miles out of a gallon of gas -- all they usually do is lighten a motorist's wallet and nothing more.

Even this reporter is not exempt from the wiles of the well-phrased ad. I remember spending $5, I think it was, for a few "miracle pellets" which were said to "plate" the pistons and cylinders in my high-mileage car shortly after the end of World War II. The car was smoking badly and was an embarrassment to drive. Well, I sent in the $5 all right, plopped the lead-like pills into the gas tank, and continued to drive. When I got rid of the car a few months later, it was still burning oil badly and smoking like a smudge pot. And I was out my

Indeed, sales of the current higher-mileage gimmicks are up at least a half dozen times over what they were a year ago.

The Federal Trade Commission has been busy for some time, keeping an eye on the claims of such companies and, in some cases, going to court to stop the advertising and sale of the devices. Yet, halted in one spot, a company may pop up somewhere else, thus giving the FTC a merry chase.

Stories about high-mileage carburetors have been circulating ever since the early days of the automobile. Indeed, there could be some slight advantage to some of the devices, but perhaps not very much.

In the days following the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74, there were widely circulated claims about the Kendig carburetor, developed by a man on the West Coast. Asked about the claims, Ralph Stahman, chief of the technology assessment branch of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Ann Arbor, Mich. , said:

"We were never able to get any data from those people to substantiate any of the claims, but we did contact them."

Several variable-venturi carburetors have been promoted. One of them that did seem to do something, according to Mr. Stahman, was developed by Dresser Industries. The company had built several different models and was working with the Ford Motor Company for a while.

"It was a carburetor which, with its variable venturi, had a sonic velocity to it all the time which seemed to atomize the fuel, thus helping the distribution problem," adds Mr. Stahman. "I drove a couple of their cars which had a fuel-air ratio on the order of 22- or 23-to- 1 -- and the cars were very drivable where normally, if you get above 17- or 18-to-1, you're in trouble."

He adds: "It was pretty impressive." But nothing ever came of it.

Water-injection systems have been around for a long time, too. Some of them use water vapor by bleeding air through a canister of water. Then the moist air is ducted over into the positive crankcase ventilation (PCV) system and into the manifold. "We tested a number of them and we found we could get a slight enleanment [a higher percentage of air to fuel] with them," asserts Mr. Stahman.

Perhaps they had some value a few years ago before the vehicle manufacturers began to lean out the air-fuel mixture almost as far as they could. Before the early '70s, most carburetors tended to run on the rich side which gave the best power to the car. On those vehicles you could get an improvement in fuel economy by changing the idle adjustment and adding air-bleed devices of various kinds. Also, they might even reduce emissions.

But the carburetor and vehicle makers early in the emissions-control business began to tighten up on carburetors, making them lean instead of rich.

"If you happen to have a car which, because of production tolerances, is on the rich side, you might get some slight improvement with such a device -- maybe on the order of 5 percent," reports Mr. Stahman. "But if your car is on the lean side and you add one of these devices, then you have all kinds of drivability problems, plus more hydrocarbons because of the misfiring of the engine." Thus, you end up with a net loss instead of a gain.

Clearly, "they don't work on enough cars so that they look as if they were a panacea," reports the EPA official.

A lot of the fuel-saving devices, of course, are out-and-out hoaxes.

Mr. Stahman cautions: "Our general reaction is, the safest bet is to get a car set to the manufacturer's specifications. When you add some of these add-on devices, there is a pretty good chance that you'll get nothing, and some chance that things will get worse."

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