Keen drivers made a beeline for Caltex stations in 1997 when the oil retailer started selling 100-octane petrol here. Singapore became the only country in Asia other than Japan to have this grade of petrol at the pumps. Caltex called it Techron 100, which was advertised with the tagline: “If octane levels got any higher, you’d need a pilot’s licence to drive your car.”
While enthusiasts were, well, enthusiastic about the fancy fuel offered by Caltex, rival petroleum companies were, naturally, less fervent.
Singapore Petroleum Company (SPC), for instance, maintained that 98 octane was adequate for motorists’ needs. Mobil went further by decrying Caltex’s move as a marketing ploy that would only increase their operating expenses (higher-octane petrol costs more to refine), which would eventually be passed down to consumers.
Competitors also said that Caltex’s move was a complete turnaround from its stance in 1991 towards high-octane fuel. That year, the company claimed that higher-octane fuel “will not improve your car’s performance, but could cost you more.”
Motoring and petroleum industry experts also weighed in with their opinions. They pointed out that the majority of Japanese carmakers recommend 92-octane fuel, and that most European cars have been engineered to take 95-octane. Besides, most new passenger cars by then had anti-knock sensors, which allow engines to operate efficiently using lower-octane petrol.
Realistically, the only vehicles that could benefit from 100-octane fuel were supercars (or aeroplanes, for that matter), which could only realise their full potential with equally “exotic” fuel.
Experts also highlighted the fact that increasing a fuel’s octane rating usually means the addition of more benzene – a carcinogenic compound. Because of this, the Ministry of Environment required petroleum companies operating in Singapore to keep their fuels’ benzene levels below 5 percent.
However, all the question marks didn’t matter to petrolheads carried away by octane figures, because they believed that higher-octane petrol would make their performance cars perform at their optimum.
Scientifically, the higher the octane rating, the more resistant the petrol is to “knocking” (premature combustion). In the case of Caltex’s 100-octane product, it managed to resist the knocking by local rivals – the firm’s total fuel sales were reported to have risen by 15 percent in the three months following the launch of its flagship product.
The controversy surrounding Techron 100 ended when Caltex withdrew it in 1999, two years after its debut, and replaced it with regular 98-octane petrol. RON 98 remains the highest grade available in Singapore today.