Economy Run showed best of gas mileage

News-DemocratMay 28, 2014 

Years ago, Mobil Oil sponsored the Mobil Economy Run, in which cars would be driven across the country to find which could get the best gas mileage. I would think this would be more relevant now than ever, so why did they stop it? Their merger with Exxon? -- K.S., of Belleville

While fuel efficiency may seem like a relatively recent issue, drivers apparently have closely monitored their gas gauges since the early days of the automobile.

From 1936 to 1968, the Mobil Economy Run became the road event of the year, long before "tree-hugger" became part of the lexicon. Except around World War II (1942-49), crowds would gather and bands would play in countless towns across the country as that year's models rolled through en route to what each hoped would be the mileage crown.

During 25 runs, about 850 cars were driven more than 1.5 million miles, according to John Heitmann, a professor of history at the University of Dayton. The average was just over 21.5 miles per gallon.

Yet despite the technological advances you'd expect over the years to produce better cars, the results hardly changed, according to Sheryl James' detailed chronicle of the run in the September/October 2012 issue of Michigan History.

For example, a 1936 four-cylinder Willys hit 33.2 miles per gallon while a six-cylinder 1961 Ford Falcon came in with 32.7 mpg. A 1967 Oldsmobile Toronado managed just 16.6 while even a 12-cylinder 1938 Lincoln Zephyr turned in a relatively gas-sipping 23.5.

So why did this draw so much attention during the days when the country was awash in gas that was maybe 20 to 30 cents a gallon? "Apparently, until collective memories of the Great Depression faded, Americans continued to place a high value on thrift," Heitmann noted.

The runs were started by the Gilmore Oil Co. until it merged with Mobil Oil, which resurrected the event in 1950 after the war hiatus. The first runs were two-day affairs from Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon, but eventually were expanded to six days as cars made their way from L.A. to varying end points in the East. In 1956, the United States Auto Club began to sanction and supervise the events.

Rules were strict. Cars had to be standard vehicles bought at dealerships by USAC representatives. After an inspection, the hood and chassis were sealed and cars were shipped to the starting point. Occupants included a driver, a relief driver and a USAC observer. In the trunk was a special tank filled with gas that had been carefully measured.

Drivers were allowed 2,500 test miles to get the feel of the car. Once the run started, however, the USAC judges could penalize drivers for any deviation off course, traffic violations, rolling stops or even arriving at a checkpoint late.

"It was like driving with a very attentive mother-in-law in the back seat," Walter Knoll, a Chrysler engineer, commented in a 2006 New York Times article.

Over the years, of course, the cars and drivers' faces changed. In 1955, for example, all cars were required to have automatic transmissions except for a handful of later compacts. And in 1957, the first women drivers competed -- and won. They said they had a psychological advantage.

"We women did damned well in the mouth department," Mary Davis explained in an April 18, 1960, Time magazine article

"Anyone who's on the road for hours at a time like this is inclined to be tense and irritable anyway. All we women did was say things like, 'Gee, Woody, you don't look well,' and help the men get more irritated faster. I saw one guy break down and start bawling like a baby after the first day when he found out we were leading him."

Put it all together, and you have car manufacturers praying that their cars would win one of the half-dozen different classes so they could crow about it in their advertising. A 1952 advertisement in Time, for example, boasted of Mercury's style and economy.

"Remember," it said, " Mercury, with optional overdrive, beat them all in the Mobilgas Economy Run! Three prizes in three years. That's proof of economy."

But in 1968 -- long before the Exxon-Mobil merger in 1999 -- a changing world witnessed its last Run. Originally scheduled to end in New York, it was cut short in Indianapolis because of racial violence it encountered along the way after the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4.

A press release soon after said Mobil was canceling the event due to "changes in emphasis on automotive performance factors, in the attitudes of motorists, and in Mobil's advertising strategy." Now, with EPA mileage stickers on every new car window, the Run would be superfluous.

Today's trivia

Who wrote the song "I Wish You Peace" on the Eagles' "One of These Nights" album?

Answer to Wednesday's trivia: Harry Stevens may have been in his 20s when he moved to Ohio from his native England in the 1880s, but he quickly fell in love with baseball. By 1900, he was supplying refreshments to several Major League parks and also reportedly designed the first scorecard, which he hawked by saying, "You can't tell the players without a scorecard." He is also often cited for causing a cartoonist to coin the term "hot dogs."

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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