Articles from Safety Fast! (July 1996)

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I know we both have quite strong opinions about the quality (or otherwise) of some of the fuel we are obliged to put in our cars' tanks in order to pursue our hobby or, in some cases, our business. As you say, it is a wide-ranging topic and I know, from having seen some highly-knowledgeable artiles within our pages, that there are mnay of our members with technical expertise in the field of fuel composition. I would not pretend to have any such expertise but I am interested in the aspect of what people think they are buying.

As a f'rinstance - one frequently comes across the phrase "Supermarket fuels", as in John Watkin's letter in the March 'Postbox'. What is a "Supermarket fuel"? The inference is that the fuel, being (normally) less expensive than fuel sold through smaller retail forecourts (I hesitate to use the word 'cheaper' - it's all expensive and merely a question of degree) is perhaps of a lower-quality formulation than that sold through nozzles bearing an oil industry brand-name. When supermarkets first started stocking road fuel, the price they changed reflected the discount they were able to negotiate with the supplying oil companies by virtue of the greatly-increased forecourt throughput as compared with yer average roadside filling-station having but a few pumps. As far as I am aware, very little has changed over the years, except recently when one major oil compay has been running a busy TV advertising campaign to reassure us that they are watching prices "in your area" - and, to be fair, small-forecourt prices are little if any, greater than the local supermarket rates but what has happened in respect of the forementioned discounts? I'll let you ponder on that thought. Incidentally, I never have been able to work out why fuel normally costs more in outlets closer to storage depots than in those involving more road-tanker mileage.

As to what (or whose) fuel we are actually buying - well, that's a subject in itself. Going back the thick end of about twenty years, for example, the giant Shell-Mex & B.P. Co. Ltd. was looked at by the Monopolies Commission (or whatever the equivalent title was in those days) who gave as their opinion that the company had too great a share of the UK market and had to do something about it. So they split into Shell UK and BP Oil, with approximately half of the original storage depots and retail outlets going to each new title. The same thing happened to the road tanker fleet, drivers and staff, etc. but, for obvious practical reasons, everyone and everything stayed physically where they were geographically. Each company had "drawing rights" on the other i.e., if a depot had "gone BP" then BP operated it with Shell having the right to load fuel; and vice-versa in the opposite circumstance. The fuel was still stored in the same tanks, the difference being that it went out of the gate in tankers carrying two different liveries. Same fuel, though.

An extension to this sort of brand-confusion came not long afterwards when it was realised that, say, one company's vehicles, having unloaded, had to pass the gates of another (quite independent) company's storage depot in order to return to the 'home' depot to reload; and, having reloaded, had to pass those same gates again in order to reach the customer. And the same independent company's vehicles had to do the same thing the other way around. Let's just say that perhaps the two independents had storage depots east and west of a river respectively, but about twenty-odd miles apart by road; and with customers west and east respectively. Didn't it make commercial sense to enter into an agreement that each could draw from the other's depot and cut down on mileage and time? Of course it did. More confusion for the customer (the motorist) if he'd been made aware of it - but of course he wasen't. This mutual system became further extended throughout.

You see what I mean when I say "what people think they're buying"? I live close to one major company's storage depot (now you'd never have believed that, would you?) and things have moved on a bit in that some of the supermarket chains now have their own tanker fleets, loaded vehicles of which can be seen leaving said depot. I very much doubt that the various supermarkets have storage tanks reserved in the depot to contain exclusively the products they purvey through their forecourt nozzles. So, unless someone can come up with proof positive to the contrary, the so-called 'Supermarket fuel' will almost certainly be the same product as that sold on the oil company's roadside forecourts.

As to whether John should go back to Shell low, low lead petrol - I pass, as I know little of the laws of libel. I do recall their previous super-duper petrol which seemed to be able to release our cars from having to tow all those heavy petrol pumps around (remember the campaign?). I understand that the product was withdrawn after a lot of complaint about head damage, particularly from a Midlands-based police force, but I don't think any liability was admitted publicly.

On a related score but on the other side of the world, New Zealand have banned the import of leaded petrol (or the addition of lead to NZ-refined petrol) from 1st January. Leaded fuel will be replaced with a new higher-octane unleaded petrol with leaded petrol expected to disappear from about the end of March '96. Strange isn't? - our local Sainsbury's has stopped selling super-unleaded on environmental grounds. There doesn't seem to be much agreement about the world. Or perhaps it's just that the people who are supposed to know about these things don't talk to each other sensibly, thus leaving the field free for a strong degree of what I believe to be over-reaction on the part of elements who appear to aaume, quite incorrectly, that they speak for all of us.

See also June's article

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