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I never drink and drive but I swear every Chevy Nova (pre-1985) and Olds Omega (same car--different label) I see is driving down the road sideways. Well, not quite sideways but at an acute angle. Was this the product of foresighted GM engineers trying to provide a more panoramic view for drivers and passengers alike, or merely a flashback from my chemical abuse days? --H. Blank, Chicago

I don't know where you young people learned to be so sarcastic--certainly not from me. For your information, the peculiarities of the Nova have nothing to do with either your drug habit or GM's desire to simplify angle parking. Older Novas and Omegas, as well as Pontiac Venturas and Buick Apollos, are vulnerable to an embarrassing defect that involves misalignment of the rear axle. The axle, see, is attached to the car by a couple of leaf springs, which look like a horizontal parenthesis. (Cecil loves these homely metaphors.) In the center of each spring there's a locator pin that's supposed to fit into a hole in the axle assembly and keep it lined up properly. Unfortunately, the pins have an annoying tendency to shear off, whereupon the axle slips out of parallel and the car heads around in a circle. To overcome this, the driver has to keep the front wheels turned in the opposite direction, with the result that he heads down the road sidesaddle. This problem was most common in Novas from the mid-70s; supposedly some cars were already goofed up when they left the factory. GM, for its part, says, "Don't consider this a manufacturing problem." In other words, suckers, it's your problem. Happy motoring.

Stopping at a local gas station and seeing a large banner announcing "Alcohol Free!" reminded me that there was some controversy surrounding the use of ethanol versus methanol in gasoline. What are the differences between these two octane boosters? --Danglin' Dave, Garland, Texas

It may be OK to dangle out there in Garland, Dave, but here in the big city we prefer to zip up when we're through. As for alcohol, there are some differences between ethanol (made from grain) and methanol (made from methane). But the real question is whether you want to use gasoline laced with alcohol in the first place, since it tends to screw up your engine.

Many refiners began putting up to 10 percent alcohol (usually ethanol) in their gasoline starting in the 70s, producing what's known as gasohol. It's most commonly available in the midwest, particularly in Farm Belt states where it's subsidized in the form of lower taxes, but you can also find it in the west and south and occasionally elsewhere. Alcohol has two advantages: it's a renewable resource, unlike petroleum, and it boosts octane, meaning you'll get less pinging and knock. Methanol has the added advantage of being real cheap.

In fact, alcohol would be just about perfect were it not for the fact that it can soften hoses and gaskets, dissolve your carburetor float and other plastic parts, and corrode metal. It can also cause vapor lock and hot-weather restarting problems, and it tends to lower your gas mileage. Methanol is the more serious offender, but ethanol will still give you trouble.

Unfortunately, it's not always easy to tell whether gas contains alcohol. Amoco used to put decals on some of its pumps saying "Pure Lead-Free, No Alcohol Added," but now the no-alcohol line is being dropped, in part due to protests from gasohol advocates. Amoco pumps that do have gasohol are prominently labeled, but this is not necessarily the case with all retailers.

Most major refiners that sell gasohol use ethanol rather than methanol. ARCO (Atlantic Richfield) for a long time was the exception, but the company now says it has discontinued the sale of its methanol blend, at least for the time being. You may still wind up with some of the stuff, however, because unscrupulous service station operators have been known to cut their gas with methanol in order to chisel a few extra bucks. If you've been having inexplicable problems with your ride lately, try filling your tank at a different joint.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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