On the windshield of this Chevy you can read: 17-7-75, in the Brazilian way to write dates, that means July 17th, 1975.
Yes, on that memorable day in my hometown in Brazil, Curitiba, it snowed. Not a whole lot by North American standards but it was pretty amazing for us. The picture shows that in some Brazilian cities the winter can be cold.
Let’s fast forward to the 1984, that was my first year at Technical High School and somehow I have managed to convince my dad to take me and my buddies to school every morning.
My dad’s daily driver around that time was a 1982 Chevy Chevette station wagon. The Brazilian GM named the car “Marajó”, after a tropical island in our coast. Dad never liked the Chevette and I just don’t remember how he ended up with that ride.
The car was exactly like the one on the picture, a “Plain Jane”, white, equiped with 4 speed tranny and a 1.4 liter engine. But there was one particular detail about the car, it was ethanol fuelled.
The Brazilian ethanol program was born as a viable alternative to petrol during the oil crisis of the 1970s. Ethanol is the alcohol extracted from sugar cane and doesn’t take much to convert a petrol engine to run on ethanol. We have plenty of land for the crops and a perfect weather. So what could go wrong?
The perspectives were pretty good and in 1978, FIAT reveled the first Brazilian car built to run on ethanol, a 147 model.
It took another 2 years to get the program fully operational and in 1980 the “alcoholic cars” started to hit the show room floors. It was an instant success, during those times when the price of oil skyrocketed, ethanol was considerably cheaper and on top of that, the government gave some tax incentives for the buyers.
Another interesting fact is since ethanol is (generally speaking) less flammable than gasoline, in order to an engine run satisfactorily it must receive some important modifications, first a higher compression ratio and since the engine needs a higher flow of fuel, most of ethanol cars had dual barrel carbs and a more aggressive valve cam.
In other words, a alcohol fueled car was a “spiced up ” version of the similar gas fueled one and we all know how important performance is when we are buying a car.
So important that the automakers didn’t even brother to produce gas versions of the sportscar we had during the 80s, for example, the the Escort XR3.
The program successfully delivered what was promised to the costumers and the “ethanol cars” quickly became the standard for the Brazilian automakers.
And the government was ready to push it a little further, in order to “stretch” the national gasoline stocks, something around 15% of ethanol had to be added to gas before it hit the gas stations.
Gasoline was banned from competitions across the country.
There was one little problem with those cars: starting the engine in cold mornings. Since alcohol doesn’t vaporize as readily as gasoline in colder temperatures, it has a harder time burning properly if the engine is stone cold.
Brazil is pretty much a tropical land and on the northern parts of the country, it is summertime year-round. The temperature hardly drops below the 20C and that means my fellow countrymen from those hot territories never had a problem starting their cars but in southern Brazil it is a different story.
In my hometown for example, it is not uncommon on the peak of winter for the temperature to drop below the freezing point overnight and that was a big problem for the first generation of the ethanol-fuelled cars.
The automakers created a simple solution for the cold start: a small plastic tank inside the engine bay should be filled with gasoline, a tiny electric pump attached and a hose connecting to the carb and problem solved. A push bottom on the dash of the car would make the driver able to inject the kind of fuel more willing to burn inside a stone cold engine while trying to get it started.
Well, things were not so easy. In the early 80s, the most advanced electronic device found in a Brazilian car was a “fancy” AM/FM radio-K7 player. Electronic fuel injection was almost a decade away and everything during those cold mornings start had to be done manually.
For those familiar with the concept of internal combustion engines, the task wasn’t too hard: pull the choke all the way, press the gas button just a little, press the clutch to relieve the transmission weight off the starter, turn the key and more often than not the engine would come to life, but be alert, as soon the engine burned the gas inside the carb, it would start burning alcohol and before it stalls, the driver should keep on feeding the engine with gas until the it established a steady idle.
Doesn’t sound too bad right?
Maybe for you “gearheads” because for an average driver with little or no notion of how an engine works, all that ordeal was beyond complicated. The most common mistake was the idea: “the more gas I inject, the better” and a flooded engine usually leads to a dead battery and eventually going to work by bus.
The automakers were constantly developing new ideas to make our life easier during the winter time, after a while the gas button became more or less automatic, you could press it as much as you wanted but the new system would allow only a certain amount of gas inside the carb.
Finally in 1989, VW unveiled our first EFI car, the Gol GTI. Funny fact, the car didn’t have the ethanol version.
The 2.0 engine was topped with a Bosch multi-point EFI, imported from Germany. The system was so complicated that VW decided not to mess things up converting it to alcohol. But the GTI represents the beginning of a new era.
The EFI changed everything, my dad finally replaced the Chevette for a 1990 Chevy Ipanema (Opel Kadett wagon) ethanol fuelled. The car was equipped with a super simple and reliable single-point EFI and fully automated gas injection. He drove the Ipanema (named after a famous beach in Rio de Janeiro) for over 10 years and it never failed to start. The car behaved almost like a “gas car”.
Ethanol is not cheap to produce and to be interesting to the consumers, its price at the pump can’t be higher than 70% of the price of gasoline.
When the national alcohol program was created we had this notion that oil reserves around the World were on the brink of depletion and its value would only go up. Guess what? We were wrong, by early 90s the gas price was so close to ethanol and the consumers started to go back to gas fuelled cars.
The used car market went crazy. Since gas cars were scarce, their value skyrocketed, the repair shops were super busy converting alcohol cars to run on gas.
But as one could easily predict, the oil price would again go up and again come down and up and down again and again, leaving just one option to the consumers: stick with your choice through good and bad times.
Again, it was up to the automakers to come up with a solution, what about an engine able to burn both fuels? At first this idea seemed to be almost impossible but thanks to the marvels of the modern eletronics the task wasn’t so difficult to accomplish.
The first challenge was to find a way to “tell” the processors what kind of fuel was in the tank before the engine burns it. They created a device capable to measure the electric conductivity of the fuel, since this parameter is very different between gas and alcohol, it should work well.
This device was pretty good to tell if inside the tank there was gasoline or alcohol, but not so precise to determine the mixture of them.
Soon they found out the best way to “read” what is inside the tank is to analyze the fumes after the combustion. For that task, a super sensitive NO2 sensor was created, capable of telling the processors what kind of fuel was being burned. The system would take 4 milliseconds to adjust the engine parameters.
Volkswagen beat the competition being the first automaker to ofer the “Total Flex” engine to the public in 2003. The term “Total Flex”, coined by VW, became the unofficial name for those cars able to run on either fuel and on a mixture of any proportion of them.
Basically, those engines are not so complicated. You will find the trick in two places: first, the compression ratio of 11:1, which is somewhere in between of what a gas engine and a ethanol engine would be and the second trick is the variable timing of the spark.
Once again the industry worked a way out for the benefit of the costumers.
Nowadays, driving a Total Flex car is a worry-free experience, even if you decide to run on 100% ethanol. The little gas tank for cold start is gone and on its place there is a device that warms up the fuel before it hits the combustion chamber. The only button you have to press is the “start” one.
After 38 years of its creation the “Proalcool” can be considered a massive achievement. The costumers embraced it from day one and besides the financial benefits of a cheaper fuel, there will always be the “pride” factor that this program is a Brazilian initiative that actually worked and it is still a good answer to ease our dependence on foreign oil.