Hummers and muscle cars go green

Diesel's not just for truckers anymore. Converting cars with notoriously bad mileage can make them eco-friendly without compromising performance. Photos: Muscle cars with a conscience Video: Souped-up Impala outraces Lamborghini

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
Jonathan Goodwin has built a car that can run on ethanol, hydrogen, biodiesel or natural gas--all fairly clean fuels. It gets the equivalent of 40 miles a gallon. And it's a Hummer.

Goodwin, a biodiesel conversion specialist and founder of alternative energy start-up SAE Energy, is an emerging name in an unlikely niche in the clean tech market: making muscle cars green.

He's already converted about 60 H2 Hummers from gas to diesel and about 100 H1 hummers, including a Hummer that can burn the whole menu of clean fuels.

Photos: Muscle cars with a conscience

On Earth Day (April 22nd), MTV Networks' show Pimp My Ride will feature a 1965 Impala he converted from gas to biodiesel. And since nothing says Earth Day like a drag race, the converted Impala went up against a Lamborghini in a quarter-mile test. The Impala won.

"You don't have to sacrifice the fun aspects of a car. All you have to do is change your fuel," said Martin Tobias, CEO of Imperium Renewables, a biodiesel refiner that developed the Pimp My Ride biodiesel experiment with MTV. "It completely blew away the Lamborghini. It was only two-thirds down the track when the Impala crossed the finish line."

The same dynamics underpin the growth in the clean car market. Manufacturers are offering consumers clean cars--a big selling point--but not cutting back on performance.

"The first electric cars were like golf carts. You really had to be freakin' altruistic to drive one of those things," Tobias said. "Tesla changed that by telling customers 'You can have it all.'"

If anything, consumers and businesses are clearly interested in clean cars. With the rise of biodiesel, the market and price for used diesel cars has climbed, according to anecdotal reports from sellers, and Toyota has continued to experience dramatic shipment growth for its Prius hybrid.

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Video: Souped-up Impala outraces Lamborghini
The car community is seeing a new breed of modified cars.

Goodwin says a large delivery company is currently negotiating with him about converting fleets of their diesel delivery vehicles from diesel to natural gas.

Goodwin, who's based in Wichita, Kan., doesn't advertise or push the services through Web sites much because it generates too many inquiries.

"I really get pounded with a lot of requests when I do," he said. "But it doesn't look like I will be able to hide much longer."

Gas-to-diesel conversions are the automotive equivalent of a heart transplant. The gas-burning engine and original transmission are removed and replaced with a Duramax diesel engine, typically inserted in Chevy trucks, and an Allison transmission.

With a Hummer, little retrofitting is required. With the Impala, the center divider in the car had to be widened. In the end, though, the car still accommodated four or more passengers, unlike the two-seater Lamborghini.

A gas-to-diesel conversion boosts a Hummer's mileage from about 10 miles a gallon to between 22 and 24 miles a gallon. Additionally, the horsepower jumps from about 325 in the regular Hummer to 650, giving the car more power.

The performance increase comes in part from the inherent properties of diesel engines. Overall, a diesel can deliver more torque--the rotational force applied to an object, in this case the car's crankshaft--than a gas engine. A 500 horsepower gas engine might put out 600 foot-pounds of torque. A similar diesel might put out 800 to 900 foot-pounds of torque.

The engine inserted into the 1965 Impala cranks 850 horsepower and 1200 foot-pounds of torque. The Impala was chosen because it has a stronger frame than most other mid-1960s muscle cars.

"Torque is the key," Goodwin said.

The mileage increase alone makes the Hummer more green than it was originally. But drivers can cut down on emissions even more if they run their cars on biodiesel, made from vegetable oil, rather than diesel derived from hydrocarbons dug from the earth. The converted cars can run on either fuel, but biodiesel puts far less carbon dioxide into the air, along with other pollutants. (Diesel cars can also run on waste vegetable oil, but typically require additional modifications before it can just get filled up at the deep fat fryer.)

Some customers eye conversions in terms of dollars and cents. The delivery company wants to switch from diesel to natural gas because the fuel costs far less. "If I can reduce their fuel consumption by 5 percent, that's huge," Goodwin said.

For most customers, though, the status and novelty factor seem to be drivers. The conversion, which takes about seven days, costs roughly $24,000. If gas sells for $3 a gallon, you'd have to drive around 140,000 miles before breaking even.

Still, the idea of a green Hummer does take getting used to. Another TV network wants to do a story on biodiesel conversion, but balked at the idea of centering the show around a Hummer. To avoid potential complaints, they will convert a Cadillac Escalade.