Shell Fiat

1959 Fiat 600

Shell Mileage Marathons

Back in 1939, discussion between two Shell refinery employees evolved into "I bet I can make a car get better fuel mileage than you" and the bet was on. Who these guys were at that time, that information is not available. But, what is, is the history of year after year of company picnics where employees would prep their cars to run in a road race where speed and time accompanied the most important issue of fuel mileage. The quest to drive from point A to point B using the least amount of fuel possible. How was it done? First by general tweaking. Then, by more serious changes. Actually, as the guys got smarter the rules had to change. Different classifications were formed for the difference in the level of modifications. Also, because not all cars weighed the same, there was a special formula that was used to figure mileage where all vehicles can be compared together. The formula negated the advantage of the smaller vehicles and benefited the results of the heavier vehicles. Not every year had the same rules applied. For reporting sake, we'll keep it simple and give a general view of how the races were done. One note, the races were not held during the war years of 1942-1945 but ended at Wood River in 1974 then when the lab was moved to Westhollow Research Center in Houston, Texas, the marathon run in 1976 and 1977 then closed down for lack of a sufficient place to compete. Interest was dwindling too. Even though the lab at Wood River Shell was closed, the plant mechanics garage, where several of these cars were worked on, was converted to a museum. That museum is still open today. One of the Mileage Marathon vehicles is housed there. That vehicle is the 1924 Chevrolet. An internet search of 'Wood River Museum'  will reveal a site showing items kept on display representing Shell Oil products and achievements. The 1959 Opel 376 mpg is stationed in Seattle Washington. The car is drivable and looks great for it's age too. The Opel did get a facelift although not as extensive as the Fiat.   


The year was 1939. The first race was run. Winner - R. J. Greenshields with a mileage of 49.73 mpg. Ten years later, Greenshields ran a modified 1947 Studebaker to achieve 149.95 mpg. In 1968 a 1959 Fiat 600 owned by J.M. Jones, R.C. Trokey and D.C. Carlson reached 244.35 mpg breaking their 1967 record of 173 mpg. That 244 mpg was a 1968 mileage record. But, in 1973, a 1959 Opel driven by B.E. Visser achieved 376.59 mpg. Over the years, the competition rules were changed. Initially, cars were run until a fixed amount of fuel was consumed and the distance was  measured. Traffic and safety concerns caused a change later to where the amount of fuel used over a fixed course was the crucial measurement. At one time, the event was run to strict average speed timings over a country road course. Then traffic and safety again caused more changes. The course was moved to a more level plain over a divided highway near the Shell laboratory. Throughout the competition, the vehicles were required to bare a clear resemblance to a production car. The minimum weight for the parent model and the use of an engine available in that model have restricted development - although, the scope allowed for improvement in performance within these restrictions. Driving style was never restricted but the extent to which a normal production car could be tuned was limited to changes in carburetion and ignition timing. The event at one time was run on an airfield circuit with a minimum average speed of 30 mph enforced. In 1973, a competition for special vehicles was initiated. These vehicles were required only to be genuinely two-track vehicles and a classic three-wheeled configuration evolved. Competition was over a 10 mile course with a minimum speed of 10 mph average enforced. (Enter 1959 Opel 376mpg). Although some of the rules changed year by year, the teams and their mileage results are quite interesting accomplishments.  

How was it done?? Marathoning was dominated by two considerations. First, the power needed to propel the vehicle must be kept at the absolute minimum. Secondly, the engine and operating conditions must be chosen so that the power requirement is met with minimum fuel utilization.      

{Some parts of the above information was collected from "Fuel Economy of the Gasoline Engine"}

Last updated 4-6-12

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