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Antifreeze Brews From The Past – Salt, Glycerine, Alcohol and Ethylene Glycol

mechanic checking antifreeze

We really hate to be the bearer of the bad tidings, but in Vermont as this is written it is quite cold, snowing and a wind-whipped snow squall is passing through. Our workshop is all set for the winter season and this is being typed while sitting in front of a roaring fire in the wood stove.

The lead photo takes us back to a different time when antifreeze was used by motorists in the winter and many still used water (it cools better) in the warmer months along with a water pump lubricant and an anti-rust additive. The image shows a mechanic doing a coolant test on a vehicle, the photo is courtesy of Benjamin Ames. 

prestone antifreeze 1930

  •                 Eveready Prestone ethylene glycol advertisement, “Automotive Industries” July 12, 1930.

The modern age of non-freezing engine coolants began when ethylene glycol was introduced between 1926-’27  as an antifreeze. It literally passed the trial by fire in the late 1920s and the 1930s in tens of thousands engines, removing wasted heat from internal combustion engines. Its widespread use during World War II proved its potential, postwar it became widely used over 50-years after the first non-freezing solutions were introduced.

automobile antifreeze in 1901         automobile antifreeze in 1901-2         automobile antifreeze in 1901-3         winter care housing

  • Winter Use And Housing Of Automobiles” using salt and water January 30, 1901, “The Horseless Age.”

Let’s turn the clock back to 1900, when the most popular non-freezing solution of the time was a brew of salt or calcium chloride (a salt-like mix of calcium and chlorine) and water; by adding 5-pounds of either to each gallon of coolant, the solution would not freeze until well below zero degrees fahrenheit. The article (above) from the Jan. 30, 1901 “The Horseless Age” tells of this practice and the best ways to garage a car, keep it warm, and start it.  

Other early antifreeze solutions used at the time included glycerine (a thick, sweet, clear liquid derived from animal fats), kerosene also came into use, but presented a fire risk; both also attacked the natural rubber hoses used at the time. Methanol was also used; it is also known as methyl alcohol or wood alcohol (ethyl alcohol is the popular drink) and soon became the antifreeze of choice.

auto antifreeze 1905

  •                                 Early antifreeze of an unknown origin,”The Automobile” January 1905.

Alcohol freezes at a lower temperature than water, which made it a popular non-freezing solution in early automobiles. However, alcohol, like calcium chloride has some qualities that make it poorly suited for cooling systems in automobiles.

One of the biggest problems with using alcohol is that like salt it can corrode the metallic cooling system components that are used in a cooling system. The other issue is alcohol evaporates in use. If the solution is not carefully checked often, the engine is subject to overheating, or freeze up.

anti-freezing formulas 1910

  • An article in “The Horseless Age” December 1910 shows the proportions of glycerine and alcohol used.

And finally, the first ethylene glycol that is still used today as an antifreeze-coolant was blended in the mid-1850s by French chemist Charles-Adolphe Wurtz. The substance, however, did not become widely used until the 1910s and ’20s. One of its first uses was as a replacement of glycerol used in the manufacture of dynamite.

If finally became available in the mid-1920s and was promoted as a permanent antifreeze. It mixes easily with water, and different proportions of it can be used to obtain the freeze-up protection needed in different climates.

When we return, winter fronts and the development of the thermostat will be covered.

johnsons antfreeze 1920

  •      Advertisement in the November 11, 1920, “The Motor Age” for Johnson’s “Freeze-Proof” solution.

mckay antifreeze 1930

  •              Advertisement in the November 2, 1926, “Automotive Industries” for “McKay Antifreeze.” 


22 responses to “Antifreeze Brews From The Past – Salt, Glycerine, Alcohol and Ethylene Glycol

  1. I restored a 1941 Packard a few years ago – it had been stored since I would guess the 40’s with an alcohol based antifreeze with a water pump lubricant – I would have thought it would have evaporated, though there was plenty of it in there. It melted a pair of glove nearly immediately upon contact and hoses were rough on inside. System was amazingly clean though.

    I also recall as a kid in the 70’s going with my dad and his best friend to get alcohol based antifreeze for a Stearns Knight.

    • Yikes, dissolving gloves! But you bring up a good point, that along with preventing freezing, coolant mixtures prevent corrosion.

  2. The first picture took me back to my late 1950s six-cylinder Ford. One problem with those hydrometers was that they were calibrated for warm-hot coolant. You needed to figure out the correction with the little thermometer on the unit, which is what the mechanic seems to doing. A fleet I worked for in the ’80s had a completely different tester made by America Optical which read directly the freezing point even if the truck hadn’t run in days.

  3. Seems like I recall some old timers were shy of “permanent” antifreeze because the early formula could cause engines to seize from a leaky head gasket or such. This doesn’t appear to be an issue nowadays. Also I think there was a shortage of glycol during WW2. This plus the extra cost were reasons it got off to a slow start.

    • With the advent of polypropylene coolants a refractometer type test was needed because a hydrometer could be off as much as +\- 10 degrees or more, and will give you a false reading if the poly amount is 70% or more. And as you probably know from experience a too strong of a mix can be as bad as too weak.

  4. As late as the mid-70s, when I was working as a mechanic at a Volvo/Triumph dealership, I’d be sent out with one of those testers to check the coolant in the traded-ins. I may even still have it somewhere!

  5. I read once that farmers would use kerosene as antifreeze in their tractors. Smelled to beat H-ll and rotted out hoses for sure.

  6. Interesting piece. There were several stories in the Gus Wilson Model Garage series in the early days about antifreeze, glycerine, etc. I presume the site is still active and can be found by a Web search, I would imagine. The site had every Gus Wilson story.

    Meanwhile, keep warm, Dave. I hope your stove works well — and I need little heat this winter! 🙂

  7. I have a Prestone can in poor condition that appears identical to the can at the top of David’s post. I was amazed to note, though, that the automobile pictured on my can was most certainly a 1932 Ford.! Also amazing was that it is at most a quart can! I believe most people in this part of the country used alcohol for antifreeze (for their cars.) until after the war years.

  8. I my youth, I had a 1932 Chevrolet coupe and worked at a Sinclair station. When winter arrived, customers had us change their antifreeze. We would save the old antifreeze. My friends and I would use the “stuff” in our carsand really did not know if we mixed alchol and permanent. But it was cheap!

  9. My dad was hired to be a “Chauffer” for the next door neighbor’s 1914 model T Touring car. Dad discovered that filling the block with hot water from the wood stove resulted in less cranking. It was ONE year later when some kind soul introduced this Budding Chauffer how to CHOKE the engine. He was both embarrased and super happy!!! He still used the “hot water trick”, in the Winter ! Edwin – 30 –

  10. Rural Nebraska thoughts. Besides kerosene, my grandfather told me farmers and others during the depression would use some mixture with diesel fuel as a component. Not that it was better or good for the car or tractor but, rather do with whatever you had was the idea in tough times.

  11. My first tractor/trailer job in the late 70’s was for a company in Brookfield, Wis. named Paul Schmit Trucking, and Paul and I would talk about old trucks. He had mostly Macks at the time, and told me, his father had one of the first Mack trucks in the Milwaukee area in the 20’s. He said, they never had anti-freeze, and on below freezing temp nights, he would drain the water out at night, and bring it in the house, and in the morning, pour it back in. If the truck didn’t start, he would drain it again, warm it up inside, and try again.( the “good ol’ days). For years, I used anti-freeze “straight up”, even though, I believe, the mix actually protects to a lower temp. (A-F was cheap) I can only imagine, an A-F maker’s kid is very wealthy today, when he told his dad to cut the A-F with half water, and sell it for the same price as straight A-F. 🙂

  12. Even with the earlier permanent antifreezes, many of us considered an annual dose of rust inhibitor and water pump lubricant as mandatory. Still, rust was a problem. It wasn’t until the advent of coolant recovery systems and semi sealed cooling systems that we could relax and let the snow fly.

  13. The car he is checking is a 1957 Ford six. Note the hood safety latch is on the left side of the car. That is because the six had the oil dip stick on that side. The V8 cars had the safety latch on the right side of the car where the dip stick was located.

  14. In 1955 I had a 31 Chevy coupe, and the temp gauge was marked at 157* and labeled “alcohol boils”. I remember looking at used cars with my Dad, he taught me to test for antifreeze by dipping my finger in the radiator coolant and tasting it. If it was sweet, it had antifreeze!

  15. Page 18 of the instruction book from 1912 for HUDSON 33 „mile a minute“ required the following ANTI-FREEZING MIXTURES:
    For 5 below zero:
    Alcohol 15%
    Glycerine 15%
    Water 70%

    For 10 below zero:
    Alcohol 18%
    Glycerine 18%
    Water 64%
    Denatured Alcohol 35%
    Water 65%
    Temperatures of course in Fahrenheit!

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