May 4, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Diesel dealers provide a pipeline to rare, green cars

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.

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14 comments

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Not Clean Air For Everybody
Those that are around the crops that are used for the "Green Fuels" have to put up with the smell and the heat caused by the plants being grown for the "Green Fuels". Everybody has to live, and maybe die, with the global warming of the planet caused by the living and then decaying of the plants being used for the "green Fuels. The oil under the ground decayed to the point that they can be used for fuels. Now the "Green Fuel" people are subjecting everybody to the effects of their bio-fuels that are decaying so they can be processed into fuels. Every living anything will suffer because of these bio-fuel businesses.
Posted by bobbydi (51 comments )
Reply Link Flag
whatever dude
it takes millions of years for oil to form, takes only one season or
less to grow the plants to product the fuel and do it again

you don't know what you are talking about
Posted by RompStar_420 (772 comments )
Link Flag
Heat from growing plants???
The original comment must be explained further to me in order to understand the validity of such a position.

Heat is released from growing crops used for fuel?

What heat?

Plants take up CO2 and release oxygen while growing; the CO2 is released when burned as fuel which is a closed carbon system.

Petroleum cannot be regrown to retake up the CO2 that is output when burned and is an open-carbon system.

I'm not sure I understand the original poster's position about the heat that we all must put up with.
Posted by gregsfc (10 comments )
Link Flag
smell and heat of plants?
This appears to be a comment by someone who has to be negative about everything. Go buy a bicycle and for Heaven's sake, don't fart while pedalling!
Posted by baldguy61 (63 comments )
Link Flag
What modifications to use biodiesel?
I drive a 2006 Jetta TDI (diesel). I have exclusively used B20, biodiesel in the tank after the first month of purchasing the vehicle new. I have driven the vehicle for eighteen months exclusively on B20.

No modifications are necessary, even if I were running B100.

If one were to modify, what modifications could be done to help, since all diesels will run on any blend of biodiesel with no modifications?

The only feasible modification that I can think of would be to install a suplimental fuel filter, along side the factory-installed filter to further ensure that algae, fungi, or water doesn't accumulate in the fuel sytem and get into the fuel pump and/or injectors of a diesel auto. It may also be possible to install something in the fuel tank to help keep water and the like out of that system as well, since biodiesel creates an environment that is more condusive to water accumulation.

The supplimental fuel filter is required by GM and Daimler Chrysler for their fleets who choose to use B20 for warranty purposes. Other than that, there is nothing more one can do, since biodiesel is perfectly suitable for all diesel engines to start with.
Posted by gregsfc (10 comments )
Reply Link Flag
true, with some caveats
True, you don't have to modify a diesel car to pour in biodiesel and start driving. But you *should* change the fuel filter, which can become clogged after running biodiesel if you've already been using regular diesel first for a while, or if you switch between the two fuel types. And most older cars, such as Mercedes from the 1980s, will also need some new hoses because the older ones will degrade and leak over time when subjected to biodiesel regularly. It's also wise to avoid spilling biodiesel on the body of the car, as it can mess up the paint job.
Posted by elsa.wenzel (20 comments )
Link Flag
Are these cars really green
what about the use of land to grow the crops to make the fuel.
Posted by wildchild_plasma_gyro (296 comments )
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Yes there are down falls, but--hey--it's not petroleum
Sure it takes land to grow crops for biofuels and this means that it is not "the" solution, but there is no "the" solution to immediately reduce CO2 emissions and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, however, using all our available land for vegetation (as is the case with crops), and then using that extra land to uptake CO2 to release as fuel is a closed-carbon cycle, is one of the solutions used in conjunction with other methods.

Are there disadvantages to using land for fuel? Sure there are, but there are advantages as well. Ask any farmer what they think about an extra market for their products. If corn or soy oil costs us fifty cents more per unit, that won't break us, but if it doubles a farmer's income, that's a good energy strategy.

If the entire U.S. had a biodiesel blend of just 5% added to our diesel fuel supply, we could cut petroleum use by the same amount that we import from Iraq (our number two importee of petroleum from the Middle East).

Moreover, if one-third of our autos were diesel powered we could cut petroleum consumption by 1.4 million barrels per day, which is what we import from Saudi Arabia (our number one importee of petroleum from the Middle East).

If any one objectively looks at the prospect of diesel cars plus biodiesel, as compared to gas cars plus ethanol, or hybrids that do not yet command a large production output; diesel technologies have to look pretty promising. Over 50% of new car registrations in Europe are diesel. That means that all automakers make them in large quantities in all classes, and that means they could easily be brought to us with the added advantage of all diesels being alternative fuel ready w/o modification and another advantage in that the alternative fuel is 1 1/2 times as energy dense as alternative fuel for gas cars.

Palm oil does not increase CO2. If rainforest are cut down to make way for palm to use in the production of biodiesel, then there may be a case to be made, however, only one instance of this phenomenon was ever known to have happened.
Posted by gregsfc (10 comments )
Link Flag
Well "green" is relative, but
Biodiesel has the highest net energy balance of any liquid fuel. According to the DoE, for every energy unit input of energy taken to produce biodiesel, it creates 3.2 units of energy output. Compare that against any other fuel, and you'll see biodiesel makes sense.

According to the National Biodiesel Board, B20 and B100 reduce emissions by the following percentages from vehicle tailpipes as compared to regular diesel fuel

Percent reduction or increase B20/B100

Unburned hydrocarbons -20%/-67%
Carbon monoxide -12%/-48%
Particulates of matter -12%/-47%
Nitrogen oxides + or - 2%/ +10%

CO2 - 78% reduction on a lifecycle basis (DoE/EPA) comprehensive study. Using this figure, B20 would reduce CO2 output an average of 15.6% per vehicle using that fuel.

Biodiesel is non-toxic, non-hazardous, 1/2 as combustible as regular diesel fuel, and remember, it's made from vege oil, so how bad can it be.
Posted by gregsfc (10 comments )
Link Flag
Well, the car is green. But not neccisarily the fuel
Diesels are great, in that a Diesel Jetta burns 41% less oil, and puts up 33% less CO2.

Issue comes down to the fuel.

BioDiesel can be marginally beneficial, but in general it costs you and taxpayers a lot of money per gallon.

And if that BioDiesel comes from sources like Palm Oil, like what Imperium Renewables is doing. It can easily be 10x worse in CO2 emmisions than normal diesel.

So bad that if countries like Brazil, Indonesia, or Malaysia ramp up their Palm Oil production, by slashing rainforrests and exposing the soil, that'd put them on par with China in CO2 emmisions.

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://greyfalcon.net/biofuels" target="_newWindow">http://greyfalcon.net/biofuels</a>
Posted by greyflcn (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
best vehicle to cut greenhouse gas
In my personal opinion the best vehicle for the future is a diesel plug-in hybrid vehicle. Combining the best parts of current technology engineered to use B100 gets best results for a combustion engine in MPG (80-100+), CO2 reduction, PM reduction. If you have solar panels on your roof you are fueling your car from the sun. A start to make this technology to happen is for consumers to demand that the auto builders make. The CAFE MPG standards must be raised and the US automakers are funding an all out marketing campaign to influence the house and senate bills in process. Do not be duped, US jobs are being lost because of their refusal to increase their fuel efficiency to that of toyota and honda. The green washing of ford and GM continues

Diesel electric hybrid technology is already used in trains, municipal buses, and GM showed a concept car in 2006 the VOLT. This technology can be used on all sized vehicles. The good thing about biodiesel is that it does not have to be made from food crops. Waste streams of oils, grease, and the crop of the future is oil bearing algae. Algal biodiesel is at the test bench stage. The nations total fuel supply could be supplied by 100 square miles of desert growing algae. Companies and universities are working on it.

If your in the SF Bay Area and want a diesel go to Green Means Go, this auto broker is a friend of mine.

Soy Biodiesel has a 3-2 energy balance and it is assumed that the off road vehicles were using petro diesel. Alot of farmers growing soy for biodiesel are using the biodiesel in their tractors now so that energy balance is higher now. Waste grease energy balance is alot better at 7-1. Organic farmers taking out the petro fertilizers have a better energy balance also, anything that can take the petro out of the farming equation helps the balance.

Kari Lemons
Greenstock Consulting
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www" target="_newWindow">http://www</a>. greenstockconsulting.com
Posted by klemons22 (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
42 MPG Prius
I'm not sure who it is that only gets 42 MPG in their Prius, but my '04 gets an average of 62+. Maybe Al Gore III? Whoever it is should try driving below Mach 1.
Posted by baldguy61 (63 comments )
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Posted by dieselparts (2 comments )
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