When manager Dennis O'Sullivan started working with the Blue Star Gas Company in Garberville, he drove an International Harvester manufactured in the mid-1960s. The vehicle remained in service for roughly 50 years before being retired and restored in 2007. Since then, it's won more than half a dozen awards at car shows and the truck continues to frequent parades throughout the region. But as a result it's currently out of town on an indefinite basis.
"Old No. 44 has served us well, even in retirement," says Jeff Stewart, a third-generation owner of the company.
In addition to No. 44's marketing and aesthetic values as a classic "bobtail," it's also way ahead of the alternative-energy curve. It's "propane autogas-powered," meaning that the truck runs on the same compressed propane it was built to deliver. The main tank can carry 2,800 gallons with an average fuel-efficiency of 5-7 mpg, so it's capable of traveling upwards of 14,000 miles without refueling.
The plumbing isn't configured for that, but it could be -- and has been in the past. Old No. 44's engine is currently fueled from a separate tank so they can keep track of the number of gallons consumed for tax purposes.
Since it's purchase in 1966, the Stewart Family says the bobtail has traveled more than a million miles on the rough and often unpaved roads of Northern California and Oregon. Bill Stewart, Jeff's father, says the vehicle's longevity can largely be explained by its fuel source
"The wear on an engine using autogas is half of what it is with gasoline, so you get a tremendous number of miles before you have to overhaul the engine," Stewart says. "It works best with fleets, where we put in the infrastructure and tank and service-station meter."
The meter becomes necessary for the same reason Old No. 44 couldn't run on the 2,800-gallon tank it once used to make deliveries. Fuel taxes are charged by the gallon -- so commercial operators have to keep an accurate count of gallons consumed, and keep that count separate from the gallons of propane sold to customers. Gas stations make that easy enough by putting meters on the fuel pumps, but the infrastructure isn't really there yet for vehicles fueled by propane autogas.
Despite several apparent advantages propane powered vehicles have, the local Blue Star Gas location doesn't know of any clients that are using their propane to power cars. Stewart says California's regulatory environment is an obstacle to wider implementation.
"It's premature at this time. But no question, it's coming," Stewart says. "It costs about half as much as gasoline."
In addition to cost savings associated with propane autogas, it doesn't have to be imported.
Even Santa Claus enjoys driving Old No. 44, which has been in service for Blue Star Gas for over 50 years.