PELHAM, Ala. – At first glance, Lee McKee thought the 1959 Fiat rusting in the sun outside Talladega’s International Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum might have a few parts worth salvaging.
Inside the trunk, however, was documentation indicating the car had been souped up by Shell scientists in 1969 to get 244 miles per gallon of gas as part of an annual company contest.
Included in a file folder were records and an article about the car from a 1969 edition of Popular Science magazine.
McKee and Alan Apel, owner of Pelham’s Empire Autohaus, a shop where McKee is a mechanic, purchased the car from the museum in February.
Later they found out the Fiat was once owned by NASCAR founder Bill France.
They will not disclose the purchase price of the small, Italian-made car, at the request of museum managers. But they hope to restore it to its former fuel-efficient glory.
The contest is still an annual event for Shell, although it is now referred to as an Eco-marathon, and competitions are in America and Europe, according to Shell’s Web site.
In April, the winning entry in the 2007 U.S. competition, a vehicle that more closely resembled a bobsled than a car, got 1,902 miles per gallon.
“It was basically a bar dispute. The scientists were arguing who could get the most miles out of a gallon of a gas,” McKee said of how the contest started.
In order to get triple-digit gas mileage, the scientists in 1969 sacrificed many of the comforts and basic safety features of the common automobile, McKee said.
The Fiat has no reverse gear, radiator, fan or water pump and at the height of its fuel efficiency traveled only 16 miles per hour.
“They did things you can’t do to a normal car and still drive around town,” McKee said.
“Everything is about keeping the engine super-hot. It uses every drop of gas,” McKee said.
Don Naman, the retired head of both the Talladega Superspeedway and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, said it is not clear how the founder of NASCAR came to acquire the car.
But France held “economy run races” in Daytona during the energy crisis of the 1970s. The 1959 Fiat was one of several fuel efficient cars to compete in those races, Naman said. “These were all experimental cars,” he said.
France was an avid collector of cars, Naman said, and donated the Fiat, along with several others, in 1981 to help get the Talladega museum started.
The Fiat was one of the first cars displayed at the Talladega museum, but Naman said it had probably been in storage for more than 20 years when McKee and Apel acquired it.
Apel estimates it could take at least a year and possibly $20,000 worth of work to get the car back to its 1969 condition.
“It’s all a matter of time and money. This project won’t make us any money, so we have to keep working with our paying customers to keep the business open. This is a spare-time job,” Apel said.
McKee said once the work is complete, they hope to run the car at the Talladega Superspeedway track to see if they can get the mileage Shell scientists were able to reach nearly 38 years ago.
Then they plan to donate the car to the Wood River Refinery Museum in Illinois, they said.
Ollie Schwallenstecker, a Wood River museum board member and retired refinery worker, said the museum was once a Shell research lab where two scientists worked on the Fiat and where the Mileage Marathon originated.
The museum already houses a 1932 Chevrolet that won the 1952 competition by getting 168 miles per gallon, Schwallenstecker said.
“They feel like this would be the place for it to be,” Schwallenstecker said.
PH END GRAY
(Jeremy Gray is a staff writer for the Birmingham (Ala.) News. He can be contacted at jgray(at)bhamnews.com.)