Tess Vigeland: On the road for our special hour on your cars and your money. We're making our way north on the 110 freeway in Los Angeles for this remote broadcast from my car. On our way to station KPCC in Pasadena. It's been a long haul, but we're, oh, let's say three miles into the trip. Almost halfway!
A few years back, when gas prices were spiking, like they are now, everyone was looking for a way to pimp their ride to better fuel efficiency. John Rabe took a leap into a vat of vegetable oil. He hosts KPCC's Off-Ramp program. And he bought a car that could run on oil scavenged from restaurants in his neighborhood. John says it was great way to save money for a while.
John Rabe: It seemed to good to be true: An L.A.-based company called LoveCraft was taking sturdy, old diesel Mercedes and for $900, converting them to run on vegetable oil. LoveCraft founder explained it to me for my radio show in May of 2007.
The basic difference, vegetable oil is thicker and less combustible. So, most engines won't start on vegetable oil, doesn't have enough kick in it.
The LoveCraft system involved using the car's radiator fluid to heat the vegetable oil. Heating the oil thins it out enough so it'll combust. I bought a big 1980 Mercedes sedan from LoveCraft and started running it on vegetable oil.
Sound of car starting
It ran great and the oil was free. Here I am pumping oil from a 50-gallon drum from a Mexican restaurant in my neighborhood.
Rabe: It's a dark amber with little specks of stuff in it. One gallon's pouring in, two gallons, three, four and five.
I loved it, especially since I was sticking it to the man. Sticking it to my boss, because work was reimbursing for mileage. Sticking it to the state, because the state wasn't collecting gas tax from me. And sticking it to the oil companies who've hiked up the price of gas. I was so excited I even took KPCC "Morning Edition" host Steve Julian for a ride on the highway and he got jealous.
Rabe, in car: We're passing a Prius now.
Steve Julian: We spent $400 a month in gasoline. I'm really besides myself, Rabe.
It was a passing fancy. The price of fuel fell back down and scavenging for vegetable oil was a drudgery. So I went back to buying diesel at the pump. But my vegetable oil days came back to haunt me. My mechanic saw it happen. Doug McCloud has been running Precision Motors in L.A.'s Silver Lake neighborhood for 24 years, specializing in old Mercedes.
Rabe: So I come into your shop. I'm all happy, I'm like, "Hey Doug! I've got one of those cars that burns vegetable oil. I love it, I don't have to pay for gas. I'm so happy." What are you thinking?
Doug McCloud: Just a really bad idea. You'll be back in a few months.
McCloud: With your car on a tow truck.
He was right. About a year ago, my car started losing power and eventually conked out. And when I brought it to Doug, on a flatbed tow truck. Remember Brian Friedman comparing vegetable oil to diesel fuel? He left out something important: Vegetable oil also contains cholesterol. Diesel doesn't, and neither does the product called biodiesel, which many people run in their diesel cars. And as Doug put it, my car had come down with...
Rabe: Which means?
Doug: Well, the arteries are clogged. In this case, the fuel lines are clogged.
It never occurred to me that what could happen in humans could happen in cars. Doug said he has two dozen other patients like me and they've all dealt with LoveCraft.
McCloud: They just did the work and let the cars go. Of course, by the time they all came back, they had gone out of business.
LoveCraft shut down a year or so ago, and Friedman is nowhere to be found. Well, I'm not mad, mostly because I really love my car, which I'm now running on pure number two diesel fuel, with a dash of additive to break down any residual cholesterol in the tank. But I do miss the free fuel, especially now with diesel approaching five bucks a gallon. And I miss the sweet smell of my exhaust in those days. You could tell when I was burning, say, vegetable oil -- tortilla chips. Or soybean oil -- french fries! Or my favorite, rice bran oil -- tempura. My car was an olfactory tour of the cuisines of the city I love.
In Los Angeles, I'm John Rabe for Marketplace Money.