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Throw Another Log on the Fire – The Original DeSoto “FireDome”

As gas prices continue to rise these days, there is much talk about alternative fuels for our motor vehicles, but this is hardly the first time that the subject has come up. The ungainly looking device attached to the 1942 DeSoto in our feature photo today is a wood gas or producer gas generator. It’s purpose was to provide a practical substitute for increasingly scarce gasoline during the Second World War.

To those unfamiliar with it’s operation, what follows is a highly simplified description of the process. Organic material (wood or charcoal) was heated to a temperature of 2,550° F (1,400° C) in the trunk mounted unit until a combustible gas full of hydrocarbons was released. The source material was not burned. This gas was then cooled and filtered before being sent through the carburetor and hence into the engine.

But before you make plans to install one on your car, you should note that there were decided disadvantages to the process. These things required up to ten minutes to get up to working temperature, so it was no turnkey affair. The fuel rendered had a lower BTU content by volume than gasoline that resulted in 35 to 50 percent less power. And because it burned more slowly than gasoline, high revs were impossible. A vehicle powered by producer gas was not a sports car. Grates in the generator had to be cleaned and downstream filters changed at frequent intervals. And, of course, there’s the cutting, splitting and loading of the wood.

But in the absence of any other available fuel, it made sense. Altogether, more than one million non-military vehicles were converted to run on producer gas worldwide during the war, about half of which were in Germany. Critical mobility was maintained, albeit at a much slower pace. “The Zenith”, where the article from February 4, 1944 originally appeared, was a shipbuilding industry newsletter. You can read about these devices in more detail in Low-Tech Magazine. Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Library.

7 responses to “Throw Another Log on the Fire – The Original DeSoto “FireDome”

  1. There was no shortage of gasoline during the Second World War but there was a real shortage of rubber and thus the powers that be, rationed gasoline. to preserve tires for the duration. There was a lively trade in 1942-1945 in black market tires many of whose dealers made small fortunes.

  2. In Europe it was a different matter. There Germany and her allies were still producing cars during the worst of the war years but there was a dwindling supply of “petrol” The Germans produced a synthetic gasoline called”Leune” which smelled like rotten onions. It was not cost effective and cost about $15.00 per gallon. By the end of the war Germany was literally “out of gas”! The destructive distillation of wood was a very ineffective substitute and the result was that buses fueled in this way had to be pushed up inclines by the passengers.

  3. There was a Blower Bentley in Australia known as the “Bathurst Blower”‘
    it was at one point fitted with a gas producer. I’ve not found any reference to it on the ‘net, but I do have some BDC literature which refers to it.

  4. “SPRINGVILLE, Alabama — If Alabama State Troopers had asked Wayne Keith why he was running his 1993 Dodge Dakota pickup at 90 mph on I-59 in St. Clair County last week, his reply probably would have resulted in a Breathalyzer test.”

    “The 61-year-old Springville inventor is indeed at the Bonneville Salt Flats this week. On Wednesday he set a class world-record in his firewood-powered truck. He went 71.18 mph to break the previous record by more than 24 mph. “

  5. David, the Tampa Bay Auto Museum has a 1929 Model A Tudor “Gazogene” that was installed in Spain in 1939. They occasionally drive it to local shows using charcoal bought at the hardware store. This is the museum that built and owns the replica of the Fardier de Cugnot that ran at Retromobile a few years ago.

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