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Gas Bag Vehicles – Coal Gas Power During World War I

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During World War I in the UK and Europe gasoline supplies were tight to non-existent in many areas for passenger cars, taxis, and trucks. All available gasoline was diverted to power military motor vehicles, boats and airplanes during the war efforts, leaving little for private passenger cars and commercial vehicles.

Earlier in the 1800s during the development of the internal combustion engine a number of non-petroleum base fuels including: coal dust, coal gas, city gas (natural gas), methane and others were used in addition to oil-based fuels. By the time Karl Benz, the pioneer German engine designer had perfected his 1885 Benz Patent Motorwagen, he had settled on the use of gasoline as the fuel to power his early automobiles and others soon followed.

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  • A British Model T Ford – Photo courtesy of The Henry Ford.

As fuel supplies became scarce, necessity became the mother of invention and those in the know looked back in time to other fuels that had powered engines in the previous century. Coal gas, which is produced by heating coal in enclosed ovens with an oxygen-poor atmosphere became available commercially as early as the 1820s. After ninety-plus years of development and the establishment of a distribution network, it was the fuel of choice during World War I as an alternative for motor vehicles.

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  •                                       A B.S.A. Landaulet converted by Evesham Motor Engineering Co.

Containing the gas was the next issue, references were found to using steel tanks filled with compressed coal gas as early as 1910 for vehicles in France; during wartime the manufacture of the containers was not an option. Lighter than air flying craft had been in use since the late-1700s, and it was reported that the general construction methods and materials for air ship balloons were used to make the gas bags for vehicles at the time.

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  • A British Model T Ford Taxi – Photos courtesy of the MTFCA Forum.

Other than the gas bag and an appropriate roof rack to hold it, little more than a flexible hose and some minor carburetor modifications were needed to run a vehicle on coal gas. Although specially manufactured coal gas fuel and air mixers were available in England for use on commercial trucks and buses, a modified Model T Ford Holley three-screw unit can be seen below.

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  •                                                   “Automotive Trade Journal” –  October 1, 1917

The illustration (above) from an article in the Automotive Trade Journal, October 1, 1917 issue, shows the minor changes used at the time on a Ford Holley carburetor. The gas inlet tube was inserted into a hole drilled just before the throttle valve with a fixed-sized jet used in it for admitting the gas. It was found at the time through general experience that a jet orifice of about seven-thousandths of an inch per engine h.p. was about the correct size. As an added benefit the car could also be operated on gasoline.

According to the The Gas Age magazine, a Model T Ford Touring car with an 11-foot long by 4-foot diameter gas bag that held about 130 cubic feet of gas, was able to run about 17-miles on a filling.

Below you can watch a short thirty-second long British Pathe video titled Gas Bag Motor Cars showing several vehicles equipped with gas bags and a Model T Ford fitted with a tank of compressed coal gas. For further information view European Progress in The Gas Age (1918) and Use of Gas as Automobile Fuel (1920).

9 responses to “Gas Bag Vehicles – Coal Gas Power During World War I

  1. I gather since it’s not mentioned anywhere that coal gas is relatively stable, especially if not carried in pressurized rigid tanks, but flammability isn’t mentioned either.

  2. Before the use of natural gas, coal gas was often used in household cooking. It was named here ‘stadsgas’ (city gas) and was stored in large flexible containers next to the gas factory, present in every major city in The Netherlands during the ’30s up to the early ’60s. Of course you had to be careful, because it contained the flammable hydrogen-gas and the poisonous carbon monoxide. But the mixture was not as dangerous as the pure hydrogen-gas in balloons, because probably it was deluted with air.

    For the record, the car at the top is in my opinion a 1916 Buick. The sidelights (normally more a Cadillac feature) appear to be a UK-addition. I could find one UK-ad showing a Buick with the same type of sidelights.

  3. The google links no longer work. So I had to do some research to find the source material. Here I test to publish a link for others to use.

    • Erkcan Ozcan, Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I checked both links and they work well here. I may be an issue w/your server. The Old Motor no longer allows links in comments as to many of them go bad w/time.

      • The links are active but Google Books do not allow us to even sneak peek on the text. For those who cannot see the links I posted, my suggestion is to head for the website of the HathiTrust digital library.

        Let me finish up by thanking the Old Motor for such an interesting article with the sources listed. Most often we don’t get this sort of quality on the web.

        • Thanks Erkcan: If readers cannot access the Google coverage search for the HathiTrust digital library and then search for: European Progress in “The Gas Age” (1918) and Use of Gas as Automobile Fuel (1920). Use of Gas as Automobile Fuel (1920) also in “The Gas Age”.

  4. There should have been a Rover 12hp Gas Driven Van during WWI. Does anybody can tell me details abot this car?

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