Friday, September 18, 2009

History of the Mobilgas Economy Runs, Part I

Hi folks -- below is the first part of a paper that I delivered at the last biennial conference of he Society of Automotive Historians, held in Nashville in 2008. I urge all of you who are interested in automobile history to join the SAH (see their website for information) and to consider presenting a paper at the next conference, to be held in Tupelo, MS (not too far from Memphis) in March of 2010. If you have questions that I can answer about the SAH or the conference, do not hesitate to contact me.
If you grew up in the 1950s or early 1960s and were interested in cars, you undoubtedly remember the Mobilgas Economy runs. What follows is to my knoweldge the only scholarly history of an event that was the largest single public relations effort of any corporation during the immediate post-WWII era.

Your Mileage May Differ: The Mobilgas Economy Runs, 1936-1968

John A. Heitmann
Alumni Chair in Humanities and Professor of History
University of Dayton
300 College Park
Dayton, Ohio 45469-1549

On April 22, 1953, Les Viland, piloting a Ford Mainline 6, arrived at Sun Valley, Idaho and won the Mobilgas Economy Run Sweepstakes Trophy, averaging 27.0335 miles per gallon.[1] Viland covered 1206.1 miles over a course that varied in altitude from 19 feet above sea level to 7383 feet. A Ford engineer with previous experience in the Mexican Pan America road races, Viland, his relief driver, and two observers from the American Automobile Association (AAA), wound their way from Los Angeles through Bakersfield, Fresno, Stockton, Carson City, Reno, Boise, and Twin Falls, before arriving at the final resort destination. For his efforts, Les collected a bonus of $500 from his employer. Yet, in retrospectively reviewing this accomplishment and drawing on documents for the Ford Archives, it appears that Viland’s victory was tainted, for Ford executives working in Dearborn deliberately broke contest rules.
Prior to the Run, Detroit News automobile editor Ralph Watts had reassured readers that despite charges that previous winners were not driving stock vehicles, “cars are chosen without advance warning from factories, dealers’ showrooms, and even boxcars by the American Automobile Association….”[2] Thus, according to Watts, Viland’s forthcoming victory was based on driving skill, not the particular vehicle that he drove.
.Indeed, the mileage achieved by an ordinary customer driving an ordinary car probably differed from that of Viland’s, not only due to the factor of driving ability, but also as a result of mechanical issues.[3] As it turned out, a large number of cars were specially prepared and shipped to Southern California in anticipation of the event. Some fifty specially readied cars, with engine tolerances modified and engines balanced, were sent to Los Angeles showrooms and the Long Beach factory in anticipation of the AAA Contest Board vehicle selection. At Ford factories, even production schedules and tire sizes were changed so that more economical versions could be homologated. While one cannot be sure that Viland actually drove one of these special cars, certainly his results must be called into question.
To single out Ford, however, would be wrong. To the firm’s credit, it appears that Ford Motor Company left the only records that illustrate what perhaps took place on a broader scale.
Given this story, were the Mobilgas Economy Runs merely a sham? What can be salvaged from what was considered as one of the most important automobile competitions of the era? Clearly Ford executives valued the competition so highly that they were willing to subvert the rules to gain a victory. Finally, what can be learned from this study at the intersection of Big Oil with the Big Three?
Ask anyone who read automobile magazines during the 1950s or 1960s, or who paid attention to auto advertising during that “car crazy” era, and they will immediately, but usually only vaguely, remember the Mobilgas Economy Runs. During the 1950s and 1960s, these annual competitions were the most publicized of all corporate promotions. However, unlike “authentic” racing events that have been the topic of numerous histories, these tests of machines and drivers have seemingly been lost in time.[4]
Given our historical sense of the 1950s and 1960s, the Mobilgas Economy Runs seem curious anomalies. The post-WWII Runs were held during a time of stable and relatively inexpensive petroleum prices coupled with rising levels of per capita real wages. Furthermore, as the decade of the 1950s unfolded, this wave of prosperity enabled consumers to demand more powerful engines and accessorized vehicles. And Detroit made them. “Affluenza,” not thrift, characterized the economic lives of most Americans after 1950. Given this social and economic context, why did so many Americans care about a competition that calculated miles per gallon to the second decimal point? What is the deeper meaning of this event beyond a superficial recounting of routes, winners, cars, and corporate history? As an avenue to explore the complex post-WWII American experience, what did the Runs suggest about Americans and their priorities? Apparently, until collective memories of the Great Depression faded, Americans continued to place a high value on thrift.
Between 1936 and 1968 the Run evolved in scale and scope, and ended as a coast-to-coast event. Statistically, the Run left some impressive numbers. Between the years 1936 and 1967 (it was not held between 1942 and 1949), a total of 815 entrants traveled 1,504,117.8 miles, averaging 21.5019 miles per gallon. Even by today’s standards, its winners had remarkable fuel economy numbers; for 4-cylinder vehicles, a 1936 Willys finished with 33.21 mpg; a 6-cylinder 1961 Ford Falcon 32.68 mpg; an 8-cylinder 1938 Ford V-8 28.85 mpg; and finally, a 12-cylinder 1938 Lincoln Zephyr, 23.47 mpg[5] As the 1953 Ford victory suggests, were these numbers a total distortion?
Early Economy Runs and the Gilmore Years, 1906-1941
The Run’s origins were modest and grassroots, but they were often tied to automobile manufacturers. They celebrated the American ideals of utility and economy, held even among the upper classes. For example, in 1906, the Automobile Club of America sponsored a two gallon fuel contest in an effort to see how far each competing car could go. And while a 4-cylinder Franklin won, the criteria for the event involved multiplying weight by distance, and thus an unfair advantage was given to heavier vehicles, a pattern that would be followed in many of these events in the years to come with the ton-mile often used.[6] A second run took place in 1912 between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, and included such marques as American, Lenox, Columbia, Flanders, Moon, Michigan and Krit. Fuel averages ranged from 10 to 22 mpg[7]
Mobil first became involved in these competitions in 1916, when King and Pathfinder cars used Mobil oils in what was labeled “high gear and fuel economy runs.”[8] More significantly, 1916 marked the beginning of the Camp Curry Runs, an annual promotion held until 1926 that was created to show the motoring public how easy and inexpensive it was to drive from Los Angeles to Yosemite. The Camp Curry Runs were small-scale competitions featuring “amateur” participants. In 1926, for example, two of the 12 amateur pilots were women who asserted that “feminine drivers are more careful than men.” [9]
Other examples of early events included the Dallas, Texas Times-Herald Durability and Economy Tour of 1920, where the ton-mile as opposed to the miles per gallon was used as the key performance criterion. Taken from previous Glidden Tour competitions, the ton-mile supposedly leveled the playing field, but in fact conferred a distinct advantage to heavier vehicles. It would be the key statistic used to determine sweepstakes winners in the Mobilgas Runs until 1959, and certainly was a factor in public suspicions about the legitimacy or believability of the event.[10]
Texas was also the scene of similar economy run competitions sponsored by Ford dealers during the 1920s. Local events culminated in a state-wide run that determined an overall winner.[11] These and many other economy runs of the 1920s made sense for the times. They reflected widespread concerns throughout the decade that petroleum reserves were limited and that gasoline might become scarce, quite suddenly.[12] Indeed this fear of running out of oil prompted Charles Kettering and his GM researchers not only to develop the copper-cooled engine but also anti-knock additive tetraethyl lead during the 1920s.[13]
Economy Runs also made sense during the Depression-era years.[14] It was then that developments took place foundational to the first Mobil Economy Runs – or at least Runs sponsored by a West Coast Oil Company that was eventually absorbed into the Mobil corporate structure. The sponsor was Gilmore Oil, and by the 1930s Gilmore was a flourishing firm with numerous branch plants and distributors in California, Oregon, and Washington State. Gilmore also had strong brands, including “Red Lion,” “Blu-Green,” “Roadamite,” “Smacko,” and “Lion Head.”[15] Gilmore’s strength was marketing, and one of its key executives, Clarence Bessemeyer, was responsible for the early Gilmore Runs that officially started in 1936.
Gilmore’s economy run promotions began as early as 1930, and even then women were one focal point of these promotions. For example, in June, 1930 at a 185 mile AAA-sanctioned event that started and ended in Seattle, it was proclaimed that the “Fair Sex Will Test Skill as Motor Misers.”[16] By the mid-1930s Gilmore had hired professional driver Austin Elmore, who quickly distinguished himself as the economy driver in America. Elmore not only gained great publicity for Gilmore with his record-setting 1935 run from Los Angeles to Reno via San Francisco – 34.04 mpg in a V-8 car – but as the firm’s troubleshooter. Elmore handled complaints by demonstrating to owners that one could get 11 to 41% better mileage by practicing “good driving habits.” Using a “mileage vizometer,” consisting of two visible reservoirs mounted to the windshield, Elmore effectively demonstrated that smooth acceleration, maintaining a steady speed, shifting into higher gears whenever feasible, avoiding brakes unless necessary, and always thinking ahead saved substantial amounts of gas.[17]
The first Gilmore Yosemite Economy Run, also publicized as the Gilmore Yosemite Mileage Run, took place in 1936.[18] A Willys 4 led the field by getting 33.21 mpg, but the sweepstakes winners were all heavier automobiles with high ton-miles-per-gallon figures – a Graham Supercharged Six (55.47), Chrysler Airflow 8 (53.35) and Studebaker Dictator 6 (50.98). By comparison, the Willys 4 only achieved 49.48 ton-miles-per-gallon, despite its high mpg The Graham Supercharger 6 would repeat as sweepstakes winner in 1937 and 1938, and a Studebaker Commander 6 took the honors in 1939 and 1940. In 1941 the Gilmore Run’s route was lengthened to include San Bernardino, Barstow, Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, and Kingman, ending at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Again, while a Willys Plainsman earned top honors in mpg with an average of 29.06, heavy Lincolns placed first and second in the sweepstakes. Obviously, the emphasis on ton-miles perpetuated a distortion of true economy, yet assuaged American automobile manufacturers who profited handsomely with every large car coming off the assembly line.
While the automobile companies capitalized on the competition results in their own advertising and promotional campaigns, Gilmore Oil profited most on these events. Gilmore marketing executives asserted that using its “Red Lion” gasoline resulted in more power and more thrift.[19] Put simply, it was claimed that Gilmore gasoline was the best, and as Clay Moore, the driver of the 1938 sweepstakes winner observed, “I get more miles per gallon from Red Lion than any other gasoline.”[20]
[1] “Mobil Economy Run – General Information – 1936 through 1967,” p.3.Box 2.207/F20, File Marketing Advertising Proofs of Performance, Exxon-Mobil Collection, Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
[2] Clipping, Ralph Watts, “Auto Economy Run Test Drivers’ Skill,” Detroit News, April 18, 1953. National Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library, Vertical File, “Contests – Economy #1.”
[3] See “1953 Mobilgas Economy Run Proposed Organization and Planning;” G.P. Montagnet to C.T. Dorman, February 5, 1953; C.E. Bowie to E.B. Richard, “Special Awards – Mobilgas Economy Run,” May 13, 1953; C.E. Bowie to G.A. Moss, February 24, 1953. All in Accession 568, File 1953 Mobilgas Economy Run & 1953 Indy Pace Car, C.H. Donohue Records, Car Sales (1950-53), Box 3, Benson Ford Research Center.
[4] To my knowledge, there are three very brief commentaries of the history of the Mobilgas Economy Runs in the literature. See Bryant, David; “The Mobil Economy Run,” Car and Driver, Feb. 1981, pp. 45-6; “Tech Tidbits,” Road and Track, Sept. 2003; Knoll, Bob; “Coast to Coast in the Pursuit of Economy,” New York Times, December 24, 2006. Leo Levine, in his important Ford: The Dust and the Glory: A Racing History (New York: Macmillan, 1968), mentions the Run on three occasions in passing, although he infers that Ford allocated considerable resources to this event.
[5] “Mobil Economy Run – General Information – 1936 through 1967,” Exxon-Mobil Collection.
[6] Clipping, “Mechanical Features of Some Winning Cars in the Automobile Club of America’s Two-Gallon Fuel Contest,” Scientific American Supplement, No. 1585, May 19, 1906, in Vertical File “Contests – Economy #1,” National Automotive History Collection.
[7] “Economy Run History,” news release, March 23, 1958, in Accession 1930, Ford Motorsports Records, Box 2, file Mobilgas Economy Run, 1956, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1965, Benson Ford Research Center.
[8] “The King Car Test,” Gargoyle, July 1916, p. 5; “Best Entire Runs: Gargoyle Mobiloils Efficiency Helps Pathfinder and King Cars Break Records on High Gear an Fuel Economy Runs,” Gargoyle, Nov. 1916, p. 3.
[9] Bluvett, Hershel; “25 Years Ago…Along Auto Row,” Los Angeles Evening Herald & Express, Tuesday, March 20, 1951, reprinted in Clymer, Floyd; The 1951 Grand Canyon Economy Run (Los Angeles: Floyd Clymer, 1951), p.56.
[10] “Times Herald Durability and Economy Tour,” Magnolia Oil News, Nov. 1920. A ton mile per gallon is determined by taking the weight of car and passengers in tons, multiplying by miles traveled and then dividing the result by gallons of gasoline consumed.
[11] The Ford Motor Company sponsored events were called Ford Economy Mileage Test Runs. Magnolia Oil News, Feb. 1927, p. 9.
[12] For example, see “Gasoline and Alcohol as Fuels of the Future,” Scientific American, June 1923, p. 381; “Stretching the Gasoline Supply,” and “Doubling the Automobile Mileage Per Gallon,” Scientific American, March 1926, p. 185; Shepard, William G.; “300 Miles to the Gallon!,” Collier’s, Oct.5, 1929, pp. 10-12, 59-60.
[13] Leslie, Stuart W.; Boss Kettering (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), pp.123-180.
[14] Studies conducted during the early 1930s definitively connected speed with gasoline consumption and that pegged 30-40 mph as the most efficient speed in which fuel was conserved. See "Motor Test Shows How Speed Affects Fuel Use," Business Week, February 16, 1932, pp. 16-17.
[15] File, Basic Training Text 500, March 1956, Box 2.207/E213, Exxon Mobil Collection, Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin; Alan Darr, “The Gilmore Oil Company, 1900-1945,”, accessed 10/22/2007.
[16] Clipping, “Northwest Women Drivers to Make Economy Run,” Seattle Sunday Times, June 1, 1930, Exxon Mobil Collection, 2.207/H90, Center For American History, University of Texas at Austin.
[17] Clipping, “Austin Elmore Smashes All Previous Economy Records with New Red Lion!,” Tacoma Times, March 20, 1935, in file 2.207/H90, Exxon Mobil Collection; “Secrets of More Miles Per Gallon,” Popular Mechanics, Feb. 1935), pp. 222-223.
[18] For a cursory history of the Gilmore Runs, see E.J. Sanders, “The History of the Economy Runs 1936 to 1950,” in Clymer, Floyd; The 1951 Grand Canyon Economy Run (Los Angeles, Clymer, 1951), pp. 53-5.
[19] See for example, “Extra Power of Speed Gives Red Lion Thrift,” Gilmore Graphic, March 1935), p. 2; “How Much Gas Did You Use?,” Gilmore Graphic, Aug. 1935), 2; Clipping, “Vote for Red Lion,” The Tacoma Times, October 23, 1936; Clipping, “No Blackout of Mileage in Gilmore-Yosemite Run,” Seattle Daily Times; Clipping, “It’s Mileage Proved,” The Seattle Star, May 18, 1937, all in Exxon Mobil Collection, Box 2.207/H90.
[20] Clipping, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 19, 1938, Mobil Exxon Collection, 2.207/H90.


  1. Thanks for a great post on the economy runs - with footnotes too!

    Just one or two objections. Gasoline was priced about the same in the 1950-60 era as today. Think $0.25 to $0.30 a gallon when the minimum wage was $1.00 per hour (1956-65) Compare to $2.70 and $7.25 today!

    At 15-18 mpg, the gasoline bill was a big deal in the monthly budget.

    My dad never spent over $525 for a car through 1970. There was a reason the VW Beetle became popular in the 1960s.

    You might me interested in this link to an article in the CalTech Science and Engineering publication describing the role of the CalTech students who acted as official observers on the 1953 run.

  2. Where might I find Part II, dealing with the 1951 event?