Think you need a hybrid to get great mileage? Try a souped-down 1959 Opel T-1.

In another tribute to high-mileage car hacks, a man named Evan McMullen rediscovered a 1975 Guiness-World Record-Setting car that got 376.59 MPG.

It was wasting away in a museum in Florida:

That number doesn’t come from some manta ray-shaped, wind tunnel-vetted carbon fiber space car. No, it’s from a chop-top, steel-frame 1959 Opel T-1 (think melting jelly bean, but uglier). And the record was set in 1973 in a contest sponsored by Shell Oil Co.

Unfortunately, that contest-winning mileage number occurred on a closed track at a steady 30 mph. Not exactly highway speeds. Nonetheless, it makes you wonder about the evolution of automobile manufacturing in the last 50 years:

But McMullen’s biggest question is why? Why didn’t this technology find its way into the mainstream? Why did the car sit unremarked, unremembered for so long?

“If this is something they could do back in the 1970s, what happened?” he asked, poring over paperwork, including patents, for the car.

“Certainly in 34 years we could do something to make this work.”

In reality, it’s not that hard to get better mileage: drive slower, reduce weight, and increase aerodynamics. None of this seems to particularly interest Detroit, since better mileage tends to increase the amount of time people own their cars before upgrading.

But next time you shop for a new car, instead of upgrading, you might consider downgrading.

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SeattlePi.com (Feb. 20, 2008): Hybrids, meet your rival — it gets 376.59 mpg