The American Dream, sans gasoline

  • Michelle Nijhuis and Jack Perrin toast - with vegetable oil - their new biodiesel-powered Mercedes

    JT Thomas

I’ve had it with gasoline. Not only is it helping melt the glaciers in Glacier National Park, thaw the Alaskan permafrost, and drown low-lying Pacific islands, but it’s also emptying my wallet. So when my husband, Jack, and I decided to buy a new car recently, we both wanted it to use as little gas as possible — or, better yet, no gas at all.

We knew hybrid cars were gas-efficient, and sexy, but they were way, way out of our price range. (I’m a writer and Jack is a teacher, so our cars usually hail from the Golden Age of Disco.) We had to find something a bit less chic. That’s when we learned about biodiesel, a fuel made from used vegetable oil.

Biodiesel, we were told by its many fervent fans, burns efficiently and reduces overall greenhouse gas emissions by using recycled ingredients. It can power most normal diesel engines, and it’s usually very easy to procure; those willing to get a little greasy can even make batches of it in their backyards. While biodiesel cars aren’t as clean and green as, say, bicycles, they’re a definite improvement on standard gasoline vehicles.

The biggest problem with biodiesel, we discovered, was finding an inexpensive diesel car.

So we began prowling the back alleys of eBay, looking for our dream diesel. Jack, who would normally rather eat nails than sit in front of a computer screen, made inquiries about a 12-passenger diesel van once used by the Kansas City Transit Authority, and began happily cyberchatting with members of a biodiesel discussion forum. We considered a Volkswagen Rabbit that was spending its declining years on an Oregon farm, and an almost-spiffy red Jetta parked not far from our home in Colorado, but the prices of both quickly climbed beyond our reach. It looked like we might have to stick with gasoline after all.

Then, a business trip took us to northern New Mexico. And there, in a parking lot next to a busy highway in Santa Fe, Jack happened upon a 1982 silver Mercedes Benz station wagon, outrageously high in miles but tenderly cared for — and wonderfully affordable. It was, after all, more than a generation old, a spry senior citizen of the auto world.

Its owner, a merry-faced amateur mechanic, turned out to be both a Mercedes fanatic and a biodiesel aficionado. He told us that the car had already run on veggie-based fuel for more than 20,000 miles, and the greasy stain below the gas tank supported his story.

After a test drive in town and some deliberation, we paid up, filled the tank with biodiesel at a gas station in Santa Fe, and began our journey home to Colorado. When my turn came to take the wheel, I slid eagerly into the driver’s seat, ready to pilot our new car down the highway. Something was different, I realized, and it wasn’t just the fuel. It was the proportions.

After years of driving the tiniest, most gas-efficient cars I could find, the wagon seemed enormous, long and broad and burly. Its trunk was big enough to camp in, its bucket seats generously sized, its chrome hood ornament hilariously ostentatious. When I pressed the gas, the engine took a noisy gulp of biodiesel, and the car lumbered onto the road.

This, I thought, was no rattling Geo Metro, no simpering Toyota hatchback. This was a car with some meat on its bones, a car worthy of a proper American road trip. This car, I thought giddily, could rocket on Route 66, or swerve down the scenic coast of California, or swallow the desert miles between Salt Lake and San Francisco. It could do pretty much anything, and do it with gusto. And best of all, it could do it without the help of globe-heating, world-destabilizing, bankbook-busting fossil fuel.

Was that chic, or what? I looked out over the vast hood of the venerable Mercedes, and I watched the white clouds tumble across the sky. As our vegetable-powered beast roared north toward the Colorado border, the empty road unwound before me, disappearing into the steep, snowy peaks piled on the horizon. I tugged open the sunroof, found a Mexican mariachi tune on the radio, and grinned: Thanks to a couple of gallons of cooking grease, I finally understood the real romance of the American road.

Michelle Nijhuis is a contributing editor of High Country News and a contributor to Writers on the Range, in Paonia, Colorado, ( where she lives and writes.


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