By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
When the day came for Kristina Wong to pick up the car she was buying, she was so excited she put together a special outfit for the occasion — false eyelashes and a pink tank top, short skirt and shoes. She called the look “Japanese prostitute meets Tammy Faye.” But just as she was heading out, she got a call — the car needed more work. She didn’t mind. This car would be worth the wait. Two days later, it was finally ready, so she dressed in her outfit and hopped on a bus bound for Silver Lake.
Perched at the point where Sunset and Santa Monica boulevards meet, the open-air showroom was jammed, as usual, with Mercedes-Benz sedans from the late 1970s and early 1980s, some feet apart, others inches, a few touching bumpers. From above, the crowded lot might have looked like a hastily tiled floor, with sections of blue, gold, cream, violet, aqua, mocha, crimson, gray and pink.
Wong was all smiles when she saw her 1981 Mercedes sedan, its paint job matching her getup. She snapped digital pictures and asked other customers to take a few while she posed by her $5,800 purchase. Before she could drive away, though, it was time to fuel up. Using a bottomless Gatorade bottle as a makeshift funnel, one of the mechanics tilted a five-gallon jug and slowly poured the clear, viscous fluid into the tank. While an instrument-panel malfunction forced Wong back to Lovecraft Biofuels the next day, it hardly dampened her excitement. She would never have to buy gas again.
Cinematographer Jonathan Schell had heard of diesel cars being modified to run on vegetable oil, so he bought a used 1982 Mercedes and sent away for a conversion kit, which he planned to have his mechanic install. But he changed his plans when he learned about Lovecraft, which converted the car for a fourth of what it would have cost Schell for the kit and his mechanic’s time. Schell boasted that he hasn’t paid for fuel since, instead running his Mercedes on used grease from a handful of restaurants in Los Feliz. Taking a moment from editing a Sierra Club documentary, he explained that the benefits go far beyond saving money. “Driving that car gives me a real sense of moral and ethical pride,” he said.
At $700 to convert a Reagan-era Mercedes (car not included), Lovecraft founder Brian Friedman offers liberation from petroleum addiction. “Some people want it to save the environment, some want to drive for free, some want to help the farmers, and some don’t want to give money to the Arabs,” said a grinning Friedman, as he ticked off potential customers. “That covers every cross section right there.”
Friedman designed the conversion system around which his company is built — a one-tank system that enables diesel engines to burn highly viscous, slow-to-boil, but readily available straight vegetable oil. Most vegetable-oil cars use two tanks — one for regular diesel fuel used to start the engine and the other for biofuel. Working with a team of mechanics, he’s modifying four or five cars a day, and in the past four years he’s converted about 500 cars, including 300 since he opened Lovecraft’s Sunset Junction location in December. He gets more business than he can handle.
War in the Middle East, record-high gas prices and concerns about global warming have sparked widespread interest in alternative fuels. Even President Bush, himself a former oilman with infamously close ties to the energy industry, has begun singing the virtues of renewable fuel. Mainstream discussion, however, has been relegated almost exclusively to biodiesel, refined from the type of straight vegetable oil Friedman’s cars use; ethanol, a gasoline substitute typically from corn; and hydrogen cells, a technology that has been five to 10 years away for decades.
This wasn’t always the case. After the 1973 oil embargo and the 1979 Iranian revolution first revealed the soft underbelly of an economy dependent on foreign oil, a number of scientists explored vegetable oil as a petrol-diesel fuel replacement. Cataloged by the University of Idaho’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, the studies came to the same general conclusion: Unmodified diesel engines can run on vegetable oil without significant problems, much as Rudolf Diesel intended when he showed off his peanut-oil-fueled eponymous engine at the 1900 World Expo in Paris. But long-term use invariably gives rise to performance and durability issues.
Studies show that over time, pure vegetable oil’s high viscosity and boiling point can cause carbon build-up in the engine, contaminate the lubrication in the crankcase and interfere with and wear out fuel pumps and injectors. In short, it can destroy engines. Partly because of this troubled track record, agencies like the U.S. Department of Energy, the California Air Resources Board and the California Energy Commission either passively ignore or actively argue against vegetable oil as a fuel.
“Vegetable oil is not a practical alternative for California,” said Gary Yowell, an automotive engineer at the California Energy Commission who has explored more than a dozen alternative-fuel options. “It would be hellacious on a grand scale. There are about 350,000 diesel vehicles in the state, and assuming a 1 to 3 percent failure rate — and that’s being conservative — the results would be catastrophic.”