Charcoal Powered Cars: They were Smokin’

I stumbled on this odd photo the other day on the Green Car Congress blog. It’s a photo of a vintage 1938 3.5 Liter Opel being displayed at a 2006 Frankfurt car show. The novelty here is that the Opel didn’t run on petrol – it was 100% charcoal powered back in the day.

This wasn’t really such an unusual thing then apparently. Jack Rosebro of the Green Car Congress Blog writes:

Charcoal burning conversion kits, which are really wood gas generators, enjoyed a brief civilian and military niche market in England, Germany, Australia, the United States, and other countries up to and during World War II. Wood gas generators were used to power taxis in Korea as late as 1970.

A charcoal burner actually burns the gases produced by heated wood. The burner is a two part system: a closed chamber with chunks of wood in it, and a charcoal burner to heat the closed chamber and make the wood generate gases by a process called pyrolysis.

Flammable gases produced by pyrolysis are then routed to a carburetor of sorts, mixed with air, and burned in the engine’s combustion chambers. Once the wood in the closed chamber has produced gases and turned to charcoal, it is transferred to the charcoal burner to heat the next load of wood. Some charcoal-fueled cars were designed to be started on gasoline, and would then be switched to charcoal once the vehicle was underway.

My dad told me that when gasoline was in short supply during the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines in World War II, a lot of cars and buses were converted to running charcoal.

It’s difficult to find mention of this historical episode on the web, but I did run across this passage by Larry Henares (father of Atom, Juno, and Rosanna – and grandfather of Quark) posted on the Plaridel mailing list last March 27, 2008. Larry was reminiscing about the origins of the Jeepney, but he did throw in an item about the use of charcoal-powered engines during World War 2:

Larry Henares here.  I am 84 years old, I was there.  Before the war, we
had the “Jitney” manufactured by Austin, a British firm.  Jitney is a
real English word, “a conveyance, especially an automobile, in which
passengers are carried for a small fare.” It was re-built to accommodate
4 to 6 passengers, and was also called the “autobus,” as distinguished
from the “bus.” An Ilonggo ditty went:

Inday upud ka, ilis bayo mo,
Sakay sa autobus, I love you.

It did not survive during the Japanese occupation because
alcohol and gasoline were commandeered by the Japs, and the jitney could
not accommodate the Gas Generator installed at the back of the car for
use in generating power with the use of coconut charcoal.  This was an
invention of my father which he called IPOPI Charcomobile.  It consisted
of a furnace which burns charcoal in a limited supply of air to
generate, not carbon dioxide, but carbon monoxide which is inflammable,
and is filtered and directed to the carburetor and used to provide fuel
to the car.  It saved Manila from starvation.  IPOPI stood for
Industrial Products of the Philippines Incorporated — but people joked
that IPOPI really stood for Itulak Para Omandar Pag ‘Into.

9 thoughts on “Charcoal Powered Cars: They were Smokin’

  1. I remember seeing this movie (on TV) “The Longest Hundred Miles” starring Ricardo Montalban and a very young Vilma Santos, trying to escape the Japanese invasion using a very old rusted school bus. They didn’t have fuel so they used charcoal…(or was it buko juice?) Of course I was less than 10 years old at the time I saw this movie.

  2. While stationed in Japan in the late 70’s, my family attended church off base pastored by a retired Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. missionary. He’d first come to Japan at the end of the war in 1946. He’d often recount the times he’d ride Japanese buses that were powered by charcoal burners. As for them not being “eco friendly”, the people were having to deal with something called survival at the time. Starvation does have a way of making one reevaluate one’s priorities.

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