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Ahead of its Time – The Alcohol-Fueled Car Medals of 1901-1902

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The debate about environmental issues, natural resources, and technological improvements are more relevant than ever before. Yet, two French gold medals submitted for certification to the Shanghai, China, PCGS office are evidence of the technology that existed 120 years ago.

Using alcohol or ethanol as fuel is not new technology. Ethanol was isolated in the 12th century and was common by the 17th century as an easily burning fuel for lamps and cooking. Use of ethanol for internal combustion engines began as early as 1826. Many early cars were ethanol fueled due to its ease of access. However, the discovery of abundant oil and excessive taxes on alcohol in the United States allowed oil-based fuel or gasoline to undercut the use of ethanol fuel from becoming the dominate automotive fuel.

L'écurie Georges Richard, au Concours des Automobiles à Alcool (1901)

L'écurie Georges Richard, au Concours des Automobiles à Alcool (1901) (Collection Jules Beau. Photographie sportive). Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons. Click image to enlarge.

1902 Delahaye 6HP Type O Vis-à-Vis.

1902 Delahaye 6HP Type O Vis-à-Vis. Bonhams 2013 Sale. Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons. Click image to enlarge.

Nevertheless, before the dominance of oil-based energy, alcohol fuels seemed to be the dominate and preferred source of energy. In 1901, the French Ministry of Agriculture offered prizes for the best alcohol-fueled engines and household appliances. In 1902, the Paris Alcohol Exposition featured alcohol-powered cars and machinery, including lamps, stoves, heaters, irons, and even coffee roasters. The exhibit would travel Europe and eventually end up at the Jamestown, Virginia, Tricentennial events in the United States in 1907.

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PCGS received two medals in October at the Shanghai grading event. A gold medal prize from the 1901 Ministry of Agriculture and a 1902 Paris Alcohol Exposition gold medal.

The 1901 medal was designed by Hubert Ponscarme and it features a female effigy of Liberty on the obverse with “REPUBLIQUE FRANCAISE” above. The reverse displays a caduceus intertwined with leaves, wheat and grapes. A centered rectangle serves as a plaque inscribed “CONCOURS D’APPAREILS A ALCOOL 1901 AUTOMOBILES” around the reverse “MINISTERE DE L’AGRICVLTVRE.”

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The 1902 medal was designed by Alphee Dubois and it features two women, one pointing to a book with the word “SCIENCE” on the spine, and another female figure holding a bundle of wheat, likely representing the Greek goddess Demeter. In the background, a boy is sowing seeds and written above is “REPUBLIQUE FRANCAISE.” The reverse features a cluster of wheat, leaves, and grapes, with a central plaque. A ribbon scrolled below “SCIENCE LABEUR” and around the reverse is “MINISTERE DE L’AGRICULTURE.” The plaque reads “CON. INT. D AUTOMOBILES A ALCOOL 1902 TOURISME 3. CATEG. Ste DELAHAYE.” The 1902 medal was awarded to Delahaye, a French automotive manufacturing company founded by Emile Delahaye in 1894. The company would produce cars until it went out of business in 1954.

Today, oil-based fuels and their emissions are under scrutiny, and many people are looking for cleaner energy replacements. Some people are finding inspiration from history and pushing for more ethanol-based fuels as a solution to oil-based fuels. Ethanol fuel never actually went away. After the Arab Oil Embargo in 1973, ethanol production began again in the United States, and farmers benefitted from the production of their corn being turned into fuel. While cars still use oil fuels today, most of the fuels used in the United State are blends of both ethanol and gasoline. Ethanol is widely hailed as a major advancement toward progressing energy use from fossil fuels that produce harmful carbon dioxide emissions, but it also has its critics; some feel it is unethical for food to be turned into fuel while many go starving, and yet others argue the environmental impact is unknown at this time. Nevertheless, biofuel industries are popping up worldwide as innovators try to create a less negatively impactful energy source.

Indeed, medals like these profiled here transcend numismatics and have appeal to historians, automotive enthusiasts, and science and technology collectors. These two gold medals certified by PCGS are reminders of the important technology that has an interesting history.

Works Cited

History Tokens and Medals