Mr. Green Car: A green trip to Vermont in a 1981 diesel-powered VW Rabbit

"Mr. Green Car" Allen Penticoff and his 1981 diesel-powered Volkswagen Rabbit, ready to hit the road. Photo by Allen Penticoff

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

I recently had a long road trip in my funky old 1981 VW Rabbit diesel. The destination was Burlington, Vt., for a nephew’s wedding. It’s about a 1,000-mile trip, though I did not take the fastest route, and my odometer does not work, so I don’t know how far the trip actually was, and it really did not matter.

First, I decided to drive instead of fly because of the cost. An airline ticket round-trip was $380. I calculated I could drive my 1992 Honda Civic there and back for $150 in gas, plus see some friends along the way, and tour the Adirondack area of upstate New York as well—an area long on my bucket list to see. But when the deadline to go came, the Civic had brake issues that were not lending to a quick repair—so I turned to the Rabbit that has been parked all winter, and it started on the first turn of the key. Well, that’s a positive sign.

The next morning, well, technically, it was still morning, I was on the road. But I was buying taillight bulbs in Rochelle before long. I also learned the air conditioner would run anytime the fan switch was on. Disconnected the A/C so I could use just the fan. This was just the beginning of a long reacquaintance with the myriad problems this clunker has. I’m not dissing it—it actually “clunks.”

A few miles were on water. Photo by Allen Penticoff

I had some vegetable oil saved from last year, and had seen my supplier for a few gallons more. In total, I had about 13 gallons of veggie oil to run on—good for about 520 miles. This would be the first serious trip I’ve made running on veggie oil, and the long, flat stretches of Interstate 90 proved it works great. The engine runs a bit smoother and quieter on veggie oil, but lacks a bit of power in the hills.

You see, what I have is an old Volkswagen Rabbit diesel that has been modified to run on waste vegetable oil. Most of this oil comes from restaurant fryers, is filtered, then used directly by the engine after being heated by hot water from the engine’s cooling system. You must start on diesel, and shut down on diesel, but other than that, it works great. It is also very environmentally friendly, as the oil is sourced from plants, little energy is involved in processing the plants into oil, and it was already “used” once—thus is a “reuse” as well. The carbon released can be reabsorbed by the plants that make the oil—creating a closed loop for the CO2 emissions.

The first leg of the trip got me to Erie, Pa., using 9.5 gallons of veggie oil and only 3 gallons of diesel ($10.04). Not bad. I then headed along the bottom of New York State on scenic Interstate 86 rather than the shorter, flatter Interstate 90 tollway of the busy New York State Thruway. Taking a left off I-86 at Bath, N.Y., then up along beautiful Kauka Lake in the Finger Lakes region, to Canton, N.Y., visiting friends. The next day, I angled down through the gentle mountains of the upper Adirondacks to take a ferry across lovely Lake Champlain ($17.50) to Burlington, Vt. Plenty of wonderful scenery entertained me along the way. In all, the VW chugged through 15.5 gallons of veggie oil and 10.6 gallons of diesel to arrive and run around Burlington for several days, including a side trip up to Burton Island State Park.

Adirondack driving, tree-covered hills and water. Photo by Allen Penticoff

You math whizzes may notice I used more veggie oil than I had with me. Well, you’re right. I started with a full veggie oil tank (2 gallons), used that and all I carried with me. But arriving in Burlington, a wedding party person was delighted to hear I was using veggie oil for power. He had 4 gallons of peanut oil from frying a turkey, and did not know what to do with it. He gave it to me after the wedding we were attending.

For the return trip, I used 2 gallons of the turkey fryer oil straight from the jug—the rest needed filtering, so I saved it to take home. The return trip used those 2 gallons as well, and I still need to refill the tank, so that would mean 4 gallons in all to even out veggie fuel used on the trip at 17.5 gallons. Diesel consumed totaled 32.7 gallons for $113.03.

I did not refill the veggie oil tank at night, since it was hard to see. I did not fill it in the morning if the oil was cold and slow to pour. I used diesel mostly in the mountains and any time the veggie tank ran dry, and I was still far from taking a break—it did not matter, since I did not have enough veggie oil for a round trip anyway. If I’d had a bit more time, I probably could have resupplied veggie oil in Vermont, as there are people out there doing the same thing. My car was full of stuff from the wedding, so there was no room for stored oil anyway.

The air conditioner draws too much power away from this old, tired engine—so I drove windows down nearly always. Can’t hear the stereo then—no point in having it on. On the way back, a chassis vibration limited me pretty much to 60 mph—which, in a way, is relaxing—everyone passes you, and you never have to worry about cops. No cruise control, either, but I can use either foot for the gas pedal. By the way, your I-PASS is good on any toll road east of here, making for efficient driving. I’d often pass cars that had just passed me while they waited in line to pay their toll.

Vermont looks and acts a lot like Wisconsin. Vermont is to New York City what Wisconsin is to Chicago. People in fancy cars tend to be from out of state. Locals drive Jeeps and Subarus—winter is very long there. You hear many people speaking French because Montreal is not far away, and their citizens motorcycle and boat in the area.

On the way back, I took in the lower Adirondacks, which seemed somewhat more remote and less populated than the northern part. Then, returned along southern New York on I-86 again, where the traffic is light enough to tolerate my slow pace. A few stops to swim helped out the temperature issue nicely. The last phase was an all-nighter on I-90 with the trucks—whom I must say I would rather travel with than the rude people in cars. All the truckers gave me plenty of space, and I’d let them know when they were clear—many flashed back in appreciation.

So, this story is a bit long, but so was the 2,000-plus-mile drive—getting more than 40 mpg in an antique car—it made for a nice, cheap adventure—with a purpose. You can check out more about veggie oil power by attending the upcoming Illinois Renewable Energy & Sustainable Lifestyle Fair at Ogle County Fairgrounds near Oregon, Ill., Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 7-8.

From the July 28-Aug 3, 2010 issue

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