Bio Goes Bling

Photo by Eric Cadora

Colette Brooks loves cars. Big cars. Cars with fins, spinners and spoilers; cars that come in nice colors: mustard, seaweed, light teal. The kind of cars that some people might adorn with faux fur and fuzzy dice. But she also loves, as she puts it, “this beautiful blue ball we’re so privileged to live on,” and her car fetish wasn’t exactly squaring with her environmental creds.

More than just personal philosophy, eco-consciousness has been inexorably woven into the identity of her 18-year-old advertising and marketing company, Big Imagination Group, which she runs out of a smartly decorated, Culver City warehouse. Three years ago, Brooks bought her staff a fleet of Toyota Prius hybrids, which landed her in the pages of People; in 2003, she got 10 celebrities to drive the cars to the Oscars. It is a marketing ploy for which she makes no apologies. “We live in a society where if celebrities are doing something it stops being nerdy and starts being hip,” she says. “It’s how our minds work.”

Brooks knows a lot about how people’s minds work. After she bought the company cars, she noticed her employees changing their ways. “They started thinking about conservation — they turned off lights when they weren’t using them, they started recycling. People got kinder. Some of them even stopped smoking.”

It got Brooks thinking: “How could I do something for the greater good instead of just pushing meaningless products?” Her client roster began to shift; Toyota became a client. Her non-green clients got greener.

None of that, however, solved the problem of Brooks’ muscle-car jones, which still dogged her like a drug habit. “My sense of aesthetics still craved these late-’70s to early-’80s pimp cars,” she says. “I just have to have these cars.”

One day last winter, Brooks stumbled upon a 1979 Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz for sale on a downtown L.A. street. “Pimped out,” she says. “All white. The mother of all pimp cars. Only 100 came off the assembly line like this.” The car also had a diesel engine, and Brooks had just met Joshua Tickell, the author of From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, who had crossed the country in his “veggie van” powered by vegetable oil.

“I suddenly saw that I could have a no fossil-fuel, tricked-out car,” she says, her voice rising with wonder. She bought the Cadillac for $1,800.

To be sure, the car had its problems. Its rubber fuel lines quickly dissolved in the solvent properties of traditional biodiesel fuel; the hoses would need to be replaced with something synthetic. It also needed a new starter — and a new engine. She spent $15,000, but “by the standards of new cars these days, that’s not so bad. I spent $17,000, and I have this rockin’ almost-new car.”

Brooks now owns 10 biodiesel vehicles in various states of blingage, including an ’83 Cadillac Seville and a ’96 Mercedes E-Class sedan. “Biodiesel is not just for crunchy, granola-eating hippies anymore — which, by the way, I am,” she says. “This is about making renewability sexy, about not sacrificing. You can have your bling and eat it too.”

I met Brooks in her office with Roxanne Metrano, a Pilates teacher and dancer and the very first client of Brooks’ latest marketing adventure, a company called BioBling — “a service that connects conscious people with bio-ready cars and fuel to run them.” Brooks is tiny and compact with a burst of dark red curls; she surfs every morning before starting work at 9 a.m., and in the course of our conversation I don’t think she ever stopped moving completely. Small dogs run free throughout the office, and food proliferates; when I casually mentioned that my blood sugar was low, she ran to the refrigerator and fed me string cheese and vegetarian sushi.

BioBling was born two days before Earth Day, when Brooks’ friend Joe Gershen of Green Depot offered her a booth on the Santa Monica Promenade if she could pull something together fast. That’s where she met Metrano, who had been wanting a environmentally sound car, but didn’t have a lot to spend.

“I was looking at hybrids,” Metrano says, “but they were $25,000 and you’re still burning fossil fuels.”

Brooks’ husband, Eric Cadora, tracked down a ’93 Mercedes on eBay for $7,200 plus shipping, charged Metrano a 10 percent service fee for negotiating the deal and $15 for swapping out the fuel lines. He also helped Metrano procure a 55-gallon drum of biodiesel at just under $4 a gallon.

There was just one snag: Metrano had a landlord whose insurance company told him a 55-gallon drum of fuel on the premises would negate his homeowner’s policy.

“It’s so wrong,” Metrano complains. “He’s an environmentalist. He drives a Prius. And he was completely supportive until that happened.”

At the same time, she doesn’t blame him: “It’s the insurance companies that have it wrong. Biodiesel has a flashpoint of 260 degrees. It’s safer than salt.”

Brooks’ own insurance company advised her not to keep the drum at her house, so she now stores in her loading dock three bright blue drums of B-99 — 99 percent bio, 1 percent regular diesel, “because there are weird tax breaks if you use an existing fuel,” says Brian Dolen, a Big art director.

“Now Colette gets to see me all the time,” says Metrano, who comes by every other week or so and hand-cranks fuel into her tank from a Fill-Rite rotary pump.

“Colette can’t do this for everybody,” Dolen admits as he helps Metrano crank. “We’ve got to find another solution.”

To that end, Brooks has been holding “biodiesel salons” for like-minded people who want to figure out how to establish public pumps. The first salon, held earlier this month, filled the parking lot with very large cars — from brand-new Dodge pickups to a vintage Mercedes to an ’81 Toyota Land Cruiser — all bearing bumperstickers: “No War Required.” “Soy Powered: America’s Renewable Fuel.” “Biodiesel: The Solar Fuel.”

At the end of the evening, the group, which included the former mayor of Culver City and two young men from American Apparel, seemed to have narrowed down several speculative options for pump locations, among them, American Apparel’s headquarters, a former gas station near downtown L.A., and Big Imagination’s parking lot.

“Personally, I don’t want a chemistry set in my house, and I don’t want to alter my behavior — as a human being, as a marketer, I understand that biodiesel will not get critical mass acceptance if you have to modify your behavior too much,” Brooks says. “We have to make it easy to find, and we have to make it hip.”

That said, she doesn’t expect absolute purity out of anyone — least of all herself. “I have dirty secrets in my garage,” she confided, “a big badass ’66 Toronado in pristine museum condition and a ’61 Ford Econoline Pickup.” Both of them burn ?real gas.

“I take them out once a month,” she says, “and it’s unbelievable. As euphoric as I feel behind the wheel of a biodiesel Cadillac, a 440-horsepower testosterone engine — well, that’s just orgastic. It’s like a vegan taking a bite of steak.”

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