Thirty-nine years ago, my mother got married. The daughter of a barber wed a builder's son and, for a small town in northern England, it was a big occasion. But there was a problem. Unable to afford a horse-drawn carriage or a proper limousine, the bride was to be taken to the church in a taxi-with a diesel engine
It was the word 'diesel' that caused the uproar. For my grandmother (now deceased), this was all that was wrong with post-war Britain. How could you climb the social ladder if your only child was to be taken to her wedding in a belching, farting monstrosity?
In my grandmother's eyes, a diesel taxi was only marginally better than my father's suggestion, which was to arrive at church sitting in the bucket of one of his excavators. This would have scored points for novelty, while also providing some free advertising
I mention this anecdote because it epitomized the British attitude to diesel fuel until the end of the last century. Even in the late '90s, diesels were the preserve of disgruntled company car drivers and-worse still-the French. A diesel was fine for Johnny French who only worked a 30-hour week, the rest of us had to get on.
In 2000, diesels accounted for just 16.9 percent of the new car market in the UK. But by 2006, that figure had risen to 38.3. And it's increasing all the time. In some sectors, such as SUVs and MPVs, diesel is the dominant power source-over 80 percent of Range Rovers sold in the UK now stop at the 'other' pump. In Europe, where the fuel tax structure is biased against gasoline, diesel has a market share approaching 55 percent.
There are two reasons for this. The first is fiscal: a (US) gallon of fuel in London now costs about $8.10. At these prices, a 20 percent improvement in fuel economy equals lots of beer money. And because diesel cars emit less carbon dioxide, there's also less tax to pay.
The second reason is even more compelling: a quantum leap in turbodiesel technology. The introduction of common rail and direct injection systems has revolutionized diesel power. For the first time in history, we now have turbodiesel engines that are faster, quieter and more frugal than the gasoline alternative.
Take the BMW 530d. It costs just $800 more than the 530i and although it generates 36 hp less, it offers 133 lb-ft more torque and is massively faster in the mid-range. For the enthusiast, the diesel is the better car. And that's before taking fuel savings into account.
Living in the UK, I've become used to the steady drip-drip of American culture. In the penetration of McDonald's, Starbucks, gun crime and hardcore pornography, we're about a decade behind the US and have been since the end of the Second World War. But in the case of diesel, the situations are reversed. There are strong parallels between the US today and where the UK was in 2000.