Coal-gas Powered Vehicles

Gallery opened 8 Apr 2020

Updated 18 Nov 2023

Coal gas boat updated here
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Cars running on LPG (Liquefied petroleum gas) are not especially unusual. This page deals with vehicles specifically running on coal gas. (also called town gas)

During war-time it can be useful to be able to run vehicles on coal gas (also known as town gas, which contained hydrogen, carbon monoxide, methane, and ethylene) because it's made from, well, coal rather than oil, which tends to be in short supply. Typically it was carried around in a gas-bag mounted on top of the vehicle. The gas-bag was made of fabric, made gas-tight by some sort of coating, such as rubber solution.

I have seen it written in more than one place that said that carbon monoxide, in particular, cannot be compressed into steel cylinders, which would be much more handy than big gas-bags, because it would explode. This is completely untrue, and is probably a confusion with acetylene, which most certainly will explode when compressed. This site has some info on compressed carbon monoxide. The people here appear to have subjected carbon monoxide to shock compression to 90 GPa (900 kbar) with no mention of explosions.

I strongly suspect the real reason is that gas cylinders were rarely used is that their manufacture requires quite a lot of high-grade steel, which in war-time will probably be required for rather more important applications. That also makes them relatively expensive compared with a gas-bag. Gas cylinders are of course also rather heavy compared with a gas-bag, and that alone might have doomed the idea. It did see some use in France.

The gas-bags were made of fabric coated with rubber to make it (more or less) gas-tight. The pressures were inevitably low, partly because of the limited mechanical strength of the gasbag material, but also because hydrogen, which is an important constituent of coal-gas, (typically 50%) will diffuse through pretty much anything, including solid steel.

The extremely specialised subject of gasbag motorcycles is already exhibited in The Museum.


Left: Advert for coal-gas power: WW1?

This implies you could fill up your car from your domestic gas supply.

The exact date of this image is unknown, but the styling of the cars shown on the shelf suggests WW1 as the time, and Lyon-Spencer were active in this period. The actual name of the company appears to have been: Ernest Lyon (Gas Equipment) Ltd, 91 New Bond St, London W1.

Ernest Lyon also had premises at 89 Wigmore Street W, and 48 Old Bond Street, where they sold prestige cars by Rolls-Royce, Wolseley, Stellite, Calcott, Rover, Sunbeam, Chenard-Walker and Brasier. Info from Grace's Guide.

No other information on Lyon-Spencer has been found so far.

Left: Advert for coal-gas power: WW1?

This again implies you could fill up your car from your domestic gas supply, apparently using the garden hose.

Manufactured by balloon experts!

Left: Two cars with gas storage bags on the roof: WW2

This gives a good idea of how cumbersome the system was, with enormous gas-bags as big as the car required to give any sort of useful range.

I deduced that the image was from WW2 (not WW1) from the car styling, and definitely in England because of the Austin cars and the format of the number-plates.

However, Steve Holland, one of my correspondents, did rather better. The place is Suffolk St in Birmingham. The tram is one of the Birmingham 3ft 6in gauge fleet. Going by the number plates, the two cars are registered in Birmingham. You can see Suffolk St before and after modern development here.

Left: Car with gas storage bag on the roof: WW2

This site has more information on gasbag vehicles here.

Image from unknown source, but from the number plate and the position of the steering wheel, it's in Britain.

Left: Car with gas bag on the roof AND a towed gas generator: WW2

This enigmatic picture shows a car with gas bag and a towed gas generator, which seems something of a belt-and-braces approach. It seems unlikely the gas bag would be for storing the output of the generator, which would probably be hot. On the other hand maybe the idea was that you used coal-gas from the bag, and when it ran out, you fired up the generator, but that hardly sounds practical.

This Gallery of the Museum deals with coal-gas fuelled vehicles. There is also a Gallery of wood-gas vehicles, but none of them have a gas-generator that looks like this. It looks of rather rough construction.

Image from unknown source. From the car styling it's WW2, and since the car is parked outside Somebody Bros, it's in Britain. Gas-bag and holder by Barton; who also converted buses to coal gas. According to one source, that is Mr Barton on the left. There is still a gasfitting company called Barton.

Left: Car with gas storage cylinders on the roof: WW2

Three gas cylinders are mounted on the roof-rack of a rather battered Citroen.

Image from unknown source, but presumably in France.

Left: Car with gas storage cylinders on the roof: WW2

This is a different car but there seems to be agreement that three gas cylinders are the way to go.

Image from unknown source, but believed to be French.


Left: London bus with a gas storage bag on the roof: 1917

Note the supply pipe running from the bag to the engine.

The placard on the front of the bus roof reads: "Eat Less Food" which does not sound as if it would help civilian morale; I suspect the artist may have made that up. The other placards are not legible. That there were food shortages is in doubt; see here, which a includes poster exhorting people not to waste bread. There is another good site on WW1 food shortages here. There were certainly posters saying "Eat Less Bread".

There is a site with more information on gasbag vehicles at

Image from Popular Mechanics for Oct 1917

Left: Single-decker bus with a gas storage bag on the roof: WW2

Note the supply pipe running down from the bag to the engine. The fabric refuelling pipe is of large diameter because town gas was supplied at a low pressure, typically 200 mm water-gauge, (10-20 mBar) and so a large pipe was required to get a reasonable rate of flow.

Location currently unknown.

Left: German bus with a gas storage bag on the roof: WW2

German buses were sometimes refuelled at bus-stops; a large diameter hose with associated valve was housed in a cabinet by the roadside. No smoking signs were prominently displayed.

Left: German bus stop with gas refuelling cabinet

Note 'Rauchen verboten' ie Smoking forbidden.

Left: German street cabinet for gas refuelling

Note the large diameter hose for fast refuelling, and the pressure gauge downstream of the control valve.

Left: Gas-powered tram in Morecambe: 1918

This is a single-decker tram with a very large gasbag enclosure on the roof. Note the pipe on the right running down to the engine.

The Morecambe Tramways Co Ltd was a private concern that operated from 1887 to 1924.

What the chap with the hose and the cart is doing is obscure, and probably nothing to do with the gas-tram. The cart could not hold enough gas for any useful replenishment, and the hose (if that's what it is) is too small for a reasonable rate of gas transfer.

Image from unknown source

This description of the Morecombe tram conversion comes from The Commercial Motor for 29th August 1918:

"Several departures from standard motorcar practice were adopted in designing the cars, but the power unit is practically identical with the 55 h.p. four-cylinder engine fitted to the Leyland fire-engine. The cooling system works from both ends of the car, a radiator being placed to face the front, which ever way the car is travelling. The transmission has naturally undergone revision, hut there are some points of resemblance with that of the five ton lorry. The gearbox is modified from standard to permit of the use of all four speeds in either direction, power being transmitted to one axle by-a double reduction spur gear enclosed in an oil-tight casing with a central, enclosed propeller shaft. There is also a heavy roller chain provided from axle to axle to distribute the drive, the chain performing the functions of the side connecting rods of the ordinary railway locomotive. As there is a straight run and return on the track, and the cars are reversed at the end of the journey, double controls are provided, but the control not required is thrown out of action by simply extracting a locking pin when the driver leaves one end."

"With the beginning of this year, on the approach of the holiday season, and faced with the difficulty of not being able to keep the cars on the road when the rush of passengers presented itself, the directors of the company resolved to supplement their allowance of petrol by converting three of the four cars to coal-gas. One car is of the open "toast-rack" pattern, and to fit a gas container to this would be a difficult matter. But, with. the three covered cars, a boxwork fitting has been erected on the roof, as will be seen from the illustrations on previous page. This extends practically the full length of the car and is of considerable depth. Inside, and with its flaps strapped to the woodwork, is the gas container of a capacity of nearly 900 cu ft. The containers were manufactured by Messrs. John }Ina-pc and Sons Ltd; Burnley, and are among the largest gas containers in existence. When full they extend somewhat above the wooden framework, but when the charge of gas is partially exhausted the generous size of the solid framework prevents flapping. Filling is done at the sheds, a specially made pipe of fabric being run out of the depot and the car filled in the yard as a safeguard against fire. The filling pipe from the meter connects with a wrought-iron pipe with a screw connection, which comes out of the box portion of the container and finishes level with the canopy. Through this pipe gas is supplied to the container, and, when filling is completed, a valve is closed at the base."

"Gas is drawn to the engine through a length of flexible metallic tubing which is connected to the filling pipe immediately above the valve, find carried down to the carburetter. On the new fuel, with the engines being well up to their work, ample power is provided. There are no overhanging obstructions on the route, and, consequently, the additional height is no disadvantage. By an occasional use of petrol when the charge of gas is exhausted and a refill at convenient times—generally when the drivers are having meals during a quiet part of the day—an efficient service can now be maintained. Eight double journeys, 1.1 miles each way can be performed on one charge of gas, and thus a service probably as cheap as any in the country is maintained."

So it appears the gas-tram could do 8 x 2.5 = 20 miles on one bag of gas, which was enough. NB: Paul Burke pointed out to me that the original figure of 11 miles each way was an OCR glitch in the text, and the true length was 1.25 miles.


Left: Lorry with gas-bag storage: WW1

A conversion by the Thornton Engineering Co, which later became the Bradford Motor Car Co, building the 'Celtic' car in 1904 and 1905. The company was voluntarily wound up in June 1907.


Left: Panzer V Panther Tank with cylinder coal-gas storage: WW2

In germany during WW" fuel shortages were a major issue. Some tanks were converted to coal-gas and issued to panzer schools for crew training. Other tanks such as Panzer-IIs were converted to use wood-gas. (holzgaz in German)
See the Museum page on Wood-gas Vehicles.

Three cylinders of compressed coal-gas were fitted on each side of the rear of the tank.

Left: Panzer V Panther Tank with cylinder coal-gas storage: WW2

Another view of the same tank, showing three cylinders on each side.

Left: Panzer V Panther Tank with cylinder coal-gas storage: WW2

This Panther has only two gas cylinders on each side.

This instructional outing has not ended well.


Left: Boat with gas-bag storage: WW1

The boat is called Wendy, but that's about all that is known. The soldiers are wearing British army uniforms from the First World War. There appears to be a duct at the rear of the boat leading from the gas-bag to the engine.

Note that the gas bag weighs very little, judging by the flimsy supports holding it up. This is probably because two of the constituents of coal-gas are lighter than air; hydrogen much lighter, and carbon monoxide slightly lighter. In fact, in the nineteenth century it was common to fill balloons with coal-gas; it had only half the lifting power of pure hydrogen but was cheaper and readily available. This suggests that the problem with the gas-bag might not be holding it UP, but holding it DOWN. No confirmation of this has been found so far.

There is some lettering on the side of the gasbag, which is barely legible. I think the second line says 'Barton' a company much involved in gas conversions; see their car conversion above. They also did buses.

Source: The Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News, 3 Nov 1917. Place: Unidentified North of England pleasure resort.


From the Commercial Motor for 21st March 1918, page 17:

Novel Gas Bag Coupling.
There has been introduced to our notice during the past few days, a novel gas bag coupling possessing many interesting features. It is the invention of Mr J E Wild, who has been intimately associated with the development of coal gas for. motor vehicles since it was first advocated in the pages of The Commercial Motor. While we are not at liberty at this juncture to describe the invention in detail, we may say that it has for its object the instantaneous opening and closing of the pipe charging the gas bag upon making and breaking the connection with the gas standard attached to the main. The device, designed for 1 in. and 2 in. connections respectively, is in two parts, one of which forms a permanent fitting to the gas bag, being in fact the terminal of the charging sleeve, in place of the usual cock or plug. The second is carried and is readily attachable to the standard. These twin sections are brought together and given a slight twist, somewhat after the lines of a bayonet joint, which completes the coupling. In so doing, the valve in the permanent section is opened, allowing the gas to flow into the bag. When the container is filled, reversal of the movement breaks the coupling and simultaneously closes the valve, making a perfectly gas-tight seal. The invention is compact, light, and neat, while it is also inexpensive.

"Gas Bag Progress in Bradford.
"Among the enterprising provincial firms to further the gas fuel movement from the manufacturing side may be mentioned the Thornton Engineering Co, Humboldt Street, Bradford. One of the oldest established houses in the motor and allied trades, the Thornton Engineering Co. was quick to realize the importance and possibilities. of coalgas as a commercial fuel. For some considerable time past it had been engaged upon the production of balloons, and this experience stood it in excellent stead for the manufacture of flexible containers for motor vehicles. The firm has fashioned and fitted a number of such installations, an illustration of one of which appears on this page."

"While the war has naturally detached much of the firm's attention from ordinary motor business, the bulk of the employees being engaged upon more vital national work, the firm has contrived to supply around 300 lorries for pressing official duties. We might also mention in passing, that every attention is being devoted to urgent repair work and to the fitting of tyres, the plant and machinery being kept up to a high standard of efficiency to assure prompt attention to both steam and petrol vehicles. So far as the gas situation is concerned, the firm is equally alive. It has installed a special meter, capable of filling a container of 300 cubic ft. capacity within five minutes. It is also prepared to supply gas 'to all comers at the rate of 3s 4d per 1000 cubic ft."

"Ford Truck Gas Equipment
"We have given numerous illustrations of the conventional Ford van converted to gas. On this page we now depict what many be termed a double conversion, representing as it does one of these ubiquitous vehicles with Baico make-a-truck attachment, as carried out by the British American Import Co Ltd, 11 Haymarket, London, SW, and the familiar flexible container. The vehicle is used by Lookers' Ltd, of Manchester. It would seem to be a happy combination, the greater length of the vehicle as a result of the Baico attachment facilitating the installation of the tray, and thus giving a neater and more attractive appearance to the whole."

"Simplifying the Filling Problem.
"It would be difficult to conceive a simpler and more efficient means of expediting and facilitating the charging of gas bags than that introduced by the Croydon Gas Co. It has been evolved essentially to meet the requirements of local tradesmen, since this company; in common with many others, considers that the claims of its local patrons should receive first consideration. When the applicant has secured his official permission to use coal gas for his vehicle, he presents his car to the head office. His bag is then measured and officially stamped with its rated cubic capacity- 250, 400, 500 cubic ft, as the case may be. The owner is then given a small card or certificate on which is inscribed his name, address, description of the vehicle, it registered number, and the capacity of its gas container in cubic ft., and is completed be the signature of the acting engineer to the gas company. The owner upon presentation of this card is free to have his Container charged at any. station within the company's territory without metering the gap, This arrangement has proved eminently satisfactory to both the gas company and the user. It appreciably facilitates and expedites filling."

Left: Map of coal-gasrefuelling points: WW1

"Filling Stations Around Manchester.
"We reproduce herewith the map showing the coal-gas charging stations which are to-day available to motor vehicles running on this fuel, within a radius of 40 miles of Manchester. The preparation of this highly useful reference is due to the enterprise of Messrs. Brannen and Co, 43 Edgehill, Shudehill, Manchester, who it may be recalled have carried out many gas installations upon commercial vehicles of all descriptions. The map is produced upon such a scale as to give four miles to one inch, and the area embraced is to Leeds, Barnsley, and Chesterfield, on the east; Ashbourne, Stoke-on-Trent and Wrexham on the south; Liverpool, Morecambe and Blackpool on the west; and Lancaster and Skipton on the north."

"Altogether within this radius of 40 miles, no fewer than 77 gas supply centres are indicated. The map is completed with a complete schedule of the address of the gas-charging station at each point, hours during which the fuel is obtainable, charge, connection, together with the nearest stations adjoining any one centre. The map, which is folded to slip into the pocket, should prove invaluable for reference among gas users in the Manchester area, and should successfully prevent any vehicle from becoming stranded from exhaustion of the container. Application to Messrs. Brannen and Co. at the above address will bring a copy of this map by return post."

"At Glasgow Corporation Gas Committee the manager reported difficulty in getting petrol for the motor vans, and he was authorized to purchase two of the latest Lyon-Spencer type of gas containers."

"Ploughing on Gas at Nottingham.
The interesting experiment which has been conducted near Nottingham with coal-gas power for tractors, and to which we referred recently in The Commercial Motor, has aroused interest. So far as the fuel cost of the system is concerned, we learn that this comes out at a very low figure. To our mind it should be possible to accomplish an appreciable amount of tractor ploughing on gas, more particularly when the fields are in relatively close proximity to the village gas works. These undertakings for the most part are in the position to supply gas of high quality for the simple reason that they are not called upon to strip their gas. In such districts the gas being richer than that available in town, should give higher mileage or work per 250 cubic ft."

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