Motoring Memories: Mobil Economy Run motoring memories green scene car culture
A Nash Metropolitan kitted out for the Australian Mobil Economy Run; photo courtesy Metropolitan-Library.com. Click image to enlarge

By Bill Vance

With the price of gasoline always uncertain, worry about fuel economy and its bite out of the family budget are a continuing concern. Some older motorists hark back fondly to the “good old days” of 35 cents (a gallon) gas or less, and wonder if anyone really worried about economy then.

For those who were worried, the Gilmore Oil Company of California inaugurated its Economy Run in 1936 for production cars driven in “real world” conditions. It was a far cry from today’s United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tests where cars are “driven” on a chassis dynamometer under closely controlled conditions.

The purpose of the Economy Run, apart from advertising, was to demonstrate what a careful driver in a well-tuned car (using the sponsor’s fuel and lubricants, of course), could achieve on regular roads at typical speeds. When Socony-Vacuum Oil Co. bought Gilmore in 1940, the contest was renamed the Mobilgas Economy Run, and later just Mobil Economy Run. It ran annually until 1968 except from 1942 to 1949 due to the Second World War. It went international in 1955 in such countries as Great Britain and Australia.

All auto manufactures were eligible and routes varied over time, gradually growing longer. In 1950, for example, it went from Los Angeles through Death Valley to the Grand Canyon, and in 1959, from Los Angeles to Kansas City, Missouri. In 1964 it went cross-country from Los Angeles to New York. Courses included a wide range of temperature, terrain and elevation.

The event was sanctioned and sponsored by the American Automobile Association until 1955. It then came under the supervision of the United States Auto Club. Manufacturers provided the drivers and the monitoring agency bought the cars at random from dealers. An agency monitor stayed with the car continuously from purchase until the run was over to prevent creative mechanics from changing carburetor jets and fiddling with air cleaners or ignition timing, etc. Hoods and chassis were sealed and a break‑in period was allowed. An observer rode in the car during the run.

A special gasoline tank was installed in the trunk to ensure accurate fuel measurement. There were several classes based on engine displacement or other criteria such as car size, and up until 1958 the results were calculated on a ton-mile-per-gallon basis (mpg X car weight in tons). Although meant to create equality among cars of all sizes and weights, it tended to favour heavier cars. From 1959 on, the actual mpg figure was used and of course, compact cars took over.