Monday, July 3, 2017

1930’s Muroc Record Breakers

Part one

During the early years of the decade of the nineteen thirties, two Los Angeles based independent petroleum producers, the Gilmore Oil Company and the Union Oil Company of California focused their marketing campaigns on racing successes. The focus of this article will be the land speed record (LSR) attempts conducted on Muroc Dry Lake in Kern County 130 miles northeast of Los Angeles over an exciting three-year period.


Gilmore “Blu-Green” Gasoline

The opening LSR salvo was launched by the Gilmore Oil Company in 1932 in support of the company’s “Blu-Green” gasoline brand and “Lion Head” motor oil.  “Blu-Green” was Gilmore Oil’s regular grade unleaded gasoline, one of three grades sold at the 3500 independent Gilmore stations along with the low-grade “Gilmore Fleet” and leaded regular "Gilmore Ethyl.”

“Blu-Green” treated gasoline introduced by Gilmore at forty service stations on June 1 1925, contained a patented (US 1654259) additive, known as “Boyce-ite.” Produced by the Boyce & Veeder Company Incorporated of Long Island City New York the key ingredients of the additive nitrated aromatic hydrocarbons specifically ortho-nitrotoluene for “improved carbon-removing and preventing qualities.”  Distribution of “Blu-Green” gasoline grew quickly - by October 1925 it was offered at 127 Gilmore service stations, and in historical context it is easy to understand its immediate popularity.


Carbon deposits were a major problem for gasoline powered engines of this era.  When a car’s engine began to “knock” and experienced a loss pf power caused by sticking valves, the owner paid a mechanic to perform a "carbon and valve job.” This process typically required the removal of the cylinder head(s) then physically scraping, wire brushing, or using caustic lye to remove the carbon from the valves and piston crowns before the re-installation of the cylinder head(s).

In the early nineteen twenties General Motors (GM) scientists discovered the effect of synthesized tetraethyl lead (TEL) in the reduction of cylinder detonation or “knock.” After successful pilot testing, GM and the Standard Oil Company (ESSO) jointly created a new company, the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation, to manufacture sell and distribute the anti-knock compound, “Ethyl Fluid” using TEL manufactured by DuPont.

In addition to boosting the gasoline octane rating, “Ethyl Fluid” typically added by gasoline producers at a rate of five ounces to a gallon of gasoline also contained an oil-soluble red dye to help consumers and recognize treated gasoline. 

Although Gilmore stations sold “Gilmore Ethyl” and later in August 1934 added the premium grade ‘Red Lion plus tetraethyl” the company wanted to sell a medium grade of gasoline but avoid paying the franchise cost of the lead additive, and “Boyce-ite” was the answer. 

In their patent application Boyce & Veeder Company Incorporated claimed that with the addition of as little as.0012% (twelve hundredths of one percent) by volume “Boyce-ite” was effective in preventing carbon deposits and could even remove existing carbon deposits.

Considering the cost and loss of use of the vehicle associated with a "carbon and valve job,” one can easily understand the immediate consumer interest in a treated gasoline (or additive) that eliminated carbon build-up simply while driving.   In addition to “Boyce-ite” there were other gasoline additives available on the market, such as “Lubri-Gas,” “Lubrizol,” or benzol, but Gilmore’s “Blu-Green” gasoline came pre-mixed with the additive right from the pump.  

To demonstrate the value of the ‘Boyce-ite” in support of its patent application, Boyce & Veeder paid the Department of Mechanical Engineering at New York University to conduct a test of the new product. A Ford touring car fueled with untreated gasoline was driven until the engine developed the telltale “knock” and loss of power associated with carbon build-up. University researchers recorded the car’s fuel economy then removed the engine and recorded the horsepower output on a test stand.  

With the engine reinstalled, the car was then driven for eight days thereafter a total of 946 miles fueled with gasoline treated with .003125% of “Boyce-ite” (4 ounces to ten gallons).  At the end of the eight-day test, the Ford’s fuel economy had increased from the baseline of 16.7 miles per gallon (MPG) to 21.7 MPG – a nearly 30% increase.

The University’s written report a copy of which was featured in “Boyce-ite” advertisements stated that after the “Boyce-ite treatment” the engine’s horsepower increased 8-2/3%. A visual inspection noted removal of the carbon to “a sufficient extent to put the engine back in its original working condition.”  Chemical testing conducted by researchers revealed that “Boyce-ite” worked without damage to the metal parts of the engine or fuel system components.    

An added value of the ortho-nitrotoluene additive was that it turned the gasoline mixture a “distinctive greenish-blue color” without the need for an oil-soluble dye to identify the treated gasoline.  By comparison of the color with a standard solution, it could be determined whether the correct amount of the ingredient had been mixed with the fuel and a dyed imitator gasoline uncovered. .

Initially sold in 1925 as Gilmore “Blu-Green with Boyce-ite,” before long the “Boyce-ite” name was dropped, although advertising  copy listed the patent number (1654259) held by Boyce & Veeder. Gilmore advertised that “Blu-Green positively removes carbon from the trouble zone where automotive experts claim carbon causes 81% of motor troubles” with “a secret harmless formula that dissolves carbon deposits.”

Newspaper advertisements for “Blu-Green - the only premium gas at no extra cost” also prominently featured the ‘Gilmore Blu-Green Guarantee’ which read “regardless of the mechanical condition or design of your motor, if after adopting Gilmore “Blu-Green” gasoline, purchased from Independent Dealers, as your standard motor fuel, you ever find it again necessary to remove carbon, have that carbon burned out and send us the bill. A check will be sent you immediately.” 

Wilbur Shaw’s 1932 LSR record

In 1932 Wilbur Shaw described as “diminutive” in newspapers as he was just over five feet in height, was in his second season of racing on the AAA (American Automobile Association) Pacific Southwest circuit still five years away from his first Indianapolis 500-mile race victory which made him a national household name.
On February 28 1932, Shaw drove the new “Blu-Green Special” ‘big car’ in its maiden outing on the 5/8-mile oiled dirt Legion Ascot Speedway. Owned and built by Fred J Blauvelt (often misspelled as “Blovell”) with assistance from his friend Jerry Houck  the car rode on a chassis with four longitudinal leaf springs and was powered by a Miller 220-cubic inch marine engine cloaked in a beautiful aluminum body crafted by Myron Stevens.

Blauvelt was a veteran race car mechanic whose career included working early in the 1927 racing season for Peter DePaolo the 1925 Indianapolis ‘500’ winner.  After the 1927 Indianapolis ‘500,’ Frank did a lengthy stint as the mechanic for Californian Charles Haase’s rear-drive supercharged Miller 91-cubic inch entry. After he worked with driver Al Melcher for the  1927 season, Blauvelt stuck with Haase and rookie driver Lou Moore through the 1928 AAA season as the mechanic on the machine that was allegedly the last 91-cubic inch rear wheel drive car built by Harry A. Miller Engineering.

Lou Moore had a spectacular early rookie season with a second place finish at Indianapolis followed by a third place result at Detroit which propelled him to a third place finish in the 1928  AAA season point standings. For the 1929 Indianapolis 500-mile race Fred Blauvelt worked for Leon Duray’s Packard (battery) Cable three-car team alongside the 1926 Indianapolis winning mechanic Jimmy Lee. Following the Packard Cable teams’ disappointing Indianapolis results, Duray, Blauvelt, and Lee took two of the Miller race cars to Europe and Duray competed in the Monza Grand Prix held on the remodeled oval autodrome.  

In 1930 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Blauvelt was the mechanic and also rode with Tony Gulotta in Richfield Oil heir John Talbot’s Miller powered “MAVV (carburetor) Special” sponsored by the carburetor’s inventor, Blauvelt’s former driver Al Melcher.  After Indianapolis, Frank reunited with driver Lou Moore to work with the troubled Coleman Motors front wheel drive program for the rest of the 1930 AAA season.  

1932 found Blauvelt in Los Angeles working for Harry A. Miller Engineering on the Miller 4WD project along with his friend and fellow mechanic Jerry Houck.  The pair found enough time to build a new ‘big car’ for Wilbur Shaw who drove the car to victory in its very first race, the 2-lap Helmet Dash in the racing program held on Sunday afternoon February 28 1932.  Shaw and the #48 “Blu-Green Special” went on later that day to finish second behind Bill Cummings in the 100-lap 62½-mile main event.

The car quickly proved to be a winner as on consecutive Sunday afternoons, March 20 and 27 1932 Shaw won the 100-lap feature races. Days after that second win, Shaw, Blauvelt and the Blu-Green Special were on the Muroc Dry Lake for their attempt to break the American and the International Class C “flying mile” speed record. International Class C administered by the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR) was open to cars with engines that displaced between 183 and 305 cubic inches.  The record of 136.98 miles per hour (MPH) held by England’s Kaye Don was set in January 1929 with the 12-cylinder 242-cubic inch supercharged Sunbeam “Tiger” on the steeply banked Brooklands track near London. 
Wilbur Shaw center oversees the fueling of the Blauvelt car
with Gilmore Blu-Green Gasoline in this promotional photo
shared by "Rootie Katoozie" on the Jalopy Journal site

The American Class C record administered by the AAA was slightly different as it was open to cars with engines that displaced between 231 to 300 cubic inches. For many years the American Class C records were held by Jimmy Murphy at 122.615 MPH for the “flying mile” and 122.77 MPH for the “flying kilometer” set at Daytona Beach Florida in the Meteor-Duesenberg on April 27 1920.  

The American “flying mile” record of 130.647 MPH which Shaw was aiming to beat was held by Ernie Triplett who had captured the record on August 30 1931 during the AAA-sanctioned “World’s Speed Trials” meet held on Pismo Beach in California. That same day at Pismo Beach HW “Stubby” Stubblefield reset the American “flying kilometer” record at “over 130 MPH.

 This photo from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital studies reportedly shows Shaw, left, and Barney Oldfield, right at the Muroc Dry Lake for the 1932 record attempt.


The windswept Muroc Dry Lake over 140 square miles in area and nearly ½ mile above sea level was located near the small high desert town of Muroc, California which had been homesteaded by the Corum family around 1910. When it came time to establish a post office, the postal authorities would not allow the use of ‘Corum” as the town’s name as it was too similar to the name of the northern California mining town of Coram, so the order of the letters was simply reversed.

The course for the Shaw’s record attempt was laid out running north-south on the lake bed overseen by the AAA West Coast Supervisor Arthur Pillsbury, with the timing conducted by George F Stephenson assisted by FE Betts, Waldo Steen, and Harold R. Harper.  On Wednesday  March 30 on his first run southbound, Shaw and the “Blu-Green Special” covered the one mile distance in 26.962 seconds for a speed of 138.66 MPH. Shaw completed his return run in the northbound direction in a slightly slower time in 26.496 seconds or 135.87 MPH, for an average speed for the two required runs of 137.25 MPH.

In advertisements published just days after the record, B.A. Rowell manager of refined oil sales for the Gilmore Oil Company, pointed out that for the record attempt, Shaw had eschewed the use of castor oil in favor of the new Gilmore pure Pennsylvania grade “Lion Head” Oil available at Gilmore stations.  

Castor oil obtained by pressing the seeds of the castor plant was commonly used low viscosity oil that provided good high temperature lubrication but quickly left gummy deposits inside the engine.  Although Shaw had set the new American standard, the results of the International record attempt had to be examined and certified by AIACR officials during their next meeting in June for confirmation of the International record.

Check back soon for part two of the 1930’s Muroc Record Breakers story.


No comments:

Post a Comment