Diesel the greenest, cheapest way to go

Phil Berg
Car Culture

In 1990 I had driven a VW Scirocco two-door hatch for eight years with a 1.6-liter gasoline engine and a 10.6-gallon fuel tank. It was lackluster in performance compared with GM J-cars with 4.3-liter V-6 engines that local Detroit folks liked. But the Scirocco shared a platform with the Rabbit, and the Rabbit came with a diesel engine option — almost unknown then in passenger cars here — and because of that VW offered a range-doubling auxiliary round 10-gallon fuel tank that fit perfectly into the round spare tire well under the Scirocco’s rear floor. So I put one of these tanks into my gasoline Scirocco, thereby doubling the car’s range to about 700 miles. A trip that distance cost me just $26 at the time. Nothing from GM could do that.

Then came the first Gulf War that year. Wars wreck the world, and also make me worry that I’ll have to give up things precious to me. What’s high on my precious list is the fully American value I have to go anywhere I want at any time. And so, like other tinkering Americans, I began to research how to make my own gas. It turns out that Jerusalem artichokes (which are ginger-looking tubers neither from Jerusalem, nor from the artichoke family), grown in my 40-by-60-square-foot Birmingham backyard, would produce the highest yield of ethanol of any plant. And I could burn ethanol in the mechanically fuel-injected Scirocco, with simple modifications. And so during the first Gulf War I comforted myself in that special home-grown do-it-yourself take-action American way that I could actually make my own fuel in my backyard in Birmingham. And go 700 miles.

War or not, I felt a strong desire to drive the distance of a geographic circle that covered Minneapolis to the West; Smooth Rock Falls, Ontario, to the North; Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s Atlantic coast to the East; and warm Birmingham, Alabama, to the South. All on one tank of fuel I could cook up in my backyard. Take that, OPEC.

A few years later I built a magazine test car out of a diesel VW Jetta, and writer John Phillips III and I drove the thing without stopping for fuel 3,000 miles from New York to San Francisco and then back to New York, for a story in Car and Driver magazine. We made the coast-to-coast trip in 38 hours non-stop, loafing along smoothly with the four-cylinder VW engine humming, fed by a 55-gallon fuel tank in the trunk. No, diesel is not dangerous, since it’s really difficult to catch fire upon a crash.

Fast-forward to today: How would I get to the same 700-mile destinations? How could I preserve the great American freedom I enjoyed in the antique Scirocco? Or the coast-to-coast diesel Jetta?

Diesel fuel became hip not because European governments gave huge tax breaks at the fuel pumps, and not because the oily fuel automatically reduces greenhouse gases with its significant energy advantage over comparable volumes of gasoline or ethanol. Nor because diesel’s low-end torque makes driving more fun. I believe that diesel cars in the mid-2000s from Mercedes, BMW, Audi, and Opel promised the privileged class a trip the width of the European continent — Paris to Vienna, for example — in state-of-the-art luxury without stopping to refuel. And that meant no chance of being carjacked.

What’s even better about diesel cars: The Fischer-Tropsch process of converting natural gas into a liquid results in diesel fuel that burns much cleaner, and is more abundant than diesel made from liquid petroleum. Both political and environmental wins. Plus, you can make diesel fuel from just about anything that grows, from algae to corn oil to orchids. Although the idea does not translate well into commercial viability because of the economics of scale and existing infrastructures, it does mean that I can make fuel myself, without a refinery (if I can find a good used hydrocracker and a turbine at Home Depot). Or I can collect discarded veggie oil from restaurant fryers, as friends of mine have done, using it in their antique Mercedes’ or converted VW Eurovans.

“I love driving down the highway, looking at other cars and thinking that I’m not paying anything to drive this trip,” said the late Fred Burgess, a clever, witty, happy guy who left us all almost exactly 12 months ago. “I’m working on a guy’s ’97 Jetta TDI right now,” Fred told me back in 2006. “I’ve done 60 of them. Every time I start them I laugh. I guess I never expect them to work. I’m obsessed, like Dr. Frankenstein, when it runs you feel like yelling ‘It’s alive! Alive!’ ”

In 1995 the world used about 75 million metric tons of vegetable oil, now it’s up to 175 million. Most is for cooking, the remainder split between cosmetics and biodiesel fuel. Basically, the food cooking part is waste, ready for resourceful folks like Burgess to collect and recycle, and use in freedom-loving cross-country trips. That’s something Fred was planning to do in a VW van he converted, and something is now calling me to do the same. Partly because it’s the best way to express my desire to penetrate the fears of losing freedom in a terrorist-focused world; partly because it shows even the misguided VW bosses who damaged diesel’s status in the U.S. can’t diminish the abilities of the machines they sold; and partly because I’m guessing Fred would want me to.