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Tail Lights: Conspiracies

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

Tail Lights: Conspiracies
Automotive History from a Different Perspective

Volume 8, Issue 6

Bill Crittenden
1 October 2020

Go to Tail Lights index

A classic Jag in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Photo by Jasper Garratt (3 more pics of this car on Jasper's page here!). Check out our current Online Collection & backlog stats!

There are a lot of conspiracy theories currently going around. Just this month I've seen multiple versions of COVID-19 conspiracies, Q Anon, Antifa, BLM, George Soros, and Bill Gates using vaccines to microchip people. If some of those seem to overlap, it's because they're all pushed by the same kind of conspiracy-minded folks, and they like to string some red yarn between all kinds of theories.

The inability to debunk any of them rests in a logical fallacy in the mind of the believer: "prove me wrong." That's not how the burden of proof works, or one would have to believe anything said for which sufficient evidence exists to disprove, and you can't prove a negative to begin with.

One way I've found to reach a few people on a few conspiracies without devolving into epistemological debate is to have them construct the conspiracy in detail.

Seeing as how this is an automotive-themed information source, and I'm fond of debunking one of the fun automotive myths of the late 20th century, I'll use the extremely high fuel mileage car theory.

The short version that sounds plausible in the sports bar is that oil companies have an interest in cars using a lot of gasoline, and they've somehow forced the Detroit automakers to not produce cars that get better fuel economy.

The major variants of the theory involve oil companies owning the Big 3 through shell companies or government agents acting on behalf of the oil companies.

The "Big Oil Controls the Big 3" theory largely relies on existing stories of businesses buying competitors just to shut them down. One example from the automotive industry actually involves General Motors' role in the decline of streetcar lines, which has a kernel of truth in GM's business dealings in some cities that resulted in legal judgments & fines against the company (but the blanket "GM single-handedly shut down the streetcar industry" isn't true because it wouldn't explain the decline of the 90% of streetcar lines that shut down without GM's intervention).

The "Big Government Supports Big Oil" theory relies on the general public's distust of government and seemingly endless true stories of actual government conspiracies, including CIA interventions in Central America to benefit U.S. corporate interests.

To make it less abstract people like to make up "it actually happened to a friend of a friend!" stories, and this theory is no different. The version here is that someone bought a brand new car and it hardly ever needed to be filled up with gas. 300 miles per gallon! But one day, as they went out to their car to go to work, a couple of men in dark suits were tinkering under the hood of the car. One of them grabbed a part from under the hood and they ran off. The car ran fine after the incident, but was down to the regular 30 miles per gallon from then on.

What no version of the conspiracy can explain is how it's possible to control not one but several industries, internationally, for decades, without a single whistleblower or leaked document. Three automakers? A handful of engineers at each? Maybe. But the entirety of the gasoline-powered world? Hell no.

Let's start with the base of the theory which states that fossil fuel engines could be more fuel efficient by an order of magnitude but are being held back on behalf of oil interests or government agents operating on behalf of oil interests.

However, the ability of an engine to gain a certain amount of work from a gallon of fuel goes beyond a few teams engineers at three American automakers. There are also teams of engineers working on fuel efficiency at smaller independent automakers which included American Motors when this conspiracy was its most highly active (as far as I can tell, the 1980s was its heyday). But automakers aren't restricted to Detroit. The conspiracy would have to include, depending on the decade it's in: BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Volvo, British Leyland, Toyota, Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Renault, Peugeot, Fiat, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Hyundai/Kia, and all of China's automakers...you get the point. Could one cabal really control all of those automakers, many of them on the lower end of the market competing to produce the most fuel efficient cars possible? In some countries with governments not only not beholden to domestic oil interests but some that would love to narrow their trade deficits by being able to provide transportation to their populations with less imported oil?

And it's not just the automakers but the engineers. How many engineers have come and gone from all of those companies without a leak? Engineers couldn't be taught that 300 miles per gallon was possible in college only to arrive at their first job in the industry and be told there's a huge conspiracy going on. What happens to the engineers that don't make it to graduation and never work in the field? So the entire field of internal combustion engineering academia would have to be part of the conspiracy.

What about smaller gasoline engines? A lot of motorcycle manufacturers also compete on efficency and include smaller manufacturers in even more countries than the major automakers. And how about diesel engines, which operate on the same basic four-cycle principle except for the source of ignition? It's easy to measure the amount of energy a gallon of fuel contains and know that if gasoline (132,000 BTU) is capable of ten times more work that we currently get out of it, then diesel (139,000 BTU) should also be capable of much more than what it currently provides. That would require looping in all sorts of diesel truck engine manufacturers.

Finally, there's motorsports. If ever there is a widely disparate group of people tinkering with their cars to get the most possible out of their engines, it's racers. From NASCAR, IndyCar, World Rally Championship, Formula 1, Le Mans, and the NHRA down to every local short track, hot rod garage, and drag strip, really creative race car engineering is coming from unexpected places almost every weekend. Sure, it usually involves dumping as much fuel and air as possible into a cylinder without breaking anything, but whether it's performance or economy a lot of the same principles of efficiency apply. They're all looking to get the most possible work out of each gallon of fuel, and while the Indy 500 is not the Mobilgas Economy Run, it has to be a consideration since races are sometimes won on fuel economy.

Oh, and wouldn't it be odd if gasoline and diesel engines produced a certain amount of highly efficient work in automobiles and trucks but that didn't carry over into generators, tractors, construction equipment, piston-driven aircraft, diesel trains, and so on and so forth? You'd have to make sure those industries were part of the conspiracy as well, or they might just figure it out and spill the beans on how it's done while trying to build an efficient gasoline-powered 120V generator. Now we're talking about having to include the engineers from almost every industry that uses fossil fuels.

Regardless of which version of the theory being subscribed to, we're talking about requiring tens of thousands of engineers from the automotive, motorcycle, trucking, diesel equipment, small aircraft, and farm machinery industries, as well as all of the related academic institutions & publications, in every major country of the world, to all be controlled for decades by one cabal without a single whistleblower or leak? Does that sound at all plausible?

To a few, even that sounds plausible. These are the kinds of people who need serious professional help for their own sake. But for the rest of us, even those who might have mused that there were some kind of connection between Houston and Detroit that kept cars hovering around 30 miles per gallon for the last few decades, this is as close as proving a negative as is technically possible.

“My gut is that most conspiracy theorists have never been project managers. Their optimism is adorable.” - Merlin Mann
Now apply this to all sorts of other conspiracies you come across. Chemtrails? Chemical manufacturing, airport workers, aircraft engineers & technicians, pilots, airline executives, and so on again for decades without a leaker or a whistleblower. Microchipping people to track them? Uh...why? We all have cell phones that connect to towers that can tell anyone with the right access at Verizon or T Mobile or Google where we are, and nobody at the NSA is interested in the extra guac you got at Chipotle. I don't even know where to begin with COVID hoaxes because they haven't really coalesced into one popular narrative, but how many doctors, patients, family members, and researchers on every continent but Antarctica would have to be involved?

This isn't a blanket statement that every "conspiracy theory" is nuts. The whole Epstein thing looks pretty shady and not too outrageously implausible: plenty of powerful people already deeply involved in a criminal conspiracy of sex trafficking with motive to protect themselves, and only a few people needed to carry out a murder...I'll personally put a pin in that one for later. Does that mean I think it was definitely murder? Heck no. It just means it's plausible and we wait for further evidence.

Real conspiracies don't require secret technology and thousands of henchmen across multiple continents working for multiple decades without a leak. Real conspiracies are sadly usually far more mundane than that, most often done for some relatively small amount of money, someone usually gets caught within a couple of years, and the first or second person caught flips on the rest of the group. You want real conspiracies? Read through the FBI & DOJ press releases or true crime stories, all of which we're able to learn about because someone got caught.


Thanks to some long time supporters of The Crittenden Automotive Library we've been able to start building a little "retirement fund!" The goal isn't the kind of retirement that involves Mai Tais on a beach...it's the kind that means I don't have to commute or clock into a day job and can spend 60+ hours a week adding content to The Crittenden Automotive Library.

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History Beyond the Bumpers

The Crittenden Automotive Library includes information from all aspects of automotive transportation and competition. This section highlights some new material added to the Library about a topic other than vehicles themselves.

September's big project was to find a repository of United States Congressional Hearings and fill in another project that was started years ago and hasn't been updated recently. Congressional hearings involve fact-finding interviews to get more information that may be used in future legislation, oversight of the Executive Branch carrying out legislation previously passed, and the Senate's confirmations of executive appointments.

Topics range from the Takata airbag recall (and NHTSA's response), the Firestone tire recall, highway funding, ethanol & alternative fuels, the Great Recession bailouts, car rental taxes, hours of service rules for truckers, Volkswagen's emissions test cheating, and self-driving car technology.

Most of the collection added to CarsAndRacingStuff.com is from 2000-2019, with older transcripts hard to find in PDF format but a couple of files date back to 1961. Added to the previously existing files were about 58,000 new pages in 400 new documents.

It would be fascinating to find some records of Congressional hearings from the 1900's, because I've read some really silly things from the early days of the motor car. Rememeber when a Congressman recently asked the CEO of Google why his iPhone was acting up, and had to be told that the iPhone was not a Google product? I'd love to see the "Ford didn't make your steam car" version of that, to see who was invited to testify and what kinds of silly questions were asked. Were they as oblivious of the new technology and its future impacts as our Congress is of the modern tech industry?

However, transcripts were not required until the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. Even when published in physical form, old records haven't yet been digitized and published in a publicly available place for us to find them.

Hopefully a newspaper record of some sort can be found somewhere, but the New York Times moved its pre-copyright archive behind its paywall. Maybe some day when I can clear a few months with little else to do I'll spring for a short subscription and get as much as I can out of it before it expires.


The Dewey Decimal System's designation for automobiles falls within the 629.2 range. This section is about Library Owner Bill Crittenden's personal collection of books, magazines, and miscellaneous papers, much of which is available for reference if it's not directly available on CarsAndRacingStuff.com.

Well, 629.2 is the Dewey Decimal number for the automobile section but this month's fun find was something from outside of it. I picked up a copy of The Road Movie Book, which is a collection of essays actually labeled on the back as a Cinema Studies text. I've listed some road trip movies along with the more traditional "car movies" in the Video Guide but I hadn't yet taken a deep dive on lists of road trip films for the guide and I had not yet discovered just how many books there were about road movies from all cultures tucked away in Dewey Decimal 791.43.

With titles like "Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie," "Crossing New Europe: Postmodern Travel and The European Road Movie," and "Open Roads, Closed Borders: The Contemporary French-Language Road Movie" it's an entirely new rabbit hole I've just discovered in the field of automobile culture!

This is far from the first book in my collection from the world of film & television. There's a few each about the Monster Garage & American Chopper television shows, a storybook and merchandise from the film Cars (we had a toddler when the film came out, so there was a lot of Cars-themed stuff around the house from 2006-2010), a book of art from the film Turbo, Richard Hammond's story of his jet car crash & recovery, and books about movie car chases from two vastly different eras (1969 & 2006).

But the whole "essays on road movies" genre is something entirely new and unexpected. As always, I will be on the lookout for more!

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About The Crittenden Automotive Library

The Crittenden Automotive Library @ CarsAndRacingStuff.com, based in Woodstock, Illinois, is an online collection of information relating to not only cars, trucks, and motorcycles, but also the roads they drive on, the races they compete in, cultural works based on them, government regulation of them, and the people who design, build, and drive them.  We are dedicated to the preservation and free distribution of information relating to all types of cars and road-going vehicles for those seeking the greater understanding of these very important elements of modern society, how automobiles have affected how people live around the world, or for the general study of automotive history and anthropology.  In addition to the historical knowledge, we preserve current events for future generations.

The Library currently consists of over 842,000 pages of books, periodicals, and documents, over 45,200 individual articles, more than 18 days of video & 24 days of audio, more than 35,200 photographs & other images, and offline reference materials including 617 book volumes, over 1,500 magazines & catalogs, and thousands of advertising brochures & documents.

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