Diesel dealers provide a pipeline to rare, green cars

An unusual group of used car salespeople is catering to a middle-class market for inexpensive, eco-friendly cars. Photos: Unlikely dealers flip cult biodiesel cars

Elsa Wenzel
4 min read
To serve a growing demand for greener, cheaper transportation, a new class of used car dealers has found a niche selling biodiesel-ready autos.

Around the country, dealerships hawking "green" diesel cars are attracting middle-class drivers motivated by high gas prices and the threat of global warming. More than a dozen of these businesses are concentrated along the West Coast, where the biodiesel subculture is breaking into the mainstream.

Most of these clean-diesel entrepreneurs rely exclusively on the Internet for advertising, using their own Web sites and Craigslist classifieds to lure potential buyers, while a minority also showcase their wheels from streetside auto lots.

"In 2003, I came out of the closet and became a full-blown car dealer," said Steve Ahl, a former recycled-lumber salesman who is outfitting his used diesel car lot in Ukiah, Calif., with solar panels. "This isn't the typical suede shoe used car lot operation."

Ahl Motors TDI Cars has sold some 700 Volkswagen Turbo Direct Injection (TDI) diesels as well as Ford and Honda trucks, and currently stocks 25 models priced between $10,000 and $35,000. Ahl said most customers tell him they want to kick the fossil-fuel habit by using biodiesel.

This thing is so pimp; I feel like Barry White when I'm driving.
--Colette Brooks,
founder, BioBling

After undergoing modifications that cost as little as $50 or as much as $2,000, diesel cars can chug either petroleum-based diesel, crop-based biodiesel, vegetable oil from the deep-fryers of fast-food kitchens, or even a combination of the three.

Ahl Motors' models can accept biodiesel after minimal modifications. When oil prices spiked more than two years ago, sales took off and have grown steadily since then, fluctuating with the rise and fall of the cost of diesel, according to Ahl. Although the Northern California lot attracts mostly politically progressive customers--including actor Peter Coyote, who bought a 2006 Volkswagen Jetta TDI last fall--Ahl also sees a fair share of shoppers who vote to the right.

"I have sold to conservative Republicans just because these cars make economical sense," he said. (Ahl Motors' only other salesman has a mobile phone ringtone that exclaims, "Democrats piss me off," whenever Ahl calls.)

Whatever the political motivation of buyers, the longevity and fuel-efficiency of diesel cars is a key selling point for Ahl's customers. An odometer clocking 100,000 miles may indicate old age for a gasoline engine, but that's a sign of youth for diesel cars like Volkswagen TDIs, which are built to last half a million miles.

"I have never seen such passion for an automobile that was not a limited edition sports car or a collector's edition," Ahl said. "They're sporty, economical and they go forever."

In tests by AutoWeek magazine last year, a Volkswagen Jetta TDI achieved 49.9 miles per gallon, besting the 42 miles per gallon of a Toyota Prius. With or without biodiesel, which hovers around $3.50 per gallon in California, such fuel economy can translate to savings at the pump. Some of Ahl's customers have come from as far as San Diego and Seattle intending to replace a hybrid Toyota or Honda with a Volkswagen TDI and run it on biodiesel.

Photos: Unlikely dealers flip cult biodiesel cars

"It's not an ivory-tower environmentalism; it's very real," Sienna Wildwind said of using biodiesel. In 2005 she launched Green Means Go, a one-woman brokerage that helps people in the Bay Area locate and purchase used diesel Volkswagens. She broke even last year with earnings from sales of cars as well as the tongue-and-cheek "Women of Biodiesel 2007" calendar she published.

"A lot of people find that driving in this culture is their only way of getting around, and using biodiesel or straight vegetable oil makes a big difference in our carbon dioxide output," she said. "It's a real solution that people can do without a big change in lifestyle."

Although diesel sedans and station wagons may be practical and fuel-efficient workhorses, other models attract a glitzier following. In Los Angeles, publicist Colette Brooks has built a business gussying up vintage diesel cars.

"I have a 1984, rare Lincoln Continental Bill Blass edition that is gold on gold, baby," she said. "This thing is so pimp; I feel like Barry White when I'm driving. There's an old-English-meets-gang typeface on the back that says 'ecology,' and tinted windows."

Brooks' company, BioBling, acquires rare Cadillac, Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen models from around the country, modifies each one for biodiesel and offers customizations such as fake fur interiors, glittery paint jobs and flat-screen televisions. She has sold 20 vehicles so far and receives about two calls or e-mails each day from potential customers--the same number of requests that trickled in monthly when BioBling launched in 2005.

Brooks, who can be found cruising Los Angeles in a 1979 Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz or one of her seven other biodiesel whips, noted that business grew after the release of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth global warming film last year.

Thanks in part to Brooks' eco-evangelism, more glammed-up biodiesel cars are poised to hit Hollywood. She convinced Toyota to supply Prius hybrids to chauffeur A-list celebrities including Harrison Ford and Cameron Diaz to the 2003 Academy Awards. Brooks is in the process of negotiating with more automakers to supply biodiesel limousines to deliver stars to next year's Oscars.

Her timing comes as a new generation of diesel cars could clean up the dirty reputation of their predecessors from three decades ago. Diesel "land yachts" produced by Detroit in the wake of the 1970s oil crisis spewed nitrogen oxides found in smog and acid rain.

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"We're going to go through a period of thrashing about in a positive way, seeing what works best...But one way or another, we're going to end up electrified."
--Mike Millikin, editor, Green Car Congress

Yet those states are likely to allow the sale of new diesels within the year. Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen and other car manufacturers will introduce more-efficient diesel models for 2008 just as lower-sulfur diesel fuels reach more gas stations. Passenger diesels comprise only 3.2 percent of the U.S. auto market but will surpass 10 percent by 2015, if predictions by JD Power and Associates hold true.

In the meantime, however, classic used diesel cars continue to attract a cult following. In some cases, Kelley Blue Book values have risen for highly sought-after Volkswagen TDIs and Mercedes 300 and 240 models. Bay Area dealers suggest that prices on Reagan-era Mercedes have shot up by as much as 30 percent in several years. For instance, a 1981 Mercedes 300D in great shape and with less than 200,000 miles of wear may have sold for $3,000 in 2004 but could fetch about $4,000 today. After a vegetable oil conversion, the same car could sell for $6,000. That's bad news for drivers looking for a deal on an old, green car, but good news for those in the business of reselling them.

One drawback to biodiesel is the scarcity of fueling pumps. However, green fuel makers are ramping up production. The National Biodiesel Board counts more than 1,100 biodiesel stations that meet the white-glove standards of the 1990 Clean Air Act; Seattle's Imperium Renewables is building four new biodiesel plants; and Willie Nelson's BioWillie blend is spreading through Texas.

The government gives biofuel producers a 10 cent per gallon tax credit and a refund of 30 percent off the cost of installing a 20 percent biodiesel pumping station. However, those savings don't translate to lower prices for consumers. Biodiesel often costs more than the petroleum-based standard.

Vegetable oil, on the other hand, is less expensive for drivers who arrange to pick it up for free from willing restaurants that would otherwise pay to dispose of it. The green-car dealerships run by Ahl, Wildwind and Brooks don't deal with vegetable-oil cars, but a growing number of car mechanics specialize in converting and reselling older Mercedes to run on french fry grease. Unlike biodiesel, there are no national standards for the quality of vegetable oil. However, its fans argue that it's greener than biodiesel blends that include fossil fuel.

Green Eye Autos in Eugene, Ore., is among the small businesses converting and reselling diesel cars for either vegetable oil or biodiesel. The lot has sold 100 diesel, flex-fuel and electric cars since it opened a year ago. Thirty vehicles currently on sale at the shop include 1980s Mercedes Benz models, newer Volkswagens and even a couple of ZAP electric cars.

"We're trying to make the world a better place," said office manager Toby Gamberoni.

In San Francisco, the two-man VegRev converts old Mercedes Benz to dual-tank systems that can take vegetable oil in addition to biodiesel or regular diesel, and it sells filtered vegetable oil for $1.50 per gallon. VegRev's founders order conversion kits from Greasecar in Massachusetts, which offers online classified ads for many dozens of diesel cars around the country. The Los Angeles-based Lovecraft Biofuels' single-tank vegetable-oil conversion shop is opening branches nationally.

For now, some 10.5 million alternative-fuel cars roll along America's roads--an assortment of gasoline-electric hybrid, flex-fuel and biofuel diesels, according to research firm R.L. Polk. The Department of Energy considers biodiesel the most popular alternative fuel.

However, critics charge that a massive adoption of biofuels would make cooking oil and food more expensive, while spoiling millions of acres of delicate farmland. Potential alternatives to soy- and corn-based biofuels include sustainable crops like switchgrass or kenaf, algae and even garbage.

No matter how many more cleaner diesel cars hit the road in the near term, many green car enthusiasts agree that the use of biofuel is just a temporary development on the path to a petroleum-free future for transportation.

Nevertheless, Mike Millikin, editor of online magazine Green Car Congress, finds the passion for biodiesel cars favorable.

"We're going to go through a period of thrashing about in a positive way, seeing what works best," he said. "But one way or another, we're going to end up electrified. The thing that people need to understand and apply is that it isn't just the fuel economy of your car, it's what goes into making the fuel, what's shipping the fuel. We're at a point when the whole lifecycle or system view is critical to our long-term prosperity and survival."