Wednesday, 2 January 2008

LPG - Is It Really All That?

Christmas is done and dusted, then. You’ve drunk the sherry, recycled the packaging, made up with everyone you fell out with during the enforced period of bonhomie, and suffered the inevitable hangovers.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve also made some entirely fallacious New Year’s resolutions, all noted down meticulously in your new, hideously garish diary; bought in a last-minute panic by someone who doesn’t know you very well. The same as they did last year, in fact. And the year before that.

So come on then, hands up who can remember what resolutions they made last year? Anyone? How about 2006? I know I damn well can’t, for one simple reason: New Year is quite the worst time anyone could choose to make resolutions. Because, even if you were planning to get an Olympic-standard torso in the gym and a concours-winning classic in the garage, your good intentions will be blown to smithereens by the postal equivalent of an AIM-9X Sidewinder – January’s credit card bill.

Instantly, all thoughts of self-improvement evaporate in a fit of frugality. Let’s face it, we all get a bit drunk on the intoxicating liquour of shopping at Christmas, and in the credit card capital of Europe, the hangover comes later. Nobody eats turkey curry in February because they enjoy the taste – we eat it because we’re bloody skint!

Let’s just suppose, then, that I could offer you a way to halve your fuel bills. A way for the pump to read '60 litres - £30,' at every fill up. A way to smirk mercilessly at those whose 'exclusive' gold Visas spontaneously combust at even the mention of the word 'Shell'.

Well, I’m pleased to report that I can, and the solution comes in the form of three letters: LPG. In recent weeks, as you might have read on these pages, I have been running a 1989 Range Rover at an average of 12.8mpg, which, at £1.05 per litre, would have been crippling. But at just £30 for every 200 miles, its drink problem almost seemed manageable. In a car without a Frankenstein’s Monster of an engine (an old Sherpa 3.5 low-compression carbed V8 with a 3.9 EFI system bolted on top) one could achieve some ludicrously good pence-per-mile figures.

So you’re tempted, and you head down to your local filling station to check out this wondrously inexpensive fuel. And then you head to another filling station which isn’t local at all, because the nearest one to you has never heard of LPG and points you towards the Calorgas refill bottles. Well, mine did. By the time you’ve realised that they all call it different names – Autogas is the most common – you’re fed up and head home in a huff, resolving to stick with petrol until you have taken a crash-course in orienteering.

Just supposing you find a garage local to you which does stock Autogas, don’t expect the picture to be any more rosy, because the refill procedure makes the launch of the Space Shuttle look simple. Firstly, you have to screw an adaptor to the side of your car, which will cross-thread and get stuck. Then, you have to make a ludicrous bayonet-fitment click into place, and lock it in place with a third fitment. Then you press the button on the pump, and no gas comes out. You’re confused, so you unscrew the bayonet fitting to see what’s gone wrong, and PSHHHHHHT!! You get a face full of LPG. Did I mention it was refrigerated to 20 degrees below zero, and can cause severe burns?

Meanwhile, taking your hand off the button has deactivated the whole pump, and no amount of swearing will get it to work again. So, with a heavy heart and much apologising to the chap behind, you trudge inside and ask the assistant to reactivate the pump, who then asks you to pay for the £0.00 worth of gas you have so far managed to unleash. After you’ve argued the toss on this one, you head back outside and try again: bayonet, click, and AH, there’s a locking lever as well. So you pull that back, and cautiously hit the button, waiting for Hemel Hempstead to repeat itself.

But no, this time, miraculously, gas flows, just ten minutes after you first arrived! Do not, however, get complacent: remember that, once released, the trigger button will not re-activate. I developed a technique for a mid-fill up hand-swap, which I have called 'The LPG Shuffle': doubtless, you will develop your own.

The tank will let you know that it’s full (and presumably about to explode, turning you and the entire forecourt into that bit from Bullitt) by vibrating the hose violently and making the kind of noise that a duck would if you fed it into a food blender. At this point you must release the button, unclip the locking lever, turn the bayonet fitting, and get another face full of gas. Cold, exhausted, freeze-burned and smelling unpleasant, you join your place in the queue, questioning why the hell anyone would choose to save a few quid this way when they’ve got two perfectly good kidneys to sell first.

This is just what they want you to think.

You see, I believe wholeheartedly that the LPG filling system has been designed deliberately to put off all but the most committed of motorists. Nothing can have ended up this complicated and unpleasant by accident – it must have been engineered in. Whoever came up with the infernal thing obviously had a brief to make it as useless as a wind-powered submarine and as annoying as the Eurovision Song Contest. It is just a rumour, but apparently the Wembley Stadium contractors were involved somewhere in the process.

So who came up with the brief in the first place? Why, the government, of course. With excise at nearly 70p for every litre of petrol you put in your tank, why would they want everybody to switch to something from which they receive only 20p per litre? So they make the process as unpleasant as a trip to the dentists, in the surefire knowledge that the almighty faff involved will put off 95 per cent of potential money-savers. I know for sure that my mother, who drives 12k per year and could theoretically save £700 per annum on LPG, considers the cons to outweigh the massive financial pro.

Consider this: can it be a coincidence that the only three nations to use our ridiculous LPG filling system are Switzerland, the Netherlands and us – three of the most tax-hungry nations in Europe? I think not. They want your money, they want you to stay on petrol, and short of a revolution, there’s nothing we motorists can do about it. In other words, then, LPG is unlikely to prove the answer to your post-Christmas money woes, and I've wasted your time. Sorry and all that.

But look on the bright side – at least, now, it’s not your fault that you’ve failed live up to those resolutions for another year. As usual, you can lay the blame squarely at the door marked Number 10.

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