Blog: Don’t carry the can… it may not be enough!

Running out of fuel is something we have all done – it’s one of life’s dismal experiences. Yet today, running out of fuel causes an untold number of problems for cars and their owners. Is it all over for the five-litre plastic can?

Words/Pictures: Mike Humble

The trusted fuel can. Is this becoming obsolete?
The trusted fuel can. Is this becoming obsolete?

C’mon folks admit it, what’s the most embarrassing thing you can experience owning a car? For me anyway, was having a traffic officers torch shone through the window of my Cortina Ghia on dark night whilst getting up to some quality `ows yer father` many years ago.

Many of us would say it’s running out of fuel, oh that sound of gurgling fuel emptying from the can into the tank after a three mile walk in the rain and the bitter shame of the passing traffic tooting their horn at your expense. In the good old days when we all drove around in compete wrecks with wonky dials, a five litre jerry can in the boot was almost as compulsory to own as a Sparkomatic graphic equaliser in the glovebox.

Some of us would also carry 3ft of garden hose just to be on the safe side (ahem) to those who have never experienced it – a mouth of four star tasted even worse than Heineken. Never knowing if I would still have my car by the following week, I would never have more than a fivers worth of juice in the tank. But after thinking about it, back in those days, £5 would last me the thick end of a week and not once did I worry about the cost of fuel – you simply put it in the tank when you needed it.

Petrol stations were enjoyable places to hang around too, I had a friend of a friend that worked in a 24hr Esso in Northampton on the night shift, after the pubs had closed and the pretty girls had gone home, we would hang around the Esso munching free crisps and sweets or bootlegging the latest albums on sale in the shop via a twin deck tape machine that lived under the counter, the blank TDK C90 tapes would come free via the Esso tiger tokens too! and somewhere I still have a bundle of them with a rubber band wrapped round.

After midnight we would laugh at another hapless person filling a can to the brim knowing well his Cavalier Mk2 Taxi would be a mile up the road, the darkness punctured by the fuzzy glow of hazard warning lights. Back in those halcyon days, running out of petrol was simply an accepted fact of driving an old crate; it spluttered to a halt, throw in a few litres, suck it through the pipe (if the battery was tired) and away you went – if only things were that simple today. After hearing my up the road neighbour yesterday telling me his recent tale of woe, it had me thinking – is the 5ltr can as redundant as those blank cassettes?

As we all know, modern stuff today is all packed full of electronic wizardry, silently keeping a watchful eye over the engines fuelling, ignition and emission control. Something so simple like running out of fuel which once would be nothing more than an embarrassing inconvenience, can and often does cause total havoc. I can in fact vouch for that after running out of fuel in a Renault Laguna sometime ago, the damn thing threw up its engine management warning lamp and after plugging in a trusty code reader, showed non other than 3 faults. For someone like me, its no big deal, I have the tools and the kit to read codes and clear them off but some garages are making a killing from the ignorance of the public, as I shall explain.

My nearby resident has recently bought an ’07 plate Astra 1.4 for his wife who after a blameless accident, has jumped back on the saddle so to speak after a few years of non driving. Daftly, she ran the car out of petrol close to home and her husband jumped to the rescue and toddled off armed with a gallon of juice in a can. After several attempts, the car refused to start point blank and the services of a breakdown company was entrusted to attend the scene.

One would like to think that breakdown firms on the whole are pretty much switched on, sadly the one in question is not. All that needs to be said is that they are known locally for being a touch clumsy and erratic with the truth. After explaining that a gallon of fuel had in fact been added, the breakdown man suggested he recovered the car to their own workshop for further investigation. One or two of you will know that a modern car needs more than a gallon in the tank after running dry, and without going too technical, modern petrol cars are fitted with a swirl pot, a gizmo that stores fuel within to make sure it does not cut out when the fuel level is low when cornering or climbing a hill – a reservoir if you like.

In the case of cars like the Rover 25/45 or Vauxhall Astra/Vectra at least 8-10 litres needed to be added before the system is primed and ready to run. The Astra in question really only needed another gallon adding at the scene, and at worst, a fault code erasing from the ECU, instead, they were charged £320 for just that and the added hassle of a 25 mile round trip to collect the car. Not wishing to rub salt in the wound, I merely suggested that the needle stays out of the red in future.

A customer of mine runs an extensive coach operation along with a recovery outfit that specialises on heavy recovery but also sub contracts for one of the leading Nationals. Running out of fuel is now by far the most popular reason for a breakdown according to them. Owing to financial worries, car owners are refusing to service them and now it seems refusing to put fuel in them either.

The cost of fuel has gone up over 30% in the past decade yet the average spend per transaction remains the same at £30, I’ll leave you to work out the maths; sufficed to say, it doesn’t add up. Using your car but adding less fuel is only going to cause one thing – a cough and a splutter and a grinding halt, with only the rip off garages or independent breakdown firms making a profit from someone’s misery!

Jim Bowen once said "keep out of the black & into the red" - I strongly advise against!
Jim Bowen once said "keep out of the black & into the red" - I strongly advise against!
Mike Humble


  1. Oh the good ole days of running my mk1 fiesta, when £5 of juice would take me about 60 miles back in 1986,Now, well there is no chance of getting near that unless your in a modern small diesel. And cars now fitted with low fuel lights normally have about 7 litres left when the lights come on, about the ammount to keep the swirl pot happy.
    But i still carry a empty fuel can in the boot just in case.

  2. Add FIAT Marea to that list Mike, Mrs E got to the stage of keeping two cans in it! However you only drove by tripmeter in that thing, the fuel gauge accuracy was up there with tarot reading…

  3. My venerable old Cavalier ran out of juice a while back, though I’m not to blame as you can enjoy a good 60 miles of motoring with the needle comfortably sat on its stop… Thank goodness my Dad was on hand, turning up (ages after I rang him) with the fuel can for his lawnmower. A fuel can that at best contained about a litre of unleaded. After a bit of cranking she fired straight up, and got me to the filling station (my original destination!) Perhaps old fashioned fuel injection systems are not so fussy. Definitely no swirl pot in this car – you know you are running out when it coughs and splutters after cornering.

    Back in my Mk1 Golf (carb engine) days I was always running out of fuel – the gauge didn’t work at all in that car as I recall, and I never had enough spare pennies to keep enough petrol in it. Now that car would never start by itself after running dry, a bump start would always get it running. Funny how I always seemed to run out within walking distance of a petrol station, and on a small hill. Those were the days 🙂

  4. I have only run out of fuel once in 25+ years of driving.
    My mini 850 had a dodgy fuel gauge so I ran out not far from home. A can added to the tank soon got me on my way, since then I always fill up when the needle hits a quarter.

    I still wonder why people wait till the light comes on and then keep driving around “got a few more miles yet”.

  5. Generally speaking, does the petrol light come on before or after the point that the swirl pot is running dry?

  6. I hate that light.

    Where I’ve moved to, I’m still unfamiliar with the local geography. So fuel stations are a mystery – I don’t know, yet, which ones are open when.

    Adding to the annoyance, they’ve got half-arsed diversion signs for a closed section of road near Barlestone. I know there’s a petrol station on the A447, but it also looks like one near Enderby, so which one is open might slip my mind.

    After driving back 20 miles of random village road diversions as the TomTom tried desperately to get me back onto the route that was blocked, without any info on the sign saying where it was blocked or where the diversion is (it’s fine if you get it on the main road, but coming from a side road – it just says “Road Closed Ahead”), the light’s on on the Honda and I’m watching the range like a Hawk. Then the petrol station is shut. ARGH.

    I think the reason people fall into this trap is understandable reluctance to fill up on the motorway. When diesel is £1.37/litre here, I’m really loathe to just FILL the car when approaching the light when the fuel is going to be £1.49/litre.

  7. I work for a breakdown company and I would say running out of fuel is quite low in the ‘rankings’
    Puncture – no spare – only an inflation kit (which rarely works and in the event of sidewall damage is useless) would be my ‘top of the pops’
    Closely followed by the infamous ‘mis-fuelled’ which drivers initially find to be hilarious for some reason, until they realise the cost and inconvenience involved!

  8. “Generally speaking, does the petrol light come on before or after the point that the swirl pot is running dry?”

    Generally speaking the light comes on when you have 20-30 miles of fuel left, obviously that depends on how you drive etc. Known as the fuel reserve, the idea is it’s a final warning “start looking for a petrol station now or you’ll run out”.

    Back in the snow last year when deliveries to filling stations were still a little behind, i drove down to Hampshire in a Transit. It had one of those econometers on the dash that tells you how many miles you have left before you run out. After visiting one station that only had petrol and another that was closed, i’d got the counter down to about 8 miles before i found somewhere that had some Diesel in stock! So i’d say the economy counters are pretty accurate on modern cars.

  9. Ah – how many times have I driven with trepidation and a frisson of excitement when the Range figure reads “—“?!

  10. A month or so back I was forced to drive the awful 10 year old Zafira hack to drive to London and back. It had already used 2 litre of oil to get to London plus about a litre of water. The ful light came on just south of Birmingham so I decided to continue onto my destination in Stoke on Trent. As I continued the fuel left dropped until it reached Zero, then it started to flash. By the time I reached home it had been flashing for 10 miles at Zero. The next day I had to drive the car back to work which is 10 miles away. I couildn’t be bothered to put any fuel in it so I added another litre of oil to the sump and went to work. I arrived at work still with the zero miles flashing furiously but it did make it. Again I couldn’t be bothered to put any fuel in it so left it. it was 6 weeks before anyone needed to drive it again by which time I had forgotten it had no fuel in it. It got about 50 yards before grinding to a halt before being wheeled back and parked under a tree. it is still there with no fuel in it.

  11. Two points:

    1. Am I right in thinking that diesels are a bigger problem when they run out than petrol?

    2. Fuel gauges are an approximate art at the best of times. do people believe range indicators on their computers?

  12. @Mike Bushell

    Diesels can in some cases be a horror to deal with if allowed to run dry. Many modern dervs have a self bleeding system where some require fuel to be added and then the fuel filter to be filled with fuel – a smelly messy job.

    The times whereby you unscrewed a bleed tap and pumped the rubber hand pump is almost history as all diesels today are high pressure common rail units.

    The answer is a simple one: simply avoid running out of fuel.

  13. I remember once running out of fuel in my Jaguar Sovereign V12 whilst sat in a line of slow moving traffic – of course with those engines one could see the fuel needle moving downwards at whatever speed you were doing! For some reason, I simply forgot I had another fuel tank to switch over to, so for a couple of minutes I sat there in blind panic, until the penny dropped, I pressed the switch and behold another full tank of petrol magically appeared to get me 100 miles down the road!

  14. The fuel light on my 618 is a definite danger sign. If it starts to light up then i can’t switch off the engine until i’m at a garage as there isn’t enough fuel in it to restart the engine. It just cranks over and coughs. Not good!

  15. I only ran out of fuel once it was in a diesel Citroen ZX.

    Was heading North on the M90 and as soon as the diesel light went on, turned around at the next junction and headed for the last petrol station I passed at Newbridge.

    Unfortunately as I braked for the traffic lights at Newbridge roundabout, it cut out and I had to push it around the roundabout to the petrol station.

    Filled it up with derv and tried to prime with the bulb and crank it. A motorist at another pump tried to be helpful and bump start it but it wouldn’t start.

    Then the assistant at Newbridge Esso accused me of not paying for a tank of unleaded (in a diesel!!?!?!?!). I then requested the telephone, and the Esso employee being as unhelpful as ever directed me to a phonebox a mile away.
    I phoned the RAC and they gave an approx. time.
    Unfortunately all the bumpstarting my car was now sitting facing the wrong way on the HGV lane. Luckily a big timber trucker from Aberdeen helped me push it out of the road.
    RAC managed to prime it properly, bleeding the filter and restarting on jump leads.

    My current car, a big thirsty Accord coupe the fuel guage doesn’t work below 1/4, so I never let it run lower than that.

  16. “1. Am I right in thinking that diesels are a bigger problem when they run out than petrol?
    2. Fuel gauges are an approximate art at the best of times. do people believe range indicators on their computers?”

    1. Yes and no, most common rail engines are fine, and many old mechanical lumps are ok too (providing you have a good battery). It used to be the case that if you ran a Diesel out it needed bleeding to get the air out of the system. It’s really a thing of the past though.

    2. They have got better though. Most modern cars are fairly accurate, although the actual gauge is only an approximation, ie. full, half full, 1/4 etc. I’ve found the computers on modern vehicles are fairly accurate though in terms of fuel consumption. The computer knows pretty much exactly how much fuel it has let through the injectors, it knows when you last filled the tank, how much a full tank holds and how much fuel has been let through the injectors since it was last filled. I think though these range indicators do gradually drift out of calibration if you never fully fill your tank, however they self calibrate when you brim the tank again. Although some might be able to do this with say half a tank.

  17. My nightmare fuel scenario was on the motorway from Brussels to Boulogne via Calais. The missis and I had been driving back from Germany to catch a ferry from Boulogne, which should have been a pleasant drive save for the fact that our ten-week-old baby simply refused to stop crying for more than two hours. Finally, finally he fell asleep, but knowing he’d wake up and start his incessant high-pitched yelling again as soon as we stopped, we kept ploughing on down the Belgian motorway heading for Boulogne.

    Then disaster struck — the fuel-warning light went on but absolutely no sign of a petrol station or even any signs of how far away the next one would be. Junction after junction went by with no sign of a watering hole. In a blind panic of being stuck in 30C heat (this was the height of summer during the 2006 World Cup) with a screaming baby and a two-year-old toddler, I drove at a perfect 56mph and toggled the airconditioning on and off, before eventually pulling off the motorway somewhere inside the French border.

    The countryside was pretty deserted — but then, in the distance was what looked like a fuel station. Expecting salvation I drove up, only to find it had been converted into a car-wash facility. More panic ensued. I managed to ask a passing local in my halting, dodgy French for directions to a petrol station, which I eventually found and filled the car up to the brim.

    The really annoying thing was that when I got back on the motorway, a petrol station appeared by magic about 2 miles after the junction. By this time the baby was screaming his head off again and the only solution was to have him on my wife’s lap on the front seat, breaking all driving regulations under the sun. At least he was quiet though.

  18. “the only solution was to have him on my wife’s lap on the front seat, breaking all driving regulations”
    So you thought your son would drive more economically? haha

    “the motorway from Brussels to Boulogne via Calais”
    aka le A16.

  19. I run out of fuel every week. As the LPG runs out the petrol takes over seamlessly..!

    Serious, only run out of petrol once, in my 1st car (Austin Metro). A kindly Land Rover owner who was following me at the time, towed me a couple of miles to the nearest garage. He also (kindly it turns out) refused my offer to brim his tank too. That would have bankrupted me at the time…!!!

  20. To be fair, the A16 is totally under-served for petrol stations… if I remember correctly, there’s only two (west-bound) between Brugge and Calais. And East-bound from Calais, you have to get to Belgium before you get to the first petrol station. That has so nearly caught me out in the past…


  21. My P6B automatic liked a drink, so much so that you could watch the fuel gauge needle moving inexorably towards the red line while driving at even moderate speed! It also had a reserve tank operated by a pull-out control on the dash (similar to the choke control). That was in the days when you could still half-fill the tank on a fiver. I don’t remember running out in that car though – it would have been too heavy to push far!

  22. My BMW E60 pings at me with “60 miles” to go then again at “30 miles” to go. Furthermore, the big glowing fuel pump warning logo obliterates the clock on the dash panel and the centre screen too. Come to that, as soon as ANY warning light comes on, the clock vanishes. It’s bloody annoying. not quite as annoying as a Lotus Elise; that doesn’t have a clock!

  23. Now I can’t remember if my P6B had a reserve tank or not!

    But I do remember owning it during the “fuel protests” when everyone ran out of unleaded and diesel. I could use LRP, so my 13mpg beast was swanning about (with spare jerrycans in the boot) whilst everyone else was stranded…

  24. haha, yes i did that with my 1990 K-Series metro, no cat so it could use either and there was still plenty of LRP left after the ULG ran out!

  25. Never run out of fuel me. My first car had a fuel gauge which after a total fill up would read 1/2 full after just a few miles. Always been extra careful ever since. Never let my tank drop below 1/4 full, ever. With fuel prices as they are now, this policy makes trips to the petrol station a bit less painful!! Also, although with modern cars this can’t be the case, I always get the impression a car runs better on a full head of fuel.

  26. Only once have I run out of fuel and that was in a Metro on a driving lesson with a well known British Motoring School.
    The instructor quickly retrieved the 5 litre (or equivelant) can out of the boot and re-fueled.
    All part of the lesson, I think.

  27. indeed true about de R25’s. The first week I owned my streetwise I ran it almost dry, the total lack of power led me to realise I probably drained my tank too much. Stopped her, got 5 ltrs of Fuel but the pump would’t prime anymore. Took the AA 15 minutes to figure out it only needed 5 ltrs more fuel to prime…
    Better not drain the tank, a lot easier!


  28. The best rule of thumb is to put in fuel when the gauge is hitting the 1/4 tank left point. Besides not running out of fuel, you are less likely to pick up junk in the bottom of the tank that will clog filters or screw up the fuel pump. Running out of fuel can also mess up injectors as don’t get the lubercation from the fuel flowing through them. Running out of fuel can be very costly.
    I would also add that in many countries you cannot carry by law any fuel in a can in your car. (unless just when buying some for use for your lawn mower at home).

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