Petrol fires were very common a century ago, and the fuel was ‘subjected to almost as many precautions as nitroglycerin’
Queues at petrol stations have been getting longer in India, so it is interesting that the government is considering home-delivery. We have come a long way from the time when petrol was considered dangerous, and the British government restricted its possession and use. In a way, this attitude was responsible for the slow adoption of internal combustion engine vehicles in the country.
Take a look at this comment in a London journal from December 1902. European and American manufacturers wanted to sell their cars in India, but the country had “very strict regulations” even though cars were becoming popular in warmer countries like Egypt. Petrol was “practically classified as an explosive and subjected to almost as many precautions as nitro-glycerine”.
Even the steam cars sent to India were modified to run on kerosene rather than petrol. This clipping from an American journal of the same era says, “The use of gasoline is surrounded with strict precautions in the tropics, and most steam vehicles which have been sent to British India or Java have been equipped with kerosene burners for this reason.”
Indian rules severely restricted the use of petrol, but even elsewhere authorities regarded the fuel with distrust. In New York, for instance, fleet operators were not allowed to fuel their petrol vehicles within depots or garages. The ‘Bureau of Combustibles’ even ruled that vehicles’ tanks should be emptied at the time of parking.
In England, you could store only three gallons of petrol without a licence, no matter how large your fleet of cars and trucks. In April 1903, G E Brown of Snow Hill, Wolverhampton, was fined £10 for keeping 10 gallons of the fuel on his premises. When the prosecutor, one Mr Kendrick, was asked “if he desired the petrol to be forfeited,” he declined saying, “We have no provision to keep petrol ourselves.”
Petrol’s notoriety arose from frequent accidents caused by poor engineering and stupidity in equal measure. Before fuel pumps became widespread, it was transferred from barrels to car tanks using cans, so spillage was common. The French, who made the best race cars, were still filling their auto tanks “by pouring the gasoline from large galvanized containers” all through the 1910s. The Americans, however, had been using dispensers for a while, as the 1903 ad on the left shows.
Besides spillage and careless storage, leaky fuel tanks and lines also caused fires, especially when their handlers behaved stupidly. There was, for instance, this ‘curious accident’ in the courtyard of Hotel Continental in Nice, France, in March 1899:
A dog had hidden itself in a car, and a waiter tried to find it in the middle of the night by lighting his way with a candle. “Quite suddenly, at one o’clock in the early morning, a terrible explosion woke up the whole of the inmates of the hotel… The explanation of the accident is that either the petrol tank or one of the pipes connecting it to the carburettor was leaking, with the result that the gaseous fumes became ignited from contact with the naked light.” The dog was killed.
Even experienced hands were involved in accidents. In April 1900, C Goodridge was in charge of the night shift at a Bournemouth Garage when “a lighted paraffin lamp he was using exploded…The blazing oil spreading over the floor set the place in flames.” Two cars were badly damaged.
Goodridge didn’t do anything silly, but car racer F D Maumbler was totally at fault at the Empire City racetrack in Yonkers, New York, on May 30, 1903.
His new Victor car’s fuel pipe was leaking, and Maumbler “was looking for the leak with a lighted match when the gasolene tank, containing four gallons of fluid, caught fire, and instantly the flames shot into the air,” reported the New York Daily Tribune the next day.
There was chaos on the track. “For a few minutes it seemed as though an explosion was bound to occur, and there was a panic among the rich people, who struggled to get their fine machines out of the way.”
Maumbler, described as “a young society man,” showed courage afterwards and salvaged his reputation. He remained “beside the burning machine until he could turn the valve and cut off the gasolene supply. This act not only saved his automobile, but prevented a lot of women who could not have escaped from the neighboring vehicles from having their handsome gowns spattered with burning gasolene.”
Accidents in India
At 3 am on June 12, 1908, there was an explosion on a barge carrying 3,600 drums of petrol that had anchored off Jackeria Bunder in Sewri, Mumbai. “It is presumed that the explosion was due to the tindal lighting a match,” said the report of the chief inspector of explosives in India, dated June 1909. The tindal was charred on the barge, and two other crew died of their injuries.
Here are some more reports of petrol fires in India from 1908:
Calcutta, March 12: A cleaner started a fire while trying to fill up a car’s fuel tank “in close proximity to a lighted motor lamp… The body of the car and canopy were destroyed, the steering wheel reduced to charcoal and the two front tyres melted by the heat of the flames.”
Narkeldanga, April 21: The building of Indian Oil Products, Limited, was engulfed in flames around 8.30 pm when the petrol vats were being drained. “Petrol vapour which was issuing must have come in contact with an oil lamp placed outside the roof of the building.”
Bombay, September 6: A chauffeur was sent out around 9 pm with petrol for a car that had run out of fuel on Hornby Road (now DN Road). When he returned with the car, he found two other cars in the garage burning. “The woodwork of the building also caught fire.” Apparently, the lamps of one car had been left on, and the watchman, whose duty it was to turn them off, had come inside the garage with a lantern. “When putting out the lamps he may have placed the lantern near the carburettor, igniting the gas that may have been about.”