Sustainable fuels: a greener future for classic cars

| 14 Mar 2024
Classic & Sports Car – Sustainable fuels: a greener future for classic cars

Few topics have dominated the classic car industry’s agenda in recent times more than the pressure to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and the impact that doing so will have on owners and classic-related businesses alike.

Much of the debate has centred on politicians’ and the public’s perception of classic cars as high-polluting vehicles that are counter to the UK Government’s pathway to net zero by 2050.

This despite the average annual mileage of the 874,000 classic cars registered or on SORN in the UK (latest figures, from October 2022) being 1200 miles and representing a mere 0.22% of Britain’s total transport emissions, according to a report by the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs (FBHVC).

Classic & Sports Car – Sustainable fuels: a greener future for classic cars

David Richardson (on right) from Coryton cites the wide range of sources for biofuel as a major advantage

Equally, there is a consensus around the industry that it should be making every effort to mitigate the effect of its carbon footprint, and one of the emerging key enablers is sustainable fuel.

This can be separated into two main groups: biofuels, and synthetic or e-fuels.

E-fuels are produced by extracting carbon dioxide and water from the environment.

The water is split by electrolysis, making hydrogen, which is then synthesised with the carbon.

It sounds simple – and it relies on an infinite resource – but the development of the process is complex and still in its infancy.

Bicester Heritage-based Zero, led by ex-Williams F1 CTO Paddy Lowe, is one company that is busy working on e-fuels and aiming for commercial-scale production by 2025.

Classic & Sports Car – Sustainable fuels: a greener future for classic cars

At £4.65 per litre, filling your classic car with Coryton’s Classic Super 80 isn’t cheap, but prices will fall as production scales up

“It’ll be more expensive than fossil fuel to start with,” said Lowe, speaking to Bicester Heritage’s Whizz-Bang, “but we expect to see price parity within 10 years.”

Production of biofuels has progressed more rapidly, with availability today – albeit through very limited outlets.

While first-generation biofuels were made from crops grown specifically for the task (and criticised by some for the land mass needed for their production), second-gen biofuels use agricultural food waste, such as sugar-beet tops, Brussels-sprout stalks or forestry waste, as a base ingredient to produce ethanol.

As David Richardson from Coryton, which makes second-generation biofuel for classic and motorsport use, says: “If you can ferment it, you can make fuel out of it.”

And since the base product is, for the most part, derived from crops that have already been grown, there is a significant saving in CO2 generation versus a fossil fuel.

Classic & Sports Car – Sustainable fuels: a greener future for classic cars

Paddy Lowe, who leads a Bicester Heritage-based synthetic fuel company, says that the price of e-fuels could be level with that of fossil fuels by 2034

The advantages of biofuels are well documented.

For example, Coryton’s Sustain Classic Super 80 petrol, which is intended for all roadgoing classic vehicles, is a 98RON fuel containing 80% renewable content to deliver a claimed 65% reduction in greenhouse gases (GHGs).

Its composition tends to suit older classics’ engines better than even E5 pump petrol, with less risk to fuel lines and tanks, and increased economy thanks to the additional energy it generates – although, as yet, there is no concrete data to substantiate that last claim.

Biofuels exist now and can be used by any petrol combustion engine without modification, but because they do not reduce the vehicle’s tailpipe emissions, cars using it will still be subject to any low-emission-zone charges that applied when the vehicle was run on fossil-based fuel.

There is also the major hurdle of availability: a very small number of UK-based companies produce biofuels – most of them skewed towards aviation and marine consumption – and Coryton, with its sole outlet at Bicester Heritage, is currently the only one with a publicly accessible biofuel pump.

Classic & Sports Car – Sustainable fuels: a greener future for classic cars

Sustain Classic biofuel is available from a pump at Bicester Heritage

There are plans for 12 more UK sites this year.

And if you do choose to fill up at Bicester, it is at considerable cost: today, a litre of Classic Super 80 costs £4.65, more than two and a half times the average forecourt price (currently £1.66) for a litre of E5 super unleaded.

That is something of which David, the producer’s business development director, is acutely aware.

“Scale is obviously an issue currently,” he says.

“As things scale up, the costs come down due to greater efficiencies.

“While it’s likely that sustainable fuels will always be at a slightly higher cost than fossil fuels, we’d hope that can come down significantly.”

David also believes that more Government support is required, along with less focus on the pursuit of zero tailpipe emissions – which, as he says, still relies on releasing carbon from elsewhere in the supply chain.

Classic & Sports Car – Sustainable fuels: a greener future for classic cars

Biofuels and e-fuels will help to make classic car events more sustainable

“We’d like sustainable fuels to have the same financial support as EVs, so there’s parity,” he continues.

“Biomass use in electricity generation [benefits from] green tariffs and therefore from taxation support, whereas biomass used in fuel production doesn’t.”

The virtuous circle of reduced taxes for sustainable fuels driving up volumes and bringing a further drop in price is a panacea that is clearly still some years away.

But new-car makers could also play a part in reducing costs of biofuels and ultimately e-fuels for classic cars by democratising their use among modern-car drivers.

Stellantis, which represents eight brands in the UK including Vauxhall, Peugeot, Fiat and Alfa Romeo, is currently testing e-fuels on 28 of its Euro 6-compliant internal combustion engine (ICE) models built since 2014, a total of 28 million units.

The company says: “The broad adoption of e-fuels would offer customers with existing ICE vehicles an easy and affordable option to decarbonise their vehicles without needing to replace their vehicle, upgrade their fuel system or await a new infrastructure network.”

Classic & Sports Car – Sustainable fuels: a greener future for classic cars

The 2023 Fordwater Trophy used only sustainable fuels. This year, all Goodwood Revival grids will run on biofuels or e-fuels

Mazda is also pursuing a ‘multi-solution approach’, like all new-car OEMs, including electrified powertrains and the development of “more efficient ICEs and the use of sustainable fuels, like e-fuels”.

Although availability of e-fuels (as opposed to biofuels) is still a goal for the future, Mazda UK currently runs its 15-car heritage fleet on Coryton’s Classic Super 80, each time the cars are loaned to the media.

So while the new-car industry has a weather eye on sustainable fuels, which should help ramp up volumes and reduce costs for classic car owners, its strategy will centre on the more distant viability of e-fuels.

One area that is generating significant awareness right now is historic motorsport.

Goodwood has announced that all the races at this year’s Revival meeting will be run on fuel with ‘a minimum of 70% advanced sustainable components’.

Drivers will be responsible for sourcing their own fuels from suppliers such as P1, Anglo-American and Coryton, and where there’s demand there is certainly no shortage of supply (Coryton claims that it could put 40 million litres of fuel into the marketplace today).

Classic & Sports Car – Sustainable fuels: a greener future for classic cars

Sebastian Vettel runs the ex-Nigel Mansell FW14B on e-fuel for his Race Without Trace campaign

Sustainable fuel for motorsport has celebrity advocates, too, with both Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button getting behind the Duke of Richmond’s efforts to retain the important sounds and smells of the Revival, but without the carbon impact of previous years.

Toyota has been a flag-bearer for sustainable fuels in modern motorsport, with its GR86-based car competing in Japan’s Super Taikyu Series in 2022 running on biomass-derived fuel, and last year announcing that its Supra would run on synthetic fuel in the Nürburgring 24 Hours race.

Even Formula One should run on sustainable fuel in the future.

“The FIA needs to say ‘Formula E, you’re purely electric; Sports Cars, you’re… developing hybrids; F1, you’re developing sustainable fuels’,” says former F1 driver and now pundit Karun Chandhok.

“So we’ll have a return to the V10s and V12s everyone likes to hear.”

Sustainable fuel is a key part of a bigger picture, with benefits beyond the reduced carbon impact of using it in your classic car.

Classic & Sports Car – Sustainable fuels: a greener future for classic cars

‘Sustainable fuel is part of a bigger picture, with benefits beyond the reduced carbon impact’

Anders Hildebrand from Anglo American Oil says: “You don’t have to scrap all the millions of cars on the road.

“It requires a lot of energy to build electric vehicles and an infrastructure to support them.

“It is easier to make a fuel for [existing] cars that have already made their carbon footprint [in their manufacture].

“The best thing is to make a fuel that has less impact environmentally, and sustainable fuel is the first step.”

But Nigel Elliott, the FBHVC’s fuel specialist, thinks a more balanced approach is called for.

“We shouldn’t choose winners right now,” he says.

“Sustainable fuels will bridge the gap between EVs and ICE cars.

“By 2050 [the current UK deadline for net zero], 50% of fuels will still come from oil and gas.

“I suspect the 2035 target [to ban the sale of new ICE cars] will be pushed back.”

Whatever future legislation dictates for the wider use of ICE cars, they will be with us for many years to come.

Classic cars are a tiny percentage of that whole, but if governments recognise that all non-electrified vehicles can play a part in reducing carbon emissions by gradually moving to more sustainable fuels, then our hobby will benefit, too.

As David concludes: “What we really need is open and honest discussion and analysis, looking at what is genuinely realistic and not aiming for a currently unachievable ‘perfect solution’ to the detriment of other avenues.

“Technology changes and develops all the time, but for now it seems sensible to use what we have available to tackle the emissions from the millions of ICE vehicles already on our roads.”

Images: Jack Harrison/Max Edleston/Classic & Sports Car

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