Alternative Star Power: L.A. Gets In On Veggie-Cars

The technology is not new — but cars fueled by vegetable oil have become a big hit in Los Angeles. As NPR's Amy Walters reports, one L.A. businessman is finding a ready market for used diesel Mercedes he converts to run on veggie-power.

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The technology is not new, but cars fueled by vegetable oil have become a big hit in Los Angeles. And we're talking about the vegetable oil you can buy at the supermarket. As NPR's Amy Walters, reports, one L.A. businessman is finding a ready market for used diesel Mercedes, that he converts to run on veggie power.

AMY WALTERS reporting:

LoveCraft Biofuels, that's the name of Brian Friedman's shop. On the trendy corner of L.A.'s Sunset Boulevard, his tiny lot overflows with vintage diesel Mercedes. Friedman transforms them into his signature LoveCrafts, by converting the engines to run on pure soybean oil.

Mr. BRIAN FRIEDMAN (Owner of LoveCraft Biofuels): It turned out there are a lot of options to gasoline, there's a lot of options to diesel, and for some reason, no one's doing it.

WALTERS: Friedman admits he's not a technical genius, he blasted through several careers, including a stint in the fashion industry. He was even in the tattoo business, but his interest in alternative fuels prompted him to experiment, by pouring vegetable oil into diesel Mercedes engines. He tried fresh soybean oil from Costco, and filtered french-fry oil from nearby restaurants. But that only gummed up the motor. That's why Friedman figured he needed a pump to push the oil through, smoothly. With little mechanical training, he developed one, and it worked - much to the surprise of his critics.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: If you went back four years and you went to any mechanic, and even suggested running an engine on vegetable oil, they'd be like: what're you, stupid? Get the Hell out of here. You know what I mean? There was no cooperation, it was just, flat out - it does not work.

WALTERS: Now Friedman sells the converted cars - each vehicle goes for $6,000 to $8,000. And because the Mercedes are typically old, he'll often throw in a custom paint job.

(Soundbite of engine starting)

WALTERS: He took me for a spin in a 1983 Mercedes he converted from diesel, a year ago.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: The issues with the cars, usually surface within the first two or three weeks.

WALTERS: It doesn't seem like it's like, gurgling on any french-fries or anything.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Not at all, no. The cars that have been running for months or years, they just run really nice, smooth, and quiet. A lot of diesels, you can barely hear a conversation in the car.

(Soundbite of car)

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Now see, that's a diesel.

WALTERS: Friedman's LoveCrafts aren't just quieter than diesel engines, he says they burn cleaner. And in a town that's hungry to rid itself of smog, he scored a hit with L.A.'s first veggie vehicle dealership.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: L.A.'s not quick to grab something new, but they'll do it big, once it's shown itself. So, what happened is, we'd sell one, then their neighbor would want one, and then their friend would want one. And so it went like that. And a year ago, it was maybe one conversion a week, now it's four or five a day.

(Soundbite of engine)

WALTERS: Mechanic, Mike Akkerman(ph) tests out one of the day's conversions. As he pokes around, making little adjustments, Akkerman jokes with Friedman about his early skepticism.

Mr. MIKE AKKERMAN (LoveCraft mechanic): It took him a year to get me on.

WALTERS: You remember that conversation, Brian?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Oh yeah, I never let him forget it. At first he didn't believe it, then he said it wouldn't last, then he said it was a flash in the pan. And I think he's believing now.

WALTERS: Friedman's customers are believers, too. Mark Gainey(ph) said he came to LoveCraft because he resents the control the oil industry has on motorists. But Gainey says he also resents the stigma associated with alternative fuels.

Mr. MARK GAINEY (LoveCraft driver): Makes people kind of look at you funny, like - are you from around here? You know - how long you been doing that? That's kinda weird. You know? I notice you got them Birkenstock shoes on, too.

WALTERS: Yeah, you do have the Birkenstocks on.

Mr. GAINEY: I do, but they're actually fake.

WALTERS: Another customer, Christine Wong(ph), special-ordered her car in a metallic, bubblegum pink. She loves it, but the door creaks and the dash won't light up. She's writing about it on her blog.

Ms. CHRISTINE WONG (LoveCraft driver, blogger): It's really interesting, cause it feels very Flintstone car-ish, cause I'm like, it smells weird, and because it's an old car I do have to push harder on the gas - than a newer car. The lack of creature comforts and the smell of deep-fried exhaust are small sacrifices. Wong can pick up the soybean oil at a grocery store for under $3 a gallon. With L.A. gas prices well above that, it's a considerable discount. Friedman's just satisfied his veggie oil dreams are finally being taken seriously.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: The past three or four months, all of the sudden it's gotten mainstream credibility and recognition, and it kind of caught me off guard - cause I'd kind of accepted that this was a joke to most people.

WALTERS: Not anymore. Friedman wants to start converting farm equipment to run on vegetable oil. And, he's even getting inquiries from overseas. Just recently, Friedman says, the Chinese government emailed him about converting their public bus system. Amy Walters, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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