At 330,000 Miles, My Diesel Benz Is Going Veggie

September 29, 2008
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Last Friday night, on my way to fill up at Refuel Biodiesel in Atlanta, I noticed a bizarre sight: a line of frustrated drivers, some with hazards flashing, some even clogging Cheshire Bridge Road, all stranded and waiting for the precious few operable pumps at the neighboring Chevron and Citgo stations. I stared in amazement, snapped a few phone pics, and drove a few miles to the biodiesel station where I filled up, waiting only for the pump to click off after filling my tank with a blend of mildly altered vegetable oil and Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel Fuel.

I purchased a 1982 Mercedes-Benz 300TD Turbo Diesel (TD is Mercedes-speak for "diesel wagon") from a client in Los Angeles back in 2006 for $500 ("you want that piece of junk!?"). A plastic surgeon in toney Hancock Park, my client had once used the car with a hired driver, no less, to shuttle his kids around in the '80s and '90s. The driver and a shady mechanic in L.A., respectively, drove the car into the ground and did questionable repair work on the workhorse Benz. And then it sat neglected in a Los Angeles driveway for years with 300,000 miles on the clock, flat tires at all four corners, and a growing network of cobwebs inside and out.

The potential of freeing myself from foreign oil, rising energy costs, and just the sheer challenge of getting the old lump driving again were too much to resist. The project began, and I threw $500 at the wind, knowing I'd have fun whether it ever ran or not.

A cross-country trip and a couple of years later, the Benz is running splendidly, now with almost 330,000 on the odometer. It doesn't look so splendid, with a dying cheapo paint job and a couple of body panels from the junkyard. And apart from my own satisfaction and cleaner emissions out the tailpipe, my use of biodiesel has never really benefited anything but my ego and my obsession with mechanical wonders. In fact, I've spent thousands fixing, wrenching on, and perfecting the car.

But last Friday night, the benefits of driving an alternatively fueled vehicle came vividly alive. It was remarkable not to be tied to petroleum for my transportation, and I marveled that as some Atlantans were grounded or waiting in line, I was driving on a full tank through silent streets.

My mobile mechanic friend Dan Halfhill, in Malibu, Calif., who got me into this diesel Benz obsession, has been urging me to take this all a step further. The easygoing, mechanical genius owner of Rollin' Wrench told me on a recent trip to L.A., "Come on, man. You need to go veggie." He started with biodiesel--which is just vegetable oil that has been chemically altered to a lower viscosity very similar to diesel No. 2--back in '05 or '06. He initially warned against using unaltered vegetable oil as its thickness can clog fuel systems and harm injectors. But now Dan and others have engineered systems that filter the veggie oil, heat it to the proper viscosity, and then inject it right into the engine.

If this surprises you, know that Rudolf Diesel won the Grand Prix at the 1900 World's Fair, Paris, where his "heat engine" ran solely on peanut oil. They didn't have diesel No. 2 back then.

Before advancements in heating and filtration, I was wary of potentially destroying my engine, and so I've stayed with biodiesel, which poses zero risks. But it does cost roughly the same as diesel, so again, I'm not saving any money. I'm just doing something green, and spewing out remarkably clean tailpipe emissions in the process. But Dan has now converted countless Benz diesels, and even his own Ford Econoline diesel work van, to run on pure waste vegetable oil (WVO). With tens of thousands of miles backed by an experienced mechanic's confidence, I believe I'm finally ready to make the switch to waste vegetable oil.

Having restored many of the old Benzes he's converted to run on vegetable oil, Dan has some serious connections in the automotive painting and detail business. The thought of a respectable, affordable paint job is very tempting. That and a set of slick 16-inch Mercedes rims with new tires Dan has all but promised to give me if I just take the plunge and go pure veggie...

That's it! It's time to go back to California. This time, powered by nothing but waste vegetable oil for all 2,257 miles. It looks like early December is going to be the best time for the trek. And perhaps when I return to Atlanta, my ride will finally look as good as it drives.

Now to start ordering parts and pieces.--Colin Mathews

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