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Clogged Fuel Injectors Spark Ad Blitz : Stung by GM Criticism of Gas Quality, Refiners Find 'Solution'

June 15, 1986|DONALD WOUTAT | Times Staff Writer

Exxon's ad depicts its powerful tiger crashing through a formidable barrier with the ominous label "FOULED INJECTORS." Mobil's fuel will "actually unclog dirty fuel injectors." Arco trumpets a clean fuel injector "guarantee."

The current advertising blitz for gasoline makes it sound as if the oil industry is heralding some breakthrough in fuel technology. Instead, it is responding to a growing problem with car engines--and the solution is nothing new.

It seems that many brands of unleaded gasoline tend to clog fuel injectors on automobiles, cutting the flow of gasoline by as much as 25% and causing engines to stall. General Motors says gummed-up fuel injectors have become one of its biggest car-related headaches, and virtually every auto maker reported the problem at a recent auto engineering convention.

The answer has been to load up gasolines with detergent, a type of fuel additive that auto makers and others complain has been used in diminishing amounts over the past few years as a cost-cutting move by oil refiners.

It is a charge that is roundly denied by Big Oil, which uniformly says that its gasoline has impeccable credentials and grumbles that engines are getting too sensitive. But ever since GM called attention to the fuel injector problem last November in a letter to the oil giants, there has been a nice surge in business for the chemical firms that make detergent additives.

While declining to say which refiners are buying them, Thomas Johnston, director of the fuel products group at Lubrizol, a specialty chemicals firm in Wickliffe, Ohio, that makes such a detergent, said: "Let's put it this way: There's a much higher degree of interest than we anticipated. We're going to sell a lot more than we expected."

Although the problem afflicts most domestic and foreign makes of cars equipped with the widely used Robert Bosch Corp. fuel injection system, it was a letter last November from the vice chairman of the world's biggest auto firm, GM's Howard Kehrl, that created all the excitement.

When Kehrl was subsequently invited to speak before the National Petroleum Refiners Assn. in Los Angeles in February, he was amiably introduced as the industry's "pen pal." But he recalls that there was an edge to his missive, reflecting a broader dispute between the huge, mutually reliant oil and auto industries over the quality of gasoline generally.

As automobile engines have become more sophisticated in the wake of government and customer demands for fewer emissions and greater fuel economy, GM and other companies have become increasingly critical of the composition of gasoline. The auto firms have blamed fuel for everything from a rotten egg smell in some Toyotas to generally poor "drivability."

Popular Science magazine called it "Bad Gas," and the criticisms have other inde

pendent support.

"We find that the general quality of gasoline does not meet the requirements of modern engines," said Nick Korens, manager of the energy technology economics program at SRI International, a Menlo Park, Calif., research organization.

While the clogged fuel injectors represent just one part of that problem, Joseph Colucci, head of the fuels department at GM's research labs, said: "What this has done is bring home to the oil companies that gasoline quality is not as good as it should be."

The fuel injector, once a creature only of exotic performance cars, is now replacing the carburetor as the device under the hood that moves gasoline to the engine. It is more efficient and precise and improves everything from fuel economy to starting the engine.

GM began using large numbers of them in the 1985 model year and has sold nearly 1 million cars with Bosch's so-called multiport fuel injection systems--the type having problems. Joseph Borruso, the Detroit-based auto sales vice president for Bosch, said the company was selling the same basic multiport injector system to Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen as long ago as 1967.

The multiport injectors, or those that squirt fuel separately into each engine cylinder, have such tiny openings that the slightest deposit of particles in gasoline can be baked on to the openings by engine heat, clogging them, GM said.

The clogging problem suddenly became noticeable about 18 months ago, said Borruso, who blamed the clogging then on a shortage of detergent additives in every brand of unleaded gasoline. He says Mobil was subsequently the first to fix its fuel and won mention from GM's Kehrl in the letter that he wrote to refiners.

Mobil cheerfully took note of GM's implicit endorsement in its ad campaigns, and the slightly arcane issue was out in the open--touching off a war of words, advertising and one-upmanship in the oil business over what SRI's Korens has called the "black art" of gasoline additives.

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