by Jim Benjaminson
October in Canada would seem to be a rather strange time to purchase an open roadster. True, there may have been a few days or weeks of “Indian Summer” left, but soon cold north winds would start to howl and the landscape would be buried in snow for the next half year or so.
But for Charles Nelson Pogue, there was something special about the bright red 1929 Chrysler Imperial roadster sitting on the Montreal Chrysler dealer’s showroom floor. Pogue, who had just turned 31 the previous September, had to have the car. He had just been granted his first patents on an amazing device for an automobile, a device that was sure to bring him fame and fortune, so this car would be fitting tribute to a man of his stature.
This was the big Chrysler – the Imperial L-80* series, powered by a 309-cubic-inch six-cylinder “Red Head” engine churning out 112 hp from its 3 5/8” x 5” bore and stroke.
A regular 1929 Chrysler Imperial roadster sold for a pre-Depression $2,895, but this car carried a semi-custom body by Locke, price tag unlisted. One of only 67 built, the Locke-bodied Imperial was a rare sight on the Canadian prairies — or anywhere else, for that matter.
Although purchased in the late fall of 1928, the car was considered a 1929 model – it was a sort of “in-between” model that Chrysler designated the L-80*. 1926 and 1927 Chrysler Imperials were known as the E-80 series. The ’28 Imperials became the L-80, while the ’29 and ’30 models were referred to as the L-80*, the asterisk indicating improvements and refinements added since the introduction of the L-80. As an “in-between” model, the roadster body sat atop the frame rails, like the 1928s, while later ’29 bodies straddled the rails.
Still, it carried the new ’29 thin-line radiator shell, a design feature Chrysler called “a daring and refreshing change in motor car design,” and scalloped upper hood panels. Riding on a 136-inch wheelbase, it was not a small car by any means. But it could easily seat four people – two in the passenger compartment and two in the rumble seat. And this was no ordinary rumble seat: the Locke roadster featured a second door on the right side that allowed easy entrance or exit. No climbing up over the fender to step into the rumble seat on this car.
Upon delivery of the car, Pogue climbed behind the wheel and headed the big Imperial westward to his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Here the car would spend the remainder of its days – and would ultimately figure into “The Legend.”
You may be asking yourself why does Charles Nelson Pogue seem familiar? It’s not a name that trips easily off the tongue so there has to be something special that’s triggering a bell somewhere in the back of your mind. Then it strikes you. Charles Nelson Pogue – inventor of the Pogue carburetor. The Pogue “200-mile-per-gallon” carburetor. The “mystery carburetor” supposedly “bought up by the big oil companies and suppressed” for all these years. Yes, the Imperial belonged to THAT Charles Nelson Pogue. [There was actually an earlier 200 mile per gallon carburetor — read about it]
To tell the story of Charlie Pogue’s Imperial, we have to tell the story of Pogue the man, even though little is known about him. We do know he was born somewhere near the Odanah district of northwestern Manitoba September 18, 1897. For a time, he farmed with his brother George until a disastrous fire destroyed the farm house he shared with his wife Elsie, after which the couple moved to Winnipeg. Where he was educated remains a mystery, but after moving to Winnipeg he began experimenting and inventing. Winnipeg would be where his legend as an inventor took root.
Pogue began experimenting with his ideas as early as 1919, but it wouldn’t be until the late 1920s that he would register his first patent. It’s claimed during his lifetime he was granted over 300 patents, with patents granted in Canada, Great Britain, and the United States. The most controversial of these patents was for the Pogue carburetor.
Pogue’s interest in carburetion, it is claimed, came from an incident that happened while he was still farming. The story is told that a can of gasoline had been placed alongside the field he was working so he could refill the tractor he was using. As the heat of the day built up, the gas in the can expanded and eventually exploded. It was then that Pogue developed the theory that if gasoline could be completely vaporized from its liquid state, it would burn more efficiently in an internal combustion engine.
Working out of a shop under the bleachers of the Winnipeg Ampitheatre owned by his friend (and financial backer) C. J. Holmes, Pogue designed and built the first Pogue carburetors. Although no records exist of how many of the original carburetors were made, local historian Jack Mavins believes the number to be only five, three in the Winnipeg shop and two in Toronto. Regardless, none of the original Pogue carburetors are known to exist, as Pogue himself said during a 1953 interview.
While his experimentation with carburetors was going on, Pogue had the Imperial customized with what many described as the “bull-nose” front end. The custom design totally destroyed any resemblance of the roadster’s Chrysler heritage. Photos taken in 1936 show the car had been modified by that date; former owner Jerry Madden claimed the work had been completed as early as 1933.
The big Imperial was modified again, around 1942, to use sealed beam headlamps. Perhaps Pogue didn’t want to give the impression his experiments were sanctioned by Chrysler, but the car definitely stood out from the crowd.
While the first patent on the Pogue carburetor was granted in April 1928, work continued and patents for “improved” versions were granted in both Canada and the United States until early 1936.
Pogue’s carburetor worked on the principal of vaporizing gasoline using exhaust gases. There were other manufacturers who offered some sort of “pre-heating” of the fuel supply, and considering the low grades of gasoline available at the time, Pogue’s ideas seemed to be valid.
Sometime in 1936, Ed Green, a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, wrote about Pogue’s amazing high-mileage carburetors. It was at this point in time that all hell broke loose concerning the Pogue carburetor. While the Green article was written from a proper interview with Pogue, the story as picked up by other newspapers and magazines soon took on a magnitude of their own. Each subsequent story was filled with wild tales of unheard of mileage. One story related that a “small V8 coupe” had been driven 1,879 miles from Winnipeg to Vancouver averaging 130 miles per gallon. Another told of a Winnipeg car dealer who claimed to have driven a Pogue-carbureted coupe 216.8 miles on one gallon of gasoline. Another reported driving a Pogue-equipped car 26.2 miles on a pint of gas ... and so the stories flew.
It was claimed that the Canadian stock exchange took a nose dive when these announcements became public. This part of the story was partially true – the stock market fell when the Canadian government announced it would no longer subsidize Canadian oil companies in their search for oil because it was no longer economically feasible to support them with an oil glut on the market – a move that just happened to come at the same time as reports of a “200 mile-per-gallon carburetor” surfaced.
Pogue’s Imperial was not left out of the stories. The car pictured here was claimed to have been driven from Winnipeg to Vancouver using just 15 gallons of gas.
Deluged with inquiries from prospective investors, Pogue claimed he had to hire a secretary just to handle the mail and answer the phone, and his sudden fame did not go unnoticed by Winnipeg’s criminal element. The August 14, 1936, edition of the Winnipeg Tribune carried a story and photos of Pogue and the Imperial taken at the Ampitheatre workshop, where according to the Tribune, “thieves carried off three models (of the Pogue carburetor) sometime Wednesday, by breaking in through the roof.” Pogue was quoted as saying they “will be of no use to the thieves, but their loss will cause great inconvenience and loss of time in his work.” No record can be found that the thieves were ever arrested or the carburetors recovered.
Following the break-in and thefts, Pogue moved to Toronto where he continued his experiments. He’s thought to have returned to Winnipeg sometime in 1937 after a falling out with John E. Hammell, a Toronto mining millionaire who, it is claimed, bought the rights to the Pogue carburetor and had been bankrolling Pogue.
He remained in Winnipeg until after World War II when he moved to Montreal and became involved in building oil filters for heavy machinery, not returning to Winnipeg until his wife died sometime around 1973. Pogue remained in the city until his own death. During these years he only granted two interviews, one to I. T. Galoney, for the September 1953 issue of Cars magazine and the other in 1954 to William J. Getty Jr. of the Sun Oil Company.
Galoney wrote that Pogue “denied he ever claimed the invention offered 200 miles per gallon – or even half that.” The interview ended when Galoney asked Pogue if he had been “bought off.” Pogue replied, “No,” and then stated he didn’t want to talk about it any more.
In the 1954 Getty interview, Getty wrote “... it was clear that if Mr. Pogue was bitter about anything, it was the treatment he had been given by reporters. He explained that every time he talked to a reporter and tried to straighten out the facts they only became more distorted.” They would be the last interviews Pogue would grant.
Despite the wild claims of phenomenal mileage, no official tests were ever done. Pogue learned to shun the media and virtually became a recluse. All future articles on Pogue and his carburetors, although loosely based on Green’s 1936 article, have resulted in a plethora of misleading articles over the following 70 years.
Charles Nelson Pogue spent his last years in what was described as a secure retirement home in Winnipeg, where he could remain out of the limelight. Even in death, Pogue shunned reporters and newspapers. No obituary appeared in the local papers when he died on February 15, 1986.
Pogue continued to experiment with carburetors for many years, forming a Canadian company that existed until 1952, although his name never appeared on any of the company records. These carburetors were manufactured under the “Winnipeg” name, with perhaps as many as 400 being assembled (in the 1953 article, Pogue claimed 200, but Winnipeg carburetors #344 and #378 are known to exist). Still experimenting with fuel vaporization, the carburetor used hot water from the vehicle’s cooling system to provide heat, rather than the Pogue’s hot exhaust gases. The principals were the same, though neither design proved to be practical for commercial use. While the idea had seemed sound in the early days, improvements in gasoline, including the addition of lead to prevent pre-ignition, helped spell doom for the Pogue concept.
During World War II the Canadian government whisked Pogue to a government location where he fitted various carburetors to tanks and trucks, but again, none proved to be successful and after six months, Pogue returned to Winnipeg.
Exactly when Pogue disposed of the customized Chrysler Imperial L-80* roadster is unclear. Over the years, the car changed hands many times, until it was purchased by its 12th owner, Robert Rostecki, in 1988. Many area collectors had shunned the car, because of its bull-nose custom treatment and because the car was in terrible condition, both mechanically and structurally. One owner claimed the 112-hp Chrysler couldn’t keep pace with a 20-hp Ford Model T during a tour. It was at this point the engine was torn down, revealing burned valves and a cracked block.
Upon receipt of the car in 1988, Rostecki began searching for parts needed to restore the L-80* to its former glory. The Pogue bull-nose front end had to go, and there was no way to resurrect the fenders, which had been welded into one unit. After much searching, a donor car was located in Wisconsin – an L-80* sedan that had been cut into a truck during the war years. The Wisconsin car donated its front fenders, thin-line radiator shell, headlamps, and engine.
“Our ’29 roadster had a Pogue carburetor at one time, this is known for sure,” Rostecki reported, “when we opened up the engine, we found 36 hairline cracks in the block – all from being run too hot using Pogue’s carburetors.” (In the 1953 Cars interview, Pogue “admitted that his own automobile ran for ten years on one of his carburetors.” Although he didn’t specifically name the brand, we can assume he was referring to the Chrysler). Along with the original Pogue sheet metal, a manifold modified to fit a Pogue carburetor resides in Rostecki’s garage.
During the restoration of the roadster, the L-80* parts sedan revealed an interesting secret. The sedan had supposedly belonged to a local bootlegger. Most sedans were equipped with a 4.08 rear end ratio, but this one had a 3.77 which would have made it faster – and harder – for authorities to catch if in pursuit. The 3.77 was retained for the Pogue roadster. In addition, the roadster was retro-fitted with a four-speed transmission from a 1930 Chrysler. Like all Chryslers of the era, the car has 18-inch wheels, hydraulic brakes, and a six-volt electrical system.
Rostecki’s Imperial L-80* is no trailer queen. When its restoration was completed in June 1995, with just 18 miles under its belt, the car was driven to Newport, Rhode Island, to participate in a cross-country tour, racking up 8,600 trouble-free miles before it returned to its Winnipeg home. To date the car has been driven 32,000 miles including its annual pilgrimage to Iola this past July. Rostecki said the Imperial is driven “because, like a horse, the car has to earn its keep.”
Reflecting on Pogue, Rostecki continued, “It is regrettable that very little, if any, of Pogue’s records exist, particularly concerning the results of his experiments, his reasoning, and results. He did leave his mark in the field of automotive engineering, but he was a tormented and disappointed man at the end. I am pleased that we were able to acquire and restore Charles Nelson Pogue’s 1929 Chrysler Imperial to the originality that it had when he left Montreal with it in late 1928. We are only caretakers as long as we are able to, we take nothing with us.”
Charles Nelson Pogue went to his grave with many secrets. His legacy of patents can be found in both the Canadian and U.S. patent offices and include such diversified items as an “emergency device for stopping automobiles,” an “oil-refining device,” highway “route indicators,” “road-leveling equipment,” and even an “aeroplane."
Although no longer equipped with a Pogue carburetor, Charles Nelson Pogue’s Imperial L-80* serves as a reminder and tribute to the man who bought it new – and to Bob Rostecki, who undertook an 8-year “labor of love” to bring the car back to its former glory.
Some journalists might have been confused by earlier reports of Roy Marks’ “200-mile-per-gallon carburetor,” which really could have been a 200 mpg carburetor — under conditions nobody would endure today, or, for that matter, at the time it was made.
As for the stories Pogue was “bought out by the big oil companies,” while they make a good fireside tale, the truth is simple. It never happened. The carburetors simply were not economically feasible.
Pogue’s patents, like all patents, are open to the public. A patent only protects an idea, and Pogue’s ideas are now free for the taking if anyone wants to pursue them. For the record, the Pogue carburetor patents are:
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