Paul Patrzalek’s house in La Mesa is impossible to miss: Outside in the front yard sits a 10,000-pound truck with a camper shell that looks — and sounds — not unlike a tank. It’s beige in color, adorned with the Mercedes logo. The cab is bright white, and the whole thing sits a good few feet off the ground. It looks utterly out of place in this quiet neighborhood, a hulking machine set down amidst the sedans and minivans.
This monster is a Unimog, a 1975 Mercedes behemoth that sits in Patrzalek’s driveway, dwarfing the surf-style ’60s wagon beside it and his one-story, peachy-white house.
In the Unimog sits Patrzalek, who has climbed aboard to start it. The vehicle rumbles to life, shaking with the effort, sound filling the street. Patrzalek revs the engine and the ground trembles. A grin stretches across his bearded face, eyes shielded by sunglasses and a military-style black cap. He says something inaudible, motor growling, words swallowed. He tries again, shouting over the din.
“Soon this will run on vegetable oil!”
That, he says, is the plan; when he gets the special conversion kit he needs, Patrzalek will make the necessary modifications to the Unimog that will allow it to run on what is known as “waste vegetable oil” or “straight vegetable oil,” which he collects from restaurants around the city. It’s called “greasel” in the grease-car community, not to be confused with “biodiesel,” which is veggie oil that has been chemically modified.
Over the past year, Patrzalek’s pet project of turning diesel vehicles into what have been termed “veggie cars” has evolved into a business — albeit a slow one. While most of the conversions have been done on-site at his clients’ homes, some he does in a larger workspace in Lakeside and in his La Mesa garage, which is crammed full of bikes, bike parts, car parts, and surfboards. Music blasts from a stereo hanging above Patrzalek’s workstation, a wooden table at the back of the garage covered in tools and debris.
The idea for converting cars first came to Patrzalek five years ago, but he didn’t get going on it until last year, after having seen Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
“I was watching [it] with a friend of mine, and I looked over and I said, ‘I’m out. I give myself a month to do the research, find a veggie car kit, or I’m going to quit driving altogether,’” he says, sitting at his desk at Adams Avenue Bicycles, where he also works as, in his words, a “parts guy.”
“With that kind of incentive,” he says, “[it] got me really quick to figure something out.”
After purchasing his conversion kit from Lovecraft.com, at that time the only online kit vendor that sold the one-fuel-tank system he was after, Patrzalek got himself an ancient Benz and began the installation process. The story is, as Patrzalek tells it, half determination and half kismet.
“It’s really funny, my buddy has a used bicycle shop and he just gets weird stuff,” he explains. “And out of the blue, I just call him up and I say, ‘Hey, Dave, do you have an old Mercedes you want to sell?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, I do.’ And the thing is so beat up when I got it that I barely got it home. I said, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ But then I finally got the kit from Lovecraft and threw it in, and I was just totally stoked.”
Another local grease-car driver is Joe Connor, a San Diego sportswriter who launched the Green Power Sports Tour, a tour of ballparks around the U.S. that he conducted in “the Green Machine,” a bright green Mercedes sedan that runs on straight vegetable oil. The tour, sponsored by several major companies including Autotrader.com and MapQuest, was completed in December 2007. Connor plans to embark on another beginning this August.
His decision to convert to vegetable oil was not financial, he says, but ideological.
“If America prides itself on innovation, I didn’t see any innovation in our energy policy,” Connor, who is currently in Central America, writes via email. “Therefore, I felt it important to make a statement.
“If I can do it, you can do it,” he continues.
That seems to be the prevailing theory behind grease cars: doing it yourself. According to Patrzalek, who has worked on vintage cars since his childhood, the kit works right out of the box. Both he and Connor haven’t looked back.
“The conversion is basically just hillbilly engineering at its finest,” Patrzalek says, popping the hood on a candy-apple red Mercedes wagon.
He explains the conversion process, which can only be made to diesel-powered vehicles. It appears technically daunting but, Patrzalek claims, can be done by anybody who is “a bit mechanically inclined.” The first step, he says, is to install a heated filter for the oil. The second is to take out the stock fuel filter and put in a heat transfer unit, a duel chamber that runs both fuel and coolant into the engine. Then, as Patrzalek explains, a special fuel pump must go in and hook into the coolant line so that the heated oil and the coolant can both travel to the motor. After hooking up all the necessary hoses, the job should be finished.
While many websites and other sources claim that in order to heat the oil, veggie cars must be started and stopped on diesel or biodiesel — a vegetable-oil-based fuel that includes several harmful chemicals — Patrzalek says he hasn’t had any problems.
“There’s always people telling me, ‘Oh, you have to start it and stop it on diesel’ and all that. And in our climate it’s not necessary,” he says. “For almost anywhere you don’t need to. You just need to mix kerosene or some kind of thinner with your oil to get it started in subzero weather.”
Melanie Zauscher, a third-year mechanical-engineering graduate student and founder of University of San Diego’s Biofuel Action and Awareness Network, says this depends on the system of the car, the oil used, and the weather.