The Secret History of Lead | The Nation


The Secret History of Lead

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Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute. Follow-ups:
"Amplification," June 19, 2000 and letters exchanges: "Lead--Balloons and Bouquets," May 15, and "Lead-Letter Office," July 3, 2000.

Octane, the Motorist's Friend

About the Author

Jamie Lincoln Kitman
Jamie Lincoln Kitman, New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine, won an investigative reporting award from...

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General Motors must shoulder blame for a faulty product mix and a
stubborn resistance to the idea of single-payer health insurance, which
sent benefits costs soaring.

The stalling of the Republican-backed energy bill by a Democrat-led Senate filibuster was only a temporary reprieve.

Beginning in 1921, GM's executive committee began to articulate the first principles that would come to be known as Sloanism--that is, planned obsolescence and product differentiation through speed, power, style and color; "a car for every purse and purpose," as Sloan was fond of saying.

Between 1922 and the end of the decade, Sloan and his GM associates would devise marketing strategies that would see GM overtake Ford as the world's largest automobile manufacturer and set the tone for the next fifty years of American automotive consumption. Central to this growth would be an awareness that consumers were no longer looking merely for basic transportation, which was the stock in trade of Ford's beloved Model T. In addition to consumer financing (which Ford opposed), Sloan was convinced that style, snob appeal and speed would help GM steal its customers away. He was right.

Following the failure of his copper-cooled engine, Kettering rejigged his arguments for TEL for internal--definitely not public--consumption. As it happened, the new additive could be fitted neatly into the Sloanist equation. For while it was initially seen by Kettering and his staff as a way to cure knock and to husband fossil-fuel supplies, the high compression it enabled in motors was just as easily exploited to make cars faster and more powerful, thus easier to sell. Alan Loeb, a former EPA attorney and lead historian who has examined the period closely, has neatly summed up Kettering's conversion: "By 1923...it was clear that Kettering's original purpose for the antiknock research had given way to GM's desire to improve auto performance without regard for its effect on fuel economy.... Kettering did not give up on efficiency and conservation as his own ideals, but ever after he knew better than to try to push a product that would not sell. In later years, even as Kettering's advocacy of conservation became more and more public, it represented GM's true motive less and less."

Tellingly, Ethyl's earliest advertisements dealt solely with speed and power and invariably neglected to mention its active ingredient: lead. Boasted a September 1927 ad that ran in National Geographic: "As an Ethyl user, you have the benefits of greatly increased speed, more power on hills and heavy roads. Quicker acceleration and complete elimination of 'knock.' But the real high compression automobile is here at last! Ethyl gasoline has made it possible! Ride with Ethyl in a high compression motor and get the thrill of a lifetime."

With the advent of the Depression in the thirties, Ethyl's advertising nodded to the economic realities of the day but still focused on power. An ad that ran in February 1933 contains a Norman Rockwell-esque portrait of a small boy who is complaining to his embarrassed father, "Gee, Pop--they're all passing you." The accompanying text rubs it in. "They didn't pass you when your car was bright and new--and you still don't like to be left behind. So just remember this: the next best thing to a brand new car is your present car with Ethyl."


With the formation of the GM Chemical Company, work on a large-scale Du Pont TEL plant began immediately. Irénée du Pont hailed his company's technical director, W.F. Harrington: "It is essential that we treat this undertaking like a war order so far as making speed and producing the output, not only in order to fulfill the terms of the contract as to time but because every day saved means one day advantage over possible competition."

Significantly, GM's patent on TEL would have covered any threat from competing makers of lead additive. Thus, as Kovarik has reasoned, the competition referred to must have been from those who would have offered a different kind of antiknock. GM, Du Pont and TEL's other backers would long publicly claim there were no conceivable alternatives to the lead antiknock additive. But the facts were otherwise. Ethanol was still out there. And GM negotiated throughout the twenties with Germany's I.G. Farben over an additive it made from iron carbonyl. Then, in August 1925, Kettering himself joyously announced "Synthol," a blended automotive fuel of benzene and alcohol that promised to "double gas mileage." There was, as we shall see, an unexpected--and momentary--business need for Synthol. The point is, there were alternatives.

In a public relations coup, Ethyl leaded gasoline fueled the top three finishers at the Indianapolis 500 motor race on Memorial Day, 1923. With demand skyrocketing, Kettering signed exclusive contracts with Standard Oil of New Jersey (now Exxon), Standard Oil of Indiana (later Amoco, more lately merged with BP) and Gulf Oil (owned by the Mellon interests) for East Coast, Midwest and Southern distribution, respectively, of leaded gasoline.

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