What a shift to E10 petrol means for Lancashire's classic car scene

As a change to standard petrol is brought in, Catherine Musgrove looks at what it means to people who own older and classic cars.

Friday, 13th August 2021, 8:30 am
Updated Friday, 13th August 2021, 9:16 am

Next month, the standard petrol grade in Great Britain will become E10.

From then, the standard, cheapest, unleaded petrol must contains up to 10 per cent renewable ethanol, which is aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions associated with petrol vehicles and tackle climate change.

Petrol in the UK currently contains up to five per cent renewable ethanol (known as E5).

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Cars from the Lancashire Automobile Club

It's the biggest change to forecourts since four star petrol was banned in 2000, and while the Government claims that "almost all" petrol-powered vehicles on the road today can use E10 petrol, those produced before 2011 may not be compatible - an estimated 600,000 vehicles.

According to experts, the use of E10 in older cars could lead to devastating problems, including corrosion, fuel leaks, fire risks and a poorer cold-start performance.

So where does this leave the classic car world?

The Department for Transport has launched a web checker - available here - for owners to see whether their vehicle is compatible with E10.

Modern classics like this 1989 BMW E30 will still be affected by the fuel change

If your vehicle is not compatible, you are recommended to continue using E5 by purchasing the ‘super’ grade (97+ octane) petrol from filling stations - but this is typically at least 10p a litre more expensive, meaning an extra £5 on fuel bills for a 50 litre tank.

Chris Lee, vice president of the Lancashire Automobile Club (1902), said vehicles made prior to 1980 will be most affected, but that "It's not going to be a disaster as long as you can get E5 (the current standard)".

He said: "Ethanol is plant based and will attack certain plastics and most fuel supply hoses.

"They go brittle and fail, so you're potentially going to get petrol squirting around and have a fire risk from leaks.

Chris Lee's Mini Cooper

"As well as this, older cars have got floats in carburettors which are made from plastic, which will be attacked by ethanol.

"In fuel-injected cars, you have glands which again the ethanol will attack."

He added: "The next problem is that ethanol is hygroscopic - it takes in moisture.

"Tanks on cars are vented, and so exposed to the atmosphere, and fuel with higher ethanol levels will absorb water.

Classic cars on the Manchester to Blackpool run

"Steel fuel tanks will rust, and flakes will get sucked into the fuel line and block the system.

"If you use your car daily it's not really a problem, but if you leave your car in the garage over winter or don't do many miles, then you're going to get quite high concentrations of water in the fuel."

Cars made after 2011 were designed to run on E10 fuel and use different and more resilient plastics, but some competition cars and mini motorbikes that have glass fibre fuel tanks could still suffer as ethanol will attack the resin that holds the tank together.

Chris added: "With E5, most cars can survive that, though the Lotus Elans have had problems.

"Cars made prior to 1980 might have problems with E10."

Availability of super unleaded

As filling stations switch to E10, there have been concerns that E5 fuel will not be as easily accessible as the Government makes out.

Chris said: "Fuel stations typically have two tanks - one for petrol and one for diesel. Understandably, they're going to use their petrol tank with the grade that most people use, which will be E10.

"It means that your small village petrol station isn't going to sell E10 because there isn't sufficient demand, and you're going to have to travel further afield to find it."

He added: "This isn't going to be a disaster as long as you can get E5 and there has been no formal cut-off announced for that.

"The Government say they're planning to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030. If the life of a car is 10 years, then there has to be fuel until at least 2040, then we will go back to what happened in 1902, when people went to chemists to get a jug of petrol."

Will the value of classic cars dip?

Chris said: "There's always been a question around the future of classic cars. I think for the next 10 to 20 years things will rumble on, but after that, I don't know."

He added: "I think the less classic cars will disappear, but the likes of the Aston Martins and the Ferraris, their owners clubs will make sure there is a suitable supply of fuel for them.

"There is also a problem with the newer classics, in that they're much harder to find the parts for. There are a lot more electric motors, consumable items, and you struggle to get hold of them because they are dedicated to that car, and that car only."

He also said that lots of classic cars are going abroad, to places like America "where the money is", but that "as long as people are prepared to pay, then there's a market".

Are any additives available to counteract E10?

When leaded petrol was banned in 2000, several companies came up with lead replacement products that could be added to your engine with unleaded petrol to provide the car with the additives it needed. The lead replacement additives lubricated soft valve seats and protected them against damage.

The ethanol issue isn't as simple, but there are options. According to specialist insurance company Hagerty, if your car is older than 1996 and doesn’t have a catalytic converter, you can use a lead replacement additive such as Castrol’s Classic Valvemaster, which can help prevent corrosion as it also contains an ethanol stabiliser. It’s endorsed by the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs.

For modern classics there are catalyst-friendly additives available such as Millers Ethanol Protection Additive or Lucas Oil Ethanol Fuel Conditioner, but your best advice is to check with the vehicle manufacturer or an owners club.

Is E10 a 'greener' fuel?

The Government claims its introduction could cut transport CO2 emissions by 750,000 tonnes a year – the equivalent of taking 350,000 cars off the road. Producing ethanol also results in valuable by-products, including animal feed and stored CO2.

But when E10 was introduced to petrol stations across Germany, in 2011, it faced a backlash from local green groups such as Greenpeace and the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union over the conversion of land to farms to supply bioethanol, which has been linked to the destruction of forests and wetlands.

The AA have also forecast that the adoption will not improve localised air quality and pollutants such as particulates, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons will not be reduced. In fact, some argue that there might be a slight increase in these pollutants as a result because using E10 petrol can slightly reduce fuel economy.

What does the RAC say?

RAC fuel spokesman Simon Williams said: “Everybody agrees that steps must be taken to reduce emissions from road transport, however introducing E10 as the standard petrol will pose some challenges.

"Firstly, as the RAC Foundation points out, there could be as many as 600,000 vehicles on our roads that aren’t compatible with the fuel.

"Many of these are likely to be owned by those from lower income backgrounds and while it is welcome that E5 petrol is not being phased out altogether, owners of these vehicles will face higher fuel costs – and will also have to hunt out those forecourts that still sell E5.

"Some retailers will also not have the capacity to be able to provide both E5 and E10 fuels on forecourts, so the impact is likely to be most keenly felt by those with incompatible vehicles in rural areas.

"It is also vital that owners of affected vehicles are aware of the changes. We’d like to see the DVLA writing to these owners to inform them that E5 will no longer be the standard premium grade, and to let them know their options.

"This, alongside a trusted online resource where drivers can quickly identify if their vehicles are E10 compatible or not, will go a long way to avoiding any expensive problems from filling up wrongly with the new blend.

"For the overwhelming majority of drivers with compatible vehicles, the introduction of E10 petrol will make little difference other than a possible slight reduction in fuel economy."