We were out on the deck tonight—after sunset, during that long fade-out of primary light seen in mid-latitudes as the summer solstice approaches—admiring the westward advance of indigo across the sky, admiring the silhouette of the back-lit mountains, admiring the budding aspens coiling up their energy for the brief growing season to come, and admiring the high, short-lived contrails pouring from tiny speedy spots which were jet aircraft , the H2O and CO2 fogging from the exhaust but cooling—so quickly!—to equilibrium and invisibility.

The temperature on the deck is tolerable these nights when we have the aid and comfort of a gas-fired table (on which we rest our brandy). I light it with relish, since it emboldens us with cheer and enables our dusking relaxation—but then I wonder, watching the flames and imagining the reactions thereabouts, how we’ll continue this practice when efforts to slow climate change have picked off all the low-hanging fruit, and my fossil-fueled fire table becomes a target.

I see that burning natural gas as a residential heating method is already being deprecated; I’d like to scoff at it, but I know too much about hydrocarbons. Surely the fire table is only unnoticed or un-targeted now because it isn’t ubiquitous or continuous, unlike the furnaces or boilers in so many houses, running for hours on end.

Electric mobility (drink!) is coming, and that right soon.

I’m hedging my own fuel-future a bit with diesel, the farm-and-truck-juice that lubricates American commerce, and in the back of my mind hoping alcohol conversions will let the ’66 and the ’90 gassers stay on the road as long as we want to drive them. Alcohol from this years’ crops, you see, doesn’t have the nasty dig-it-up-from-the-past-and-burn-it sin—or stigma—of freeing carbon from a millennials-long prison wherein it ballasted our atmosphere against unbridled swings of gas concentrations. Ethanol isn’t as energy-dense as petroleum spirits, but with electronic fuel injection and sufficient displacement, it does the job—almost.

On one of my early dates with Renée, while we were still West Seattle-based (and before we’d ever runa rally), we went to an NHRA qualifying day at Pacific Raceways. The crowd was sparse, grandstands a third full, although there were (mostly young and mostly male) spectators three-deep along the fences running nearest to the race track. The Alcohol Funny Cars ran, pretty loud and pretty fast. We ate concession popcorn and chatted. The program moved on to the Top Fuel cars. Now two dragsters were idling at the tree, buppa-buppa-buppa, their sound through our earplugs only as loud as the Alkies.

The X535d on Moab’s Shafer Road.

Then came the green lights, and sonic hell was unleashed.

Alcohol and nitromethane are both motor fuels, but the resemblance between them is as the lynx to the tiger; the firecracker to the cherry bomb; the piccolo to the trumpet. Hairs erect, ears ringing, focus, captured; the fans along the fence were in a fistfight, for no reason except the energy pounding, surrounding, infusing us all.

Sound matters.

A man I’m fond of paid Ruby, our red AWD 3 Series wagon, a compliment on her sound after a run up north of Estes Park, Colorado, along the eastern edge of the lands where Rocky Mountain National Park lies, probably just east of where the original park surveyors said to each other, “We’ve got to put the boundary somewhere,” although the scenery still warped their minds and took their breath. We were caravaning to a fly-fishing spot, a guided trip to a glimpse of nature and naturalism reached purely on asphalt. The man said, “Your car makes the most delightful crackles on deceleration!” The credit for that must go to the BMW Performance exhaust, and the credit to his phrasing to his British upbringing.

I’m also fond of this description, from Blackie, of the effect his high-compression Bonneville motor’s exhaust had on a dyno crew used to turbocharger-exhaust noise levels: “This is a 16:1 motor. When it gets on full song, it’s something to behold. Those folks got a taste of what a race motor sounds like.”

And the other day I paid an exorbitant sum to “activate” all the features of a phone app. It was worth it immediately, because it let me disable the ActiveSoundDesign in the JCW Mini. No more artificial whaa-whaa from the stereo when I toggle into Sport mode; it would have been bad enough if the ASD just simulated motor noises, but worse—and unforgivably—the fake noises were drowning out the actual exhaust sound that you get in Sport mode. I conclude that the ASD product managers understand nothing about car enthusiasts.

Oh, yes: Sound matters.

Will alcohol fuel conversions provide, somehow, a bit of that nitro punch, aurally? Or is the soundtrack for our non-electric driving future to be relegated to synths?—Marinus Damm

[Photo courtesy of Brian Harer.]



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