This week’s episode of EnergyNOW includes a segment on a car built by a Philadelphia inventor in 1932 that, in response to rising gasoline prices, runs on coal.

And while coal as a motor fuel didn’t really catch on, Americans’ love for putting unnecessarily large smokestacks on our vehicles remains as strong as ever:

But I digress.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time that automakers experimented with coal as a fuel source. Many of the earliest attempts at building a motorized carriage employed steam engines powered by wood or coal, such as this 1884 DeDion steamer that predates Karl Benz’s gasoline-powered Motorwagen:

YouTube video

Steam engines remained relatively common in early automobiles, most notably the Stanley Steamer, which in the early 1900s outsold gasoline-powered cars and set a land-speed record in 1906. These steam engines, though, were more likely to be fired by kerosene than coal.

Of course, electric cars, to an extent, also run on coal, depending on the power mix of the grid that they’re plugged into. Critics often conflate this to suggest that EVs are therefore dirtier than gasoline cars in terms of total emissions — a claim that an executive from Nissan recently dismissed as “complete bullshit.” (And indeed, the data seem to be on his side, particularly if you also factor in the electricity needed to extract and refine gasoline in the first place, which a lot of back-of-the-envelope calculations omit.)

But that doesn’t mean coal can’t or won’t be used as a motor fuel. The Swiss company Vitol recently signed a contract to distribute 10,600 barrels of synthetic gasoline per day from a proposed coal-to-liquids plant in Wyoming.

In other words, the coal-powered car might not be a thing of the past after all.

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.