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.”
The conversion systems offered by Lovecraft and other companies are expressly designed to deal with these problems, yet vegetable oil has been pushed to the margins, largely in favor of biodiesel. Biodiesel is basically vegetable oil that has been thinned out via a chemical process, but Friedman thinks this is just another scam to keep the oil oligarchy in place.
“They want biodiesel, because it requires refineries, and the oil industry is all over that,” he said. “They’re pretending not to be all over it, so it can get this grass-roots environmental name, and then they’re going to take it. They already have it all set up where the biodiesel at the pump is going to be 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent regular diesel. They’ll call it biodiesel, and everyone will go, ‘Yay, we won!’ But they’ll be selling the same old crap.”
Yowell pointed out that California uses 4 billion gallons of petrol diesel a year, so introducing a small percentage of biodiesel could have a big impact. Toward this end, state Senator Christine Kehoe (D–San Diego) has introduced a bill that would mandate all diesel fuel sold in California be at least 2 percent biodiesel by 2008, and 5 percent by 2010. Minnesota has already enacted similar legislation.
Biodiesel’s mainstream support has not come cheaply. The National Biodiesel Board, funded by the soybean industry, works hard to promote it as the answer to the evils of petroleum fuel. More importantly, the board paid $2.2 million for testing and registration required by the Clean Air Act. Currently, biodiesel is the only alternative fuel authorized by the Environmental Protection Agency for use in motor vehicles. And while no specific statute outlaws using straight vegetable oil, because it hasn’t been tested and registered, its use as a fuel is a violation of the Clean Air Act, and the modification of engines to run on it carries a penalty ranging from $2,750 per violation (by an individual) to $32,500 per violation (by a business).
When alerted to restrictions against vegetable oil, Friedman expressed surprise, and then anger. “It shouldn’t be illegal, and if it is, it’s a sham law to protect the oil industry,” he said. “It may be some technicality, something that’s new, but I wouldn’t say it’s breaking the law to use vegetable oil.”
Thus far, the EPA has not prosecuted anybody for these violations, so that is not the primary concern. However, EPA testing determines a fuel’s emissions and the health effects of those emissions. Common sense dictates that vegetable oil is cleaner than petrol diesel, but limited emissions testing, too limited to be definitive, may raise eyebrows.
For example, a 2003 study conducted for the U.K.’s Department for Transport measured emissions from converted cars running on vegetable oil. Compared to the U.K.’s standard ultralow-sulfur diesel, a Volkswagen Passat running on vegetable oil spewed out approximately 250 percent more hydrocarbons, 420 percent more carbon monoxide, and 100 percent more particulate matter; a Peugeot 106 saw a 170 percent increase in hydrocarbons and a 60 percent increase in carbon monoxide. The study indicates that the high viscosity of vegetable oil may be to blame for the higher emissions.
Dana Linscott, an alternative-fuel expert who consults for businesses nationwide, claimed that vegetable-oil emissions from a properly modified engine would drop to levels equal to those of unmodified engines running on petrol diesel. “The fact is that VO conversion technology has advanced far faster in recent years,” he said, “than the ability of those in charge of emissions testing to run tests on diesel engines using VO fuel.”
Vegetable oil does possess indisputable environmental advantages over petroleum. If a tipsy Joseph Hazelwood had crashed an Exxon Valdez filled with canola, it wouldn’t have caused an ecological holocaust. And no matter how great the demand for Wesson, it would never send rigs into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But because it hasn’t been rigorously tested, it’s impossible to say vegetable oil is cleaner fuel than petrol diesel.
Besides the Clean Air Act, there are other legal hurdles. While the EPA doesn’t approve of running cars on vegetable oil, tax collectors still expect businesses and individuals to pay a levy for using it. If a person scavenges waste oil or buys canola from Costco, he or she owes 18 cents to California and 24.4 cents to the Internal Revenue Service for every gallon they burn. If retailers sell it for fuel, then they are responsible for the tax. Lovecraft sells both new vegetable oil ($13 for 5 gallons) and waste oil ($1.50 per gallon). Friedman had maintained that his company was not liable since he doesn’t pump the vegetable oil directly into the fuel tank, but later said he is in the process of filing paperwork to pay the proper taxes.
A prospective vegetable-oil driver has to deal with one last legal obstacle. A law passed last fall requires anybody who takes waste oil from a restaurant to get a license from the state Department of Food and Agriculture. The oil is typically hauled off and used to make feed for livestock. Mention of the new licensing requirements angered Friedman.
“Our approach is to get a high-profile location, convert as many cars as we can, collect every bit of oil, whether we have to slip a hose through a locked gate — because they want to give it away, they don’t want to pay $1 a gallon to get it removed,” he said. “If they don’t know we took it, then great. I promote breaking the law in that respect. And we’re going to sell it here even though it’s illegal to sell it. I want to see who will show his face and stop us. And that’s what you have to do, because if you just sit there and go, ‘Oh, the law says this,’ they’re gonna screw everybody. And that’s why the oil industry has such control.”
When pressed, Friedman gave an unvarnished assessment of both his business and the state of fueling cars with vegetable oil: “Things have to hit a certain point before they crack through, and if they don’t give you a clear path to walk through to get from zero to the place you need to be, you’ve got to break a few laws, you’ve got to do a few things that you don’t know how to do right, and you’ve got to do a lot of trial and error before you can get things started.”
Five years ago, Brian Friedman had nothing to do with cars, conversion systems or vegetable oil. Instead, he dealt in trends. The tall, lanky businessman owned and operated Anubis Warpus, a tattoo and body-piercing shop on San Francisco’s legendary Haight Street that also sold clothes, shoes, jewelry and whatever else was the hot counterculture couture. But Friedman, then in his late 30s, grew sick of trends. He was sick, too, of the constant responsibilities of running a business, like balancing books, managing employees and paying taxes.
“I was turned off by where that money was going,” Friedman recalled. “But if I’m paying taxes to the government, that money makes me morally liable, whether it’s directly or indirectly.”
When he decided to sell the shop and quit, he went all in, “burning as many bridges behind me as I could, so I could never come back.”
Friedman didn’t care about paying bills, so when collectors called looking for money, he told them to “shove it up their asses.” This left his credit a smoking ruin. In fact, to this day Friedman can’t have any legal connection to the company he founded, due in part to the tax liens placed against him for thousands of dollars by the state Employment Development Department and Board of Equalization. But he didn’t care, because he was checking out of the system.
He bought a white, 1974 Airstream trailer outfitted with solar panels, bubble windows, shag carpeting, two beds and a little kitchen, and got a van big enough to pull it. Friedman disappeared from San Francisco. He camped in the forests of Humboldt County and the coastal areas of Mendocino County, or stayed at friends’ houses in the Pacific Northwest. Living expenses were next to nothing, except gas.
“It cost me $100 to fill that monster of a van, and that was killing me,” Friedman said. “Plus, I think everybody agrees that there is nothing more corrupt than the oil industry.”
He soon became obsessed with alternative fuels. He started with hydrogen cells, researching something called MagneGas, a fuel made out of water, but this process proved far too unwieldy for an amateur engineer. He was aware that diesel engines could run on vegetable oil, and although he wanted “to make a bigger splash,” he knew where he could get a used diesel Mercedes for $600. Friedman started there.
Though Rudolf Diesel wowed the world a century ago with an engine that ran on peanut oil, it wasn’t until 1980 that Elsbett, a German company, developed a conversion system that would allow modern diesel engines to run on pure, unprocessed vegetable oil. This concept has spawned a subculture of environmentally conscious mechanics and do-it-yourselfers who install conversion kits in diesel engines. Vegetable oil, however, is much more viscous than petrol fuel, especially when it’s cold. Most veggie conversions run on a two-tank system: The driver starts the car with the diesel tank, and once it’s running and the engine is warm, it switches over to the vegetable oil.
This is where the Reagan-era Mercedes fits into Friedman’s design. Modern German engineers design them to purr, but 30 years ago they designed them to last. With regular maintenance, they can run for 500,000 miles. In fact, a Greek taxi driver owns the mileage record, with a 1976 Mercedes-Benz 240D that traveled over 2 million miles. These durable engines possess powerful fuel pumps and injectors, strong enough to handle liquids far thicker than standard petrol diesel.
Friedman has no formal training as a mechanic, but, researching the Internet and experimenting with designs, he devised a one-tank system for the Mercedes. “Instantly there was this stream of interest, and I found myself sucked back in,” he said. Surveying the terrain, the reluctant businessman soon hatched a plan: Los Angeles, teeming with cheap Mercedes-Benzes, provided a place to get the cars; San Francisco, where a friend had a shop, a place to convert them; and Seattle, with a vigorous eco-market, a place to unload them for $3,900 a car. L.A. to San Francisco to Seattle, then a plane back to L.A. Wash, rinse, repeat.
This cycle worked for a while, but the drive, about 1,400 miles in all, began to kill Friedman. Fortunately, word spread and he began selling cars in San Francisco too. Last year he replaced the Airstream with an Echo Park house where he could work on cars in the front lot, and he began testing the L.A. market. People laughed at him before, but now he was getting some interest. When neighbors started calling the city about his front-yard garage, Friedman took the plunge, rounding up investors and renting a warehouse. “At that point I was against getting back into the system, but it was getting too big to do it on the side,” he said. “When I saw the warehouse, I had a flashback of the life I had left behind — I’m going to take it home with me, it’s going to be in my head.”
He needed help to handle Lovecraft’s expansion. Due to Friedman’s tenuous legal standing from his previous business ventures, Callie Wilson, who had just closed her alternative-clothing store, signed on as legal owner and business manager, and Mike Ackerman, a former upholsterer, joined as lead mechanic. Blooming business, especially after the opening of the Sunset Junction showroom, has further accelerated growth. And according to Friedman, any profit goes right back into the company. He says he’s hoping to expand to a second warehouse nearby.
With a slightly uncomfortable smile, Friedman stood before the TreeHuggerTV’s camera and testified to the marvels of his conversion system. Despite operating in shadowy legal territory, he’s never been shy about promoting his business in the media. ABC’s World News Tonight, KCAL 9 and Al Gore’s Current TV network have all featured Friedman, as have Bloomberg News, American Public Media and a host of other outlets.
Others involved with vegetable-oil conversions, like Christopher Goodwin, owner and operator of Frybrid Alternative Fuel Systems in Seattle, and the alternative-fuel consultant Linscott, are not entirely pleased that Friedman has become the public face of the industry.
“Regulators are turning a blind eye to engine conversions right now,” Goodwin said. “Hopefully this will continue, but some pinhead setting up a shop at a busy intersection in L.A. could mess it up. This runs the risk of setting back the whole movement.”
Goodwin and Linscott have also claimed that the Lovecraft system is flawed. By failing to heat the vegetable oil to a high enough temperature (160 degrees) to thin it out, the fuel injectors overwork. Goodwin compared it to “pushing butter through a Windex bottle.” Additionally, the two maintain, running the vegetable oil in a cold engine will cause carbon buildup and lubrication problems. The famously durable Mercedes engine can handle the abuse in the short run, but the wear and tear will eventually destroy the engine. While both Goodwin and Linscott have concerns about the Elsbett one-tank system — the industry’s most respected — they pointed out that it involves many more modifications than Friedman’s system.
“Some robust diesels like Mercedes may run on his gonzo conversions,” said Linscott, “but the engines will not have one-third the lifespan they would on [petrol] diesel, or with a better-engineered conversion.”
Friedman asserted that his system has no problems running at 120 degrees, but, in response to concerns, he has added a heater to get the oil to 160. He dismissed criticism of his system as sniping from jealous competitors dedicated to the two-tank conversion system.
“There’s such a thing as evolution of the system. The diehards who don’t want it to evolve will knock down anyone who does a lot of business or publicity,” he said. “We’re doing nice, quick, low-cost conversions that work. That’s what it’s like to be at the top of the mountain, where everybody underneath us is trying to knock us down.”
In Friedman’s view, the hundreds of Lovecraft cars still on the road provide decisive proof that his system works. He said his car has logged about 60,000 miles, and claimed that a driver in San Francisco has piled on more than 100,000 veggie-fueled miles. Of the customers Friedman provided for interview, none has had any complaints about the conversions. In fact, one Angeleno was so thrilled with her two Lovecraft cars that she has bought a third for her teenage daughter. But none of the customers interviewed had yet logged more than 12,000 miles.
Friedman enters into a relationship with his customers involving multiple phone calls and visits to the shop, and he admitted that he occasionally refuses to sell cars to people he thinks will be “a headache.” Starting at $1,500 for a non-Mercedes, Lovecraft will modify any diesel engine, but his business focuses almost exclusively on Reagan-era Mercedes-Benzes. These cars often have more than 200,000 miles on them already, so Friedman offers a comprehensive guarantee on his cars whereby he’ll buy them back or pay for repairs.
When the vegetable oil seeped out of the funnel and dripped onto her feet, squishing between her toes, Wong wasn’t angry, just frustrated at the mess. Filling up, like rolling up the windows and tuning radio stations, can be a hassle with her Lovecraft-converted, 25-year-old car. She used to call it the “Barbie Army Tank,” but now it’s “Old Baby/Harold.” And, while she’s learned that vegetable oil is not the perfect fuel, she still feels good about it: “At least we don’t have to go to war to get it.”
Liam Scheff contributed to this article from San Francisco.