IF you visit Richard Fuchs, an inventor with six patents — “all income generators,” he says — you are likely to see a few curious things.
Mr. Fuchs might walk you to the back patio and ask you to push a metal switch, which automatically opens an umbrellalike line for drying clothes.
In the kitchen, you would encounter a sink that operates without faucet handles. Nudge the left cabinet door below the sink with your knee to get hot water. Push the right cabinet for cold.
There are other inventions, devices and models lying around his modest suburban house, but you are most likely to end up in the garage where he parks his 1971 Ford Mustang, which has gone more than 600,000 miles and counting.
And counting is what Mr. Fuchs does.
Actually more than count — he has two 2-inch-thick binders in which he has logged every mile, every trip, every hour and every fill-up relating to the car. Indeed, counting does not do Mr. Fuchs’s endeavor justice. While the Mustang packs a 351 cubic-inch Cleveland V-8 with a four-barrel carburetor, Mr. Fuchs has spent most of his life in pursuit of low fuel consumption.
“First drive, 13 miles, from the dealership,” reads the first line of the log, which included details of his first fill-up. “I averaged 16.3 miles per gallon and spent $6.81 on gas.”
Wearing a loose red-and-green flannel shirt and dark brown corduroy pants, Mr. Fuchs sat at a table in his clean, sparse kitchen, hunched over the log as if he were analyzing satellite data. He is 81 years old and “speeding up,” he says. The log charts are neatly delineated in columns for date, mileage, fuel economy and notes. He brought out a magnifying glass.
“Here, I changed the rear axle ratio from 3.25 to 2.75,” he said. “I guessed I would get a 12 percent improvement. That’s what I got.”
There was a vacation in 1974. “Gas at Youngstown, I got 18.85 miles per gallon, driving between 60 and 70 miles per hour,” he said softly, running his index finger down the page. “Gas at Joliet, 19.4. Gas at North Platte, Neb., 16.8. Gas at Rock Springs, Wyo., 23.4. Gas at Rigby, 20.6.”
He went to Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border. “I got 20.3,” he said. “The next time I gassed up, I got 19.5.” “I went to Bremerton, Wash., where my brother was stationed and got 20.5.” He moved his finger down the page, and one can almost see Mr. Fuchs roaming the west in the black Mustang. “Here, I gassed in Kansas City and used the air-conditioner for four hours and got 22.5.”
Keeping the engine clean is an important factor in fuel efficiency. Every once in a while, Mr. Fuchs takes the entire ignition system out of his car (spark plugs, plug wires, distributor and ignition coil) and hooks the various parts up to a diagnostic machine he keeps in his basement. (He built that machine, too.)
It basically provides an EKG for the ignition system. Thumbing through his log, he came across a detailed graph dotted with points, all connected by lines drawn in pencil and red ink.
Mr. Fuchs has a tendency to stick his finger in tailpipes — of his own car, as well as random selections in parking lots — to see if they’re clean.
“I do it for three reasons,” he said about his all-consuming interest in fuel economy. “First, it’s a challenge. Second, it’s educational. Third, I’m interested.”
Mr. Fuchs has always built things. When he was a child he built scooters. “I made one out of a Rollerfast bicycle, put in a Briggs & Stratton engine,” he said.
He built two cars before he was old enough to drive and parked them in front of his family’s apartment. “The chief of police lived upstairs,” Mr. Fuchs recalled. “He saw the cars and told me, ‘I know you’re not old enough for a driver license, but get plates.’”
Mr. Fuch’s first solo invention was a putty remover. “It takes out one foot of hard putty in a minute and a half without damaging the wood,” he said. It was a success, paving the way for a career as a full-time inventor. His other inventions are an ignition diagnostic gauge and an electric knife sharpener, for which he recently reacquired the rights and is making improvements. Asked how he became an inventor, he paused and said, “The thing is, there has to be a better way.” He smiled.
Mr. Fuchs bought his Mustang new in 1971. “I paid a dollar a pound,” he said. The car weighed about 3,400 pounds. His bill of sale, which is the first page in the first binder, lists the price he paid: $3,310.
The car is almost completely original, he said. Though not restored, it is kept in great shape. A small crease mars the trunk lid, and there are some cracks in the paint here and there. He took out the back seat some time ago (“They’re useless unless you’re four or five years old”) and replaced the front ones with Volvo seats from a junkyard. In the trunk, Mr. Fuchs installed a second gas tank to give him a total of 40 gallons of capacity.
“Here I did local sloppy driving, averaging 58.11 miles an hour, and got 21.86 miles per gallon,” he said. “Dragging my little trailer with a boat in the back: 58.63 miles an hour and got 18.57 miles per gallon.”
He went on: “Here’s a weird one. Local driving and trip to Mystic, the seaport, for the boat show” — 49.38 and 18.43.
To date, Mr. Fuchs has driven the Mustang a total of 619,284.5 miles in 12,339.5 hours (an average of 50.2 miles an hour over that span). He said that when he first bought the Mustang he expected to drive it for 400,000 miles.
But why would someone look for fuel economy in a sporty car with a V-8 engine?
“Every man has his weakness,” he said. “It can be booze, women, gambling. I have a weakness. I can’t refuse a challenge.”