EC Environment Ministers agreed last summer that retail sales of leaded petrol should end on 1 January 2000. The ban - part of the "Auto/Oil" package of controls on vehicle fuels and emissions - will not affect sales of leaded fuel through "special interest groups", though these must not exceed 0.5% of total petrol sales.
On 12 May, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, President of the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs, told the Lords that "motorists with older vehicles, including classic cars, are deeply concerned and desperate to be fully informed about the issues and plans surrounding lead phase-out."
On current trends, he suggested, about four million motorists will still be using leaded petrol in January 2000, although only 1.5 million vehicles will actually need the engine protection provided by lead. Without the metal or an alternative protector, soft valve seats in those vehicles will wear away, eventually causing breakdown of the car.
The Auto/Oil Directive allows Member States to seek derogations from the ban for up to five years where it would cause "severe socio-economic problems" or bring no overall environmental or health benefits. Lord Montagu acknowledged that the UK's "green credentials would be very much damaged" if it sought a derogation, but nevertheless asked the Government to consider one or two years' delay to give motorists more time to test the new additives and lead replacement petrol.
Lead replacement petrol is already sold in 12 European countries, and the oil companies could make it available in the UK now, Lord Montagu said. However, they are reluctant to do so because market research has shown consumers to have insufficient understanding of the issue, and because they are waiting for completion of a British Standard to guard against competition from "wonder additives". Agreement on the standard has been held up since last year by a legal dispute.
Seven other peers - all owners of classic cars - joined in to urge the Government to clarify how the effects of the ban will be mitigated for owners of older vehicles. Estimates of the numbers of vehicles likely to be affected ranged from 300,000 to 3.5 million, to which were added garden equipment, outboard motors and other machinery.
Transport Minister Baroness Hayman told the Lords that the Government expects leaded petrol sales to decline from the present 23% to 18% of total sales by January 2000. Up to 5.3 million cars may still be using leaded fuel by that date - but "as many as" three million of these could run on unleaded either directly or with engine timing adjustments costing £15-50.
Both functions of leaded petrol - protection of soft valve seats and octane enhancement - can be fulfilled by "practical and proven alternatives" which the Government expects to be available, the Minister said. For vehicles requiring valve seat protection, oil companies are already providing lead replacement petrol across much of Europe or additives which are supplied for self-dosing by motorists and gardeners.
Experience with these new products has resulted in "few, if any", reported problems arising from valve seat wear under average driving conditions, according to Baroness Hayman. Problems have occurred only in continuous high speed or temperature conditions, but these can be avoided by installing hard valve seats at a cost of £200-400 - perhaps more for a minority of vehicles.
The Government is confident that the oil companies will respond as they have done in other countries, the Minister said. The current expectation is that lead replacement petrol will be available on the UK market "from about the middle of 1999." She was also "confident" that the legal dispute blocking the adoption of a new standard for the fuel "will be resolved in good time."
And how did the lead-in-petrol problem arise in the first place? According to Lord Montagu, it was started by an ancestor of Esso in 1928 when motorists were "beguiled by a teaser advertising campaign featuring a '20s flapper girl over the headline, 'Ethyl is coming to give you a thrill'."