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Question about 30s-50s cars after a large EMP event


Guest writerDW
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Guest writerDW

<html> This is a serious question; I'm not trying to troll. I'm just running into an internet research wall and decided to try asking people who probably know the answer.

Short version of the setup for my question is, I'm a writer working on a story involving EMP. It occurred to me that one of my characters, who I've already set up as a long-distance cargo hauler (including expensive and extremely classic cars) might be able to use one after a massive EMP takes out modern systems. I'd like someone with hands-on mechanical experience in cars of these eras to offer an opinion if possible, please. EMP = Electro Magnetic Pulse, like will generate from a nuclear device.

My brother is a diesel technician (ex USMC and privately trained, now works on semis and rental company diesel trucks) and I ran it by him; he seems to feel classic cars (I believe he mentioned pre 1965) incorporate no computers, so would be entirely unaffected by an EMP. The wiring and spark plugs, alternators, in classic cars wouldn't be affected? They'd just start right up and run without issue? Obviously the scenario I'm talking about is quite theoretical (if there's any information about cars in the EMP footprint working following a WW2 era nuclear test I haven't been able to find it); but when I write I try not to put wild and unsubstantiated stuff into the text; things that make people in those fields roll their eyes.

It was also indicated to me the fuel for a car like this would need to be leaded. Some of the research I've found seems to indicate modern unleaded E10 fuel will run in them just fine; that a lot of classic cars ran off 'esoteric' fuels like pure alcohol and kerosine, so E10 would be okay. Obviously non-ethanol fuel can be gotten from most airports and marinas, but a classic car's engine will run off an ethanol blend. But I can't find anything that discusses the lead vs unleaded issue. Any guidance would be helpful here as well.

As a bonus non-mechanical question, if you were wandering around after a EMP wiped out modern civilization on a planetary scale . . . what classic car rolling by with a guy at the wheel would *really* make you laugh? Like, what would be something you'd really enjoy or like seeing be useful again after decades of 'automotive progress' were crushed back to the basics. In a circumstance where even hardened military systems and vehicles are no-go, everyone walking, and then you see this guy drive up behind the wheel of something 'old' that's running great. I've currently got the guy hauling a pair of early 1930s Rolls Royces (Phantom and Silver Ghost); but if there's a good suggestion it can change since I'm still writing.

Again, not trying to troll or be disruptive. Just hoping for a few people who are experienced in the field to be willing to respond. Thanks in advance.

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Edited by writerDW (see edit history)
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Hi writerDW

Have you read a book called The Worst Hard Time? The authors name is Egan and it was published in 2006. It is the story of the dust bowl in the 30's and in it Egan talks about the worst dust storm to hit the Oklahoma/Texas panhandle area on Easter Sunday, April 14, 1935. Eyewitness accounts stated that the dust was so thick the sky turned black and the dust carried huge static electricity charges that would knock people off their feet if they were near anything metal. Witnesses said that the static electricity in the air shorted out the ignition systems of cars. Maybe an EMP would do the same.

Terry

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My understanding is that your brother is correct and all the pre-computer cars would continue to work... as for a laugh, how about a brass car. I've joked with a friend of mine (Army Chemical Weapons Expert) that my 1910 Mitchell will be the only thing on the road around here after "the happening." RE your above comment... the last Silver Ghosts were American-made, built in 1926. RR had already begun manufacture of the New Phantom (aka Phantom I, though this name only came about after the introduction of the Phantom II)... in 1925. So, you can't have an "early 30s SG" or Phantom I for that matter because the Phantom II was introduced in 1929.

The problems with E10 gas has much more to do with gasket and hoses than it does with running. All the cars will run on the stuff but in perhaps 30s through 50s cars the alcohol attacks the rubber in the gaskets and tubing... Of course this would also effect those materials used as replacement parts in earlier cars all of which is another reason to use a really early car because they generally didn't use those materials, since most hadn't even been invented when they were built.

Edited by JV Puleo (see edit history)
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Any car with no computers should start and run perfectly.That means any car made before the mid seventies. Also, diesel engines do not require electricity to run, although modern diesels probably have computer control systems and would not function after an EMP event.

A diesel would keep running during the event, and after. A pre 1970 car would run after but the electricity in the air might interfere the ignition, not sure about that. Old military vehicles have shielded ignition.

Vintage Rolls Royce had very low compression and will run on anything. They would be a good choice for your story. They were a very tough car and could run for long periods in severe conditions with minimal upkeep. Lawrence of Arabia said for use in the desert during WW1 his favorite cars were Rolls Royce and Model T Ford.

A Rolls Royce, Model A or practically any car from the early thirties or before, will go anywhere a modern jeep will. Large diameter wheels and high ground clearance, low gearing etc. they were made for off road, or bad roads. In fact I can see going places in a Model A or Model T Ford that you could not get to with a modern, very bulky and heavy Hummvee ordinance vehicle.

The only cars sensitive to unleaded gas are those made between 1955 and 1970ish. They will run on unleaded but in a few cases, show premature engine wear after 50,000 miles. Probably not a concern to your story. A high performance car with high compression engine of that era will not run well on modern gas but a run of the mill, low compression car will be ok.

It is true that pre 1985 cars have rubber parts in the fuel system that will dissolve in alcohol eventually. But practically all these cars have been retrofitted with rebuilt fuel pumps and carburetors by now.

Edited by Rusty_OToole (see edit history)
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Some steam cars had electrical systems, Doble for example. But nothing an EMP blast would hurt.

A Stanley needs no electricity at all, but does require an experienced operator. An ordinary person could not likely figure out how to fire one up and drive it from scratch.

Ask your diesel expert friend how old a diesel you would need to get, that has no electronic controls to foul up.

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By the way an EMP event will not knock out modern civilization. It is possible to isolate all parts of the electrical grid by disconnecting them from each other.

And, we have satellites that will detect an EMP event and give us 4 to 5 days notice when it is coming. At that time it may be necessary to shut down or disconnect the grid for a day or 2 but once the event passes over, everything will return to normal.

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Funny you should ask this question. My standard response when co-workers make a comment on my old cars is that at least mine will run after the EMP (or, more importantly, after the police get EMP guns...).

In any case, with a few key exceptions, computer use on automobiles did not become widespread until the early 1980s, primarily with the GM Command Computer Control system of controlled feedback carburetors and the early TBI fuel injection systems. Cadillac did have analog EFI systems starting with the original Seville in 1976.

More importantly, the EMP will likely take out any electronic ignition modules. These became widespread in the 1974-75 timeframe (though again there were some early versions back to at least 1967). GM used electronic voltage regulators starting in the 1969 model year, which would also be fried (though the car would still run until the battery went dead). Any older car converted to electronic ignition would also be affected (does the Pertronix warranty cover EMP?). And of course there is the early Chrysler EFI system from 1958. I think there's what, one of those cars still running with the EFI system intact?

As for what car would be running, a Model T would probably resonate with most readers. I could also see an early Corvette or an old VW Bug.

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If you had a 1958 to 1970 car the EMP might blow the transistor radio but that would be about the only electronic gear they had. There were exceptions, VW Squareback (Type III) had EFI in 1968.

Don't know about the electronic voltage regulators, they were a lot tougher and handled higher amperages than a computer.

Also the body of a car acts as a Farraday cage protecting the electronics to a certain extent (unless you have a Corvette, GM minivan or other plastic body vehicle)

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