Veggie Tales: Prepping for a Gas-Free Cross-Country Ride

October 10, 2008
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A few weeks ago, I told you about my plans to turn my vintage (that's what we call old and in need of help) Benz diesel into a vegan--an organically powered machine that'll run on oily Chick-Fil-A leftovers (or Chinese or McDonald's or whatever) and do it with a sweet-smelling exhaust.

But before I leave on my cross-country trek to have it modified for veggie fuel and to have a much-needed paint job, there's still some work to be done. And some planning.

In order to prep my '82 Benz for the drive from Atlanta to L.A., I've got some work ahead of me. First off, at present, the old wagon will only run on diesel No. 2 or biodiesel, using its original fuel tank, fuel lines, and mechanical fuel pump to deliver either fuel from tank to engine. In the next two months (to be detailed in upcoming blogs), I will be installing my mechanic friend Dan's proprietary system that automatically warms waste vegetable oil to the point where it is safe to inject into the old 3.0-liter five-cylinder turbodiesel.

But I've got a few other nagging items that need addressing before I plan to put another 2,257 miles on the clock. First and foremost, the automatic climate control, which currently does nothing at all. Mercedes installed automatic climate control (once a bit of a novelty) in its top models back in the early '80s. Alas, these electro-mechanical-pneumatic climate control systems are full of rubber tubes that crack, valves that break, and computer brains that fall permanently asleep. I already have a replacement heater core and A/C evaporator that were harvested from a local junkyard, and once I get the valves and hoses replaced in that combo unit, I'll install it in the car, fixing the majority of my problems. Then comes the tedious task of tracing and fixing electrical gremlins. My hope is just that I can get the heat working reliably; A/C and all of its complexities will have to wait until next spring.

What else? Well, the stalwart OM 617.952 engine, legendary for its reliability, is in great shape and is fed only with synthetic oil, changed every 5,000 miles. Synthetic ATF serves the four-speed automatic transmission, which does have a harsh 3-2 downshift but is otherwise smooth and cooperative. The softly whining differential is a bit annoying, but typical for the vintage (and the mileage). The front suspension, with its old-tech recirculating ball power steering, is rather loose and vague at 330,000 miles. I will be installing new bushings, control arms, tie rods, ball joints, and a new center drag link to tighten things up, but the sloppy steering box will just have to wait until I have more in the bank account.

Everything else, God willing, has been remedied in the two years I've owned the vehicle. Apart from a high-pressure hydraulic line (for the rear self-leveling suspension) that burst and sprayed the engine compartment with oil in January, and some bad axles that once left me stranded, the vehicle has been remarkably trouble-free. It's been my sole vehicle since the fall of 2006, and daily driving since that time has given me great confidence in the vehicle and great annoyance at its lack of A/C. Regardless, I will be bringing all of my tools along.

So apart from some repairs and Dan's veggie conversion, I suppose all that's left to do is find a good source of about 100 gallons of waste vegetable oil. I need about 65 gallons to get more than halfway across the country, and around another 25 by my calculation to make it to Los Angeles. The extra 10 are for peace of mind.

Since it is a big old-school wagon, I'll just buy a bunch of 10-gallon gas cans, fill them with waste vegetable oil, fold down the seats, and store my fuel in the back of the Benz.

Any Atlanta fast-food chain restaurant managers out there? Hit me up. I'd love to get my hands on a bunch of used peanut oil (Chick-Fil-A uses it exclusively), but any used vegetable oil will work just fine. I'll need to pick up some more oil around Tucson, Arizona, so spread the word, Westerners.--Colin Mathews

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