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TO SHERLOCKIANS and other high-living Victorians, the gasogene is a piece of barware, a gadget producing carbonated water for mixing with whisky. To automotive historians, a gasogene was the answer to wartime shortages of gasoline, a means of producing combustible gases on-board by burning coal, charcoal or wood. And to motorsport enthusiasts of similar historical bent, the term gasogeno recalls coal-burning entries in two runnings, 1933 and 1936, of the famed Italian Mille Miglia cross-country race.
Gasogenes are found in all three, Sherlockiana, automotive history and historical motorsports. Read on.
In “The Scandal in Bohemia,” Watson observes, “With hardly a word spoken, but with a kindly eye, he waved me to an armchair, threw across his case of cigars, and indicated a spirit case and a gasogene in the corner.”
The gasogene had two linked glass globes. The upper globe mixed a powder of tartaric acid with bicarbonate of soda, the reaction producing carbon dioxide. This gas, in turn, forced the water in the lower container out in carbonated form.
Gasogene globes were typically wrapped in wicker or wire mesh. Explosions of the gadgets were not uncommon. Gulp.
The automotive gasogene was a completely different gizmo, a product of gasoline shortages during the Great Depression and, especially, during World War II. These used coal, wood or charcoal as input. They produced a combustible gas similar to the Town Gas that had illuminated cities in the turn-of-the-century Gaslight Era.
Carbon in the burning fuel combined with oxygen in the air to produce (deadly) carbon monoxide, CO. Carbon and water produced more CO and some hydrogen (a fine fuel). An interchange of combustible hydrogen and deadly CO was an inherent tradeoff of the process.
Cars converted to gasogene operation carried the hardware aft or on a side running board. Buses and other heavy vehicles towed the apparatus in trailers.
Gasogene energy content was meager, perhaps 15 percent of gasoline’s. But gasogene vehicles did run.
And, indeed, run they did in the famed Mille Miglia in 1933 and 1936.
In 1933, the Societa Autogasogeni Ferraguti, Roma entered a gasogeno Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 Gran Sport purely as a demonstration in the Mille Miglia. Marco Ferraguti, professor of agriculture at the University of Perugia, converted the Alfa. Though not always credited, it’s likely his son Sergio drove the car. Codriver was Augusto Agostini, a General of the Forestry Militia.
They averaged 31.68 mph for the 1000 miles, finishing well beyond the time limit required of ordinary entrants. Tazio Nuvolari drove the winning Alfa at an average speed of 67.85 mph.
What with its modest power, the Ferraguti/Agostini gasogeno Alfa took three tries to ascend one of the hills between Perugia and Gubbio.
The 1936 Mille Miglia was complicated by deteriorating international conditions, in particular Italy’s military occupation of Ethiopia. Race organizers set up special classes for cars powered by alternative fuels, including (but not limited to) gasogeni.
A total of six gasogeni entered, four Fiats, an Itala and the Ferraguti Alfa, this time with a codriver named Vacchini. Only one of the Fiats, a 508 Balilla, completed the 1000 miles, again reflecting modest gasogene performance with an average speed of 31.06 mph.
The winning Alfa Romeo 8C 2900A of the Scuderia Ferrari team was driven by Antonio Brivio. This car was also alternatively fueled—after a fashion. It averaged 75.54 mph on a mixture of 44 percent ethanol, 44 percent methanol, 12 percent avgas—and a dollop of castor oil. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014