This is the first of three blog posts chronicling my adventures in acquiring a veggie-powered vehicle.
I decided to buy a veggie-oil-powered “grease” car this past Spring. My colleague, Libby MacDonald, a recent grease convert, proselytized about the virtues of driving carbon-free. Plus, her grease car was a honey – a gold Benz turbo diesel wagon, 80’s vintage, and in great condition. I wanted one as much for its style as for its environmental bona fides. With help from Libby’s friend, Pat Keaney of Boston’s Green Grease Monkeys, I searched for an old Mercedes diesel to convert.
I loved the idea of a family project, something we could all do together for the environment. My sixteen year old, James, has a real knack for technology of any kind. I knew he’d want in on the mechanics of a green car. We would buy a grease-filtering machine, let the kids pick up the veggie oil from local restaurants, and pay them instead of the greedy oil companies for our fuel. I figured that this plan gave all the incentive needed for my entrepreneurial almost-fourteen-year-old, Calvin. My ever-parsimonious husband, Phil, would be sold on simple economics: a cheap car and free fuel. I couldn’t wait to share the news with my family!
Their response was overwhelming. Husband, Phil: “No thanks, not up for a new project. Busy keeping your regular gas tank full.” (Not fair, I fill up at least once every six months!) Son, James: “We are the only black people in the neighborhood; we can’t have a car smelling like fried chicken!” (But your friends will be so impressed with your commitment to the environment!) Calvin the entrepreneur flatly rejected my offer to “put him in the oil business”: “I’m interested in consumer products, not hauling grease.” As I tried to convince my kids that their friends would be impressed, my indignant sixteen year old retorted, “If this is going in the direction that grease mobiles will be a chick magnet, stop now.” My mother-in-law (who lives with us), was quite excited when I told her I was looking to buy a Mercedes, but quickly regained her composure when I told her that the Mercedes would be at least twenty-one years old.
I assiduously ignored them all and continued my quest. My strategy was to win over my cheap husband and let him recruit the rest of the naysayers. I plied him with stories about grease fuel for the asking and the quality of German engineering. I searched the web for brilliant Mercedes deals. Then, Pat Keaney sent me a listing for an already-converted 1983 turbo diesel wagon down on Cape Cod. It was ice-white and its owner, a retired science teacher, kept it meticulously clean and well maintained. With only a few small patches of rust, and a price tag of $3500, it was a dream. My ever-cheap spouse, intrigued by the price, agreed to drive down to take a look at it.
We planned a day to have lunch in one of the Cape towns and check out the car. The owner took us out for a forty-minute test drive. He reviewed with us the process of driving a grease car. First, start and warm up the car on regular diesel. When the car gets to operating temperature (eighty degrees fahrenheit), toggle the switch on the gear box to change to veggie oil. A minute before turning off the car, toggle the switch back to pull all of the veggie oil out of the small fuel injectors into the engine. Cold veggie oil in the fuel injectors can clog the engine.
Phil went first. Once the car warmed up, he switched from diesel to veggie. Inside, it smelled faintly of something good that I cannot describe. “It’s not a race car,” the owner admonished when I first called him about the car. He was right, but I liked how big and substantial it felt. I could imagine my James, a newly minted sixteen-year-old driver, being quite safe in this thing. We bought it on the spot.
The kind seller put us in touch with a local European car mechanic who is now poring over the car in obsessive detail. Every few days, I get a call from the shop describing all that they have inspected, all that they have found, and all of the technology, quite innovative in the 1980s, that is still in good working order. I carefully transcribe all of his reports into a special red notebook I have labeled Grease!, the exclamation point meant to express the hope that this venture will not be a disaster. They will have it ready for me next Friday.
Now I am beginning to have doubts and buyer’s remorse. What am I thinking? Phil is right that I never can manage to keep the regular gas tank filled. I don’t even know if diesel is easily available near my house. I am buying a twenty-seven year old car that will inevitably be a project. Libby tells me to upgrade my AAA subscription to elite so I can be towed for free to and from anywhere.
In the meantime, my husband, surprisingly, is really warming up to the project. He’s gone to a local chicken wing joint and made arrangements to pick up their used grease. According to plan, he is harassing the kids to take the deal I’ve offered and go into business. He’s even hinted at an inclination to reduce their allowance if they refuse to try their hand at it. We’ve started sharing the news with friends and one or two are interested in finding a grease car for themselves. They agree to buy fuel from the kids if they set up production. One of James’ dear friends, Lily, a savvy and stylish girl with gorgeous auburn locks, tells us that she thinks it is “way-cool” to drive a grease car.
We’re on our way! Doubts be damned. I’m going to bring the thing home and start driving it.
Photos by Dayna Cunningham
Dayna Cunningham is the Executive Director of the Community Innovators Lab. She has over twenty years of experience working in democratic engagement and social justice as an attorney, in philanthropy and in development.