Alcohol conversion

Of the three cars that crisscrossed the country to publicize the new fuel in 1976, only one is still standing

EDUARDO CESAR/CTAOn October 19, 1976, three cars left the Technical Aerospace Center (CTA –  Centro Técnico Aeroespacial) in the city of São José dos Campos (São Paulo state). They drove  8,500 km across nine states and returned to their starting point 23 days later. Outwardly common-looking, the Dodge Polara 1800, the VW beetle 1300 and the Gurgel Xavante caused astonishment when it came to refueling: all three ran on alcohol rather than gasoline. The cars were part of  the Pro-Alcohol Caravan, the popular name of the National Integration Circuit, created to demonstrate the new fuel’s viability. “Whenever we filled up,  a bunch of people gathered round to see if it really was alcohol”, says Adilson Cavichi do Amaral, driver of the pickup truck used to refuel the vehicles which followed the caravan together with another vehicle responsible for security. “Some people insisted on dipping their hand  in and smelling it to make sure.”

Proálcool, the National Alcohol Program, was officially created in 1975 and by decree, due to the major oil crisis in 1973. Its main objective was to reduce oil imports, sold at outrageous prices by the exporting countries. For the task of developing the alcohol engine, José Walter Bautista Vidal, then the head of the Industrial Technology Bureau of the Ministry of  Industry and Commerce, recruited engineer Urbano Stumpf, at that time a professor at the University of  Brasilia. An engineer from the first graduating class of ITA, the Aeronautics Technological Institute, Stumpf  had been researching the new fuel since the fifties. Together with a young engineering team gathered at the CTA, he began his studies on how to convert gasoline engines to alcohol.

The group’s first job was to find out how much anhydrous alcohol one could mix into gasoline without loss of yield. With the engines of the 70’s, one could get to 15%, though the ideal level was 10%. Afterwards came  studies on how to convert the engines –  the Volkswagen beetle was the car first chosen, as it was the country’s bestselling car. “Within one year, from 1975 to 1976, we developed a reliable conversion technology and Stumpf had the idea of this caravan, to prove that alcohol could replace gasoline, and had the advantage of being cheaper”,  says engineer Paulo Ewal, head of the Piston Engines Subdivision of the CTA Aeronautics and Space Institute, now called the High Command of Aerospace Technology.

A VW beetle 1300 was purchased; João Conrado do Amaral Gurgel, from Gurgel, lent a Xavante jeep (with a VW 1300 engine in it) and Chrysler, the only car manufacturer interested in the project,  donated a Dodge 1800. After the caravan, the federal government decided to convert the engines of the state-owned companies? fleets. 731 VW beetles in total were converted. Telesp (the São Paulo State phone company) alone invested in 400 of them. It was only in 1979 that one car maker, Fiat, started manufacturing automobiles with alcohol engines as a factory-installed option, with its 147 Model.

Of the three pioneering automobiles, only the Dodge remained,  though it was sent to a scrap auction in 1986. “But we were warned by Amaral, the driver, and we persuaded the directors at the time to raise the Dodge’s price so that nobody would buy it and  it would have to be returned to CTA”, says João Bosco Teixeira de Souza, one of the researchers in Stumpf’s team. “Unfortunately, we were unable to save the VW beetle, which became scrap.”  The Xavante was also lost. “As Gurgel’s production was very flexible, my father replaced the engine’s car easily in order to test new parts”, says Maria Cristina, Gurgel’s daughter. “He probably took a car from the factory’s fleet, replaced the engine and later converted it again to gasoline.”   Since 2004, the Dodge has been at the Brazilian Aerospace Museum in the city of São José dos Campos, after 28 years of  lying around the many garages of various CTA divisions.