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Shell Oil Company achieves 376.59 mpg in test car at Wood River Laboratory


By Rick C. Hodgin
Tuesday, November 04, 2008 05:00

Indianapolis (IN) – Using fully stock production gasoline engine powered vehicles, with engine modifications limited only to changes in fuel mixture and ignition timing, Shell Oil Company served host to an open competition in automobile efficiency. The fruit of their forum was sweet indeed as a two-door, full-sized production car was able to drive off with the prize by achieving 376.59 miles in normal driving conditions using a single gallon of fuel. A more heavily modified vehicle was able to achieve over 1140 miles on a single gallon of fuel. Results like these are truly astounding and beg the question: Are we really getting all we can in efficiency from auto makers?

Today’s fuel efficiency

Production vehicles at Toyota, Honda, GM, Ford, Chrysler and Nissan typically give the average consumer about 25 to 35 mpg in most high-efficiency full-sized models. Some achieve 40 mpg (or more), but it is rare to see that kind of fuel efficiency in a stock family vehicle. Even hybrid vehicles, which began to gain quick popularity when fuel topped $4.00 per gallon in the U.S., do not achieve extremely high efficiency when running only on gasoline power (which is required for long trips) – rarely even 50 mpg.

So what gives? Are we really tapped out? Are our best scientists unable to build a better production engine for our families to use? If the entries in this competition were able to do it – why can’t they?

Wood River Laboratory

Shell Oil Company seems to have answered that question for us, and in stunning fashion. Any car capable of achieving over 375 mpg deserves some real attention, doesn’t it?

The tests were conducted on a closed circuit course which was an old airfield. Cars in the test could not have their average speed drop below 30 mph, though apart from that one rule the driving style was unrestricted. Awards were given out for best miles per gallon and best ton miles per gallon (miles per gallon multiplied by the vehicle’s weight). Vehicles were divided into two simple categories, small cars and large cars – based on vehicle weight, occupancy and overall size.

Notable entries included stock vehicles modified by Fiat which achieved 90 to 96 mpg under normal, everyday-like driving conditions. One U.S. entry, a full-size four-door family sedan, achieved 149.95 mpg while a separate two-door sports car (modified by Fiat) achieved a stunning 244.35 mpg. But there were other entries achieving even more fuel economy.

Big winner

The biggest winner was a much older car specially modified for the competition. While still remaining completely stock engine-wise, even using an old-fashioned carburetor and coil-based ignition system (no computers, no electronics, no fuel injection system of any kind), the car did reduce drag by having a single drive wheel on the rear-end and a greatly simplified transmission (transmissions typically consume up to 10% efficiency in automobiles). That vehicle ultimately achieved the number one spot at 376.59 miles per gallon.

Simplicity in power

The secret? According to a paper detailing the event (published in 1977), “Firstly, the power needed to propel the vehicle must be kept to an absolute minimum, and secondly the engine and operating conditions must be chosen so that power requirement is met with minimum fuel utilization.”

All of the cars listed above were from tests conducted in 1973, 1968 and 1949. Specifically, in 1949 a modified 1947 Studebaker achieved 149.95 miles per gallon. In 1968 a 1959 Fiat 600 (the two-door sports car above) achieved 244.35 miles per gallon. And in 1973, a modified 1959 Opel achieved 376.59 miles per gallon. That’s enough fuel economy to drive from Indianapolis to Chicago, and back again, on a single gallon of fuel costing roughly $1.79 using fuel prices found in Indianapolis today.

Citation: Shell Oil Company’s “Fuel Economy of the Gasoline Engine” (ISBN 0-470-99132-1); published by John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1977. On page 42, Shell Oil quotes the (then) President of General Motors who predicted in 1929 that cars would achieve 80 mpg by 1939. Pages 221 through 223 have Shell writing of their test circuit achievements, specifically the 49.73 mpg achieved in 1939; the 149.95 mpg achieved in 1949 (using magnetos); 244.35 mpg in 1968 and the biggie, 376.59 mpg in 1973.


Are we getting all we can out of our auto makers in 2008? When we have full sized cars from the 1950s (which are relatively comparable in weight due to much thicker metal used back then, and much worse in aerodynamics due to boxy shapes) outperforming our most modern, most computer-powered, most computer-designed, most highly-efficient automobiles of today – those made with materials only dreamt of in the 1970s, are we even close?

These cars coming out of Detroit, California, Japan, England, France and Germany are shown now for what they are. And all of them give us fuel economy that Shell Oil Company proved to us in 1973 is an absolute joke by comparison. And even if we can’t achieve the full 376.59 miles per gallon in a production automobile – even with our modern day computers, simulations, and technology which has since taken unmanned spacecraft beyond the edge of our solar system, surely we can achieve maybe 100 mpg? Or 80 mpg? Or even 60 mpg in full-sized vehicles (like those back then)? Possible?

And lastly, if greenhouse gas emissions are a pressing concern in the issues of manmade global warming in our society today, wouldn’t having cars today that are capable of driving nearly 10x further on the same amount of fuel be better for our environment? If it’s important to be green, then shouldn’t we place importance where it’s needed (saving all of us a little money at the same time)?


The car Shell Oil Company used on the test circuit has been found! It is mostly a pile of rust and corrosion now, but can be clearly seen in pictures at this website. It used a stock inline 4-cylider engine. And, despite mother nature not being very kind, it is a truly beautiful vehicle to say the least – if only because it’s one that actually gives us hope again.


This website and sisters,,,, and, are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia segment.

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