Did you know that the first Model T that Henry Ford built was a made to run on 100% ethanol fuel. He proclaimed it to be the "fuel of the future" and many of his earliest models of vehicle could run on ethanol, gasoline and any mixtures in between.  So if one of the titans of the early car industry, the man who made it possible for average citizens to own a car thought ethanol was the fuel of the future I only have one question.

What happened?

Some people would say that a far reaching conspiracy was involved in the downfall of ethanol as the fuel of the future.  There are few players that can easily be identified as having a part in this "conspiracy".  On one side you have the victims of the plot Henry Ford and by default generations of Americans that followed him and on the other side you have Standard Oil the big oil monopoly and the US Government which may have played a key role or simply been duped.


Henry Ford

So as not to bore you overly much I am going to skip the details of his early life and get straight to the meat of it.  Henry Ford invented the quadricycle in 1896 which was the earliest horseless carriage design that he made.  The quadricycle was basically an engine attached to four bicycle wheels.   

 Believe it or not the quadricycle was designed to be powered by ethanol, this design is what later led to the Model T his most popular model of car during the early years of his company.  His early models of cars were all designed to run on pure ethanol or a mixture of two fuels like ethanol and gasoline   

In 1906 the alcohol tax that was enacted during the Civil War was repealed and suddenly it was much cheaper to use it as a fuel then it ever was before.  Between 1906 and the end of World War 1 the production of ethanol and its use as a fuel skyrocketed.  All was well and good in the world of alcohol fuel, research was being done and problems with supply were being solved using new techniques and blends to meet current and future demands.

Ford Quadricycle
Credit: public domain

Ethanol and other alcohol fuel technologies has a promising future in the world of automobile and farm engines.  But in 1919 the bright future of ethanol got a bit dimmer, 1919 was the year that the US Congress passed Prohibition.


Standard Oil

 In existence in one form or another since 1870 Standard Oil for many years had a monopoly on the oil industry and the products it made.[1]  Those products would have included many things including, gasoline a new fangled fuel for engines.  With its control of 90-95 % of the refining facilities in the US, Standard Oil controlled the production of gasoline.  The problem that the company was facing was two fold when it came to gasoline.  It needed to expand its sales of the product.  To do that the company had to convince people like Henry Ford that gasoline was better than ethanol when it came to powering engines.  The problem was that good old Henry thought that ethanol was the fuel of the future and didn't want to make engines that would run on just gasoline.  So what was Standard Oil to do, ditch gasoline and get into the alcohol business.[1]


They decide to change the social fabric of American and outlaw the production of alcohol.

Hello the 18th Amendment and Prohibition.  

The Prohibition Conspiracy

What began as a grassroots movement to reduce the amount of domestic violence and other alcohol related social problems, become all about business for Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller.  The Rockefeller's both Sr and Jr were both vocal supporters of Prohibition and they supported organizations like the Anti Saloon League with financial donations.  Rockefeller Sr donated up to 91,000 in 1920 in support of the ASL that would be over 1,000,000 dollar today.  It does seem strange that a businessman that took over the whole oil industry in the US would donate that much money to a social cause. 

Prohibition outlawed all forms of alcohol production even those used for fuel like alcohol.  Now ethanol could still be produced but it had to be denatured or made otherwise undrinkable.  Typically gasoline was used to denature ethanol and the public view shifted, from ethanol being a fuel in its own right to being simply a gasoline additive.  As Prohibition wore on it stopped being used even for that as other chemicals such as tetraethyllead produced the same effect.  

Despite the fact that ethanol was hard or impossible to get Henry Ford continued to manufacture ethanol compatible cars right up until the year the Prohibition was repealed.  While it may have just be a coincidence it does make you ask some interesting questions about what was really going on.

Like any good conspiracies we will never really know for sure what happened.  All it really does is leave us with more questions like, 

Would Prohibition have passed without Standard Oils support?

What if Henry Ford had kept making ethanol compatible vehicles?

Would we live in a world with many different viable alternative fuels if it hadn't been for Prohibition?

We will never really know for sure and that is what make conspiracies like this go round and round.  So whether you believe that Henry Ford and by default generations of Americans were the victims of a conspiracy or that Standard Oil really did support Prohibition for good wholesome reasons it really doesn't matter at this point.  We have to live in the world that the Prohibition era created and that simple is how it is.