Simanaitis Says

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A MOBILGAS AD back in 1954 read, “In the greatest road test of performance and mileage characteristics of American stock cars, 20 automobiles vied for Sweepstakes and price class honors in the 1954 Mobilgas Economy Run.” 

This and the following images from R&T, June 1954. The Sweepstakes Winner was based on a ton-mile/gallon criterion, not simply mpg.

Here are tidbits gleaned from R&T, June 1954, together with my usual Internet sleuthing. I’ll conclude by putting the 1954 event into 66-year perspective.

A Rigorous Evaluation. Though conceptually different from today’s EPA evaluation of new-car fuel economy, the Mobilgas Economy Run sought to be a rigorous assessment of real-world mpg. R&T titled its 1954 article “The Sealed Trail: 1335 Miles of Back Seat Driving.” 

“The Economy Runs,” R&T wrote, “were started by the old Gilmore Oil Company in 1935 to demonstrate to the average motorist how his car would perform when properly maintained and driven. These contests were held from 1936 to 1940 under the sanction of the American Automobile Association Contest Board.” 

“In 1949,” R&T continued, “the AAA made a complete survey of conditions in the automotive industry and decided that resumption of the runs was practical.”

“Stock” Meant Stock. For the run, AAA representatives selected participating cars at random from new-car agencies. Officials made sure clearances and the like were factory-stock. After impounding, AAA seals were affixed to air cleaners, carburetors, and other components.

The winning Studebaker crosses the line.

The Exact Route Initially Secret. R&T noted, “The actual course is not announced until all competing cars have been impounded—to prevent practice runs.” 

Each car also carried two official observers. R&T noted, “The backseat drivers, the observers, make sure there is no exceeding of local and highway speed limits, no law violations, no communication between cars, no tricks, no gadgets, no physical, mental or mechanical advantages over conditions for the average driver.”

The 1954 run traveled from Los Angeles to Fresno, then a visit to Yosemite National Park, followed by a westward amble to San Francisco, then northeast through Sacramento, across Donner Summit to Elko, Nevada, concluding with a northerly drive to Twin Falls, Idaho, and ending in that state’s Sun Valley, a total distance of 1335 miles.

“This year,” R&T wrote, “a time limit of 32 hours 45 minutes was allowed the field of 20 entries…. In that time, the entrants managed to garner an average mpg of 21.8466 mpg with an average speed of 41.1001 mph.”

A Modern Perspective. To put this in perspective, think of the 1954 Mobilgas Economy Run as a legitimate real-world drive, albeit with a preponderance of highway over city conditions. By contrast, our EPA Combined figure is a 55/45 composite of City and Highway mpgs, respectively. See CLEARING THE MPG AIR, IF NOT THE AIR ITSELF PART 1

The 1954 Mobilgas Economy average of  21.8 mpg would invoke a Federal Gas Guzzler Tax of $1000 per car. This is the lowest assessed tax in a graduated scale that ranges from tax-free cars achieving at least 22.5 mpg to a whopping $7700 for those achieving less than 12.5 mpg.

Gas Guzzler Tax Rates.

 For example, a 2020 707-hp Dodge Charger Hellcat’s Gas Guzzler Tax is $2100, assessed by its “unadjusted” Combined City/Highway mpg of 18.5–19.5 mpg. 

The Hellcat’s EPA Fuel Economy is 12 mpg City, 21 mpg Highway, with a respective 55/45 Combined 15 mpg. Note, these are EPA’s “adjusted” mpgs, as appearing on a new car’s window sticker. 

The Gas Guzzler Tax. This tax was established by the U.S. Congress as part of the Energy Tax Act of 1978. The tax is levied on the manufacturer, though likely lurking in the consumer price and appearing on the new-car window sticker. 

Trucks, minivans, and sports utility vehicles are not covered, by virtue of a quirk of legislative timing: EPA says “these vehicle types were not widely available in 1978 and were rarely used for non-commercial purposes.” See EPA for more details.

Who would have imagined today’s vehicle mix back then? 

The 1954 Studebaker Champion’s 29.5806 mpg would not earn a Gas Guzzler sobriquet. Phil Hill’s 1954 2.9 Ferrari‘s estimated 9/18 mpg, as reported in R&T May 1954, decidedly could have earned one. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020 

3 comments on “MOBILGAS ECONOMY RUN—1954

  1. Mark W
    September 7, 2020

    I’m sure the white short sleeve shirts and narrow ties worn by all helped with wind resistance too 😉

  2. phil f
    September 7, 2020

    “ Trucks, minivans, and sports utility vehicles are not covered, by virtue of a quirk of legislative timing: EPA says “these vehicle types were not widely available in 1978 and were rarely used for non-commercial purposes.” ”

    Does this partially explain the appeal of trucks & SUVs? Or, at least, the aggressive marketing of said vehicles?

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