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The Birmingham News (Alabama ): Pelham mechanics restoring car that got 244 miles a gallon in 1969

Monday, July 02, 2007
JEREMY GRAY: News staff writer

At first glance, Lee McKee thought the 1959 Fiat rusting in the sun outside Talladega’s International Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum might have a few parts worth salvaging.

Inside the trunk, however, was documentation indicating the car had been souped up by Shell scientists in 1969 to get 244 miles per gallon of gas as part of an annual company contest.

Included in a file folder were records and an article about the car from a 1969 edition of Popular Science magazine.

McKee and Alan Apel, owner of Pelham’s Empire Autohaus, a shop where McKee is a mechanic, purchased the car from the museum in February.

Later they found out the Fiat was once owned by NASCAR founder Bill France.

They will not disclose the purchase price of the small, Italian-made car, at the request of museum managers. But they hope to restore it to its former fuel-efficient glory.

The contest is still an annual event for Shell, although it is now referred to as an Eco-marathon, and competitions are in America and Europe, according to Shell’s Web site.

In April, the winning entry in the 2007 U.S. competition, a vehicle that more closely resembled a bobsled than a car, got 1,902 miles per gallon.

“It was basically a bar dispute. The scientists were arguing who could get the most miles out of a gallon of a gas,” McKee said of how the contest started.

In order to get triple-digit gas mileage, the scientists in 1969 sacrificed many of the comforts and basic safety features of the common automobile, McKee said.

The Fiat has no reverse gear, radiator, fan or water pump and at the height of its fuel efficiency only traveled 16 miles per hour.

“They did things you can’t do to a normal car and still drive around town,” McKee said.

“Everything is about keeping the engine super-hot. It uses every drop of gas,” McKee said.

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