Yes, I realize that cars are not recording gear. But since buying this 25-year-old car last spring, it's the piece of gear I'm most excited about lately. Give me a few paragraphs, and I'll do my best to tie it into audio and share my excitement.
Without delving into politics, in November 2005, I felt like I wanted to seriously look into some way of getting around that mimimize my buying petroleum products. My research led me towards running a diesel car on vegetable oil or on biodiesel, which is 99.9% pure vegetable oil. More on this subject later. My searches for diesel vehicles on eBay turned up mostly VWs, Volvos, Hummers, some pickup trucks, and quite a few Mercedes, which seemed to be the most reasonably priced-usually between $1000 to $6000 depending on age and mileage. I was particularly into the station wagons, which looked cool for moving gear and going on camping and surf trips.
I ended up buying a 1981 wagon, which was in great shape-except for the blown up engine-for $1500. A reconditioned engine was another $900, and the labor to put it in was $1200. $3600 out the door. I've been driving the car for over a year (without buying hardly any petroleum diesel), and it runs great, and I have yet to incur (knocking on the walnut wood dashboard) a major repair of any kind. It's done several trips from Northern to Southern California without mishap, and it powers right up the grapevine, unlike my finally-had-to-retire-it 1983 Subaru 4WD wagon (as featured on page 8 of Tape Op #40, for you loyal readers). The fuel mileage is in the low-to-mid 20s, pretty good for a huge car that can fit an entire band's gear or sleeps me comfortably in the back or houses my 10 ft longboard inside the car.
OK, so what does this have to with audio? Here're some tenuous links. Most people reading this magazine need a car. Used cars are cheaper than new ones but generally less reliable. But let me tell you, these old Mercedes are like old Telefunken or Neumann mics [but cheaper! -AH]-completely over-engineered and built to a very high standard. This 25-year-old car is still very solid with minimal rattles and very few broken pieces of plastic. It was built to last. I recently bumped into a friend of mine who is a mechanic. After I told him about buying the car, he remarked, "If everyone drove those, I'd be out of work." My used car is in much better condition than most of my friends' 5-10-year-old American and Japanese cars. Diesel Mercedes are known to reach up to 1,000,000 miles on their original engine when properly cared for. 500,000 miles is pretty common. Point being, the less you spend on a car that gets you from point A to B, the more money you have left over for buying music and recording gear that you'll be moving around in said car. Our esteemed Editor, Larry, went out and bought a cheap used Mercedes after riding in mine when I picked him up at the airport one day.
One of the other attractions to a diesel car is that you can run it on recycled vegetable oil, often found free. If you're a Tape Op reader with more time than money, imagine if I could give you all of the money you spent on gasoline last year to spend on a microphone. What kind of mic would you buy? Well, don't get your hopes up yet; it's a bit more complex than it sounds. But if you're interested, here's how it works. To burn pure vegetable oil in a diesel engine, you need to add a second gas tank for the veggie oil. You need to run heating lines from your engine's cooling system to the new tank to heat up the vegetable oil. You need a switch that will switch between the original tank and the new tank. The original tank needs to have either petroleum diesel or biodiesel (more on that later) in it. The car needs to be started on diesel/biodiesel, and once the engine and secondary tank have warmed up, you can switch over to the secondary tank. Furthermore, it's very important to remember to switch back to the primary tank a few minutes before you stop the engine, or the car probably won't start again with the vegetable oil in the fuel lines and engine. You'll also need to find a source for used veggie oil and collect it on a regular basis. Sounds like a hassle? Yeah, it seemed like too much work for me too, and I know I would have spaced out and shut the engine off with the veggie oil in it. The conversion is also around $1000-$2000, and you'll also need a very-fine fuel filter, a good pump, and storage facilities, which will add another $500-$1000 to your investment. But if you have the time, you can essentially drive a car for free once converted. I know people who've done it. (One friend of mine buys veggie oil at Costco for about $1 a gallon. Cheaper than gas and you save time and don't need the filter.)
I instead opted to use B-99.9 biodiesel. Advantages? It's 99.9% vegetable oil, so my initial goal of not purchasing petroleum products was met. (The 0.1% is some brew of chemicals that keeps the oil viscous and allows the car to start with it.) With biodiesel, there is no conversion necessary, just pour it in the tank. If you can't find biodiesel, you can run it on standard petroleum diesel (nicknamed "dino-diesel", as in dinosaurs, in the biodiesel industry). The clackity sound associated with most diesel engines nearly disappears and only comes back if you switch back to petroleum diesel. You can mix the two fuels. And lastly, for those of you who are concerned about air quality, biodiesel runs much, much cleaner than petroleum fuels. Oh, and diesel engines in general get better mileage than gasoline engines. Sounds too good to be true, huh? Well, there are some disadvantages. For one, it's expensive. I've paid between $3.45 and $3.75 per gallon. Your fuel lines will not last as long. The 0.1% stuff will erode them much quicker than petroleum or pure veggie oil will. Where they might normally last 10 years, 1-2 years is more likely with the B-99.9. You can upgrade to fuel lines that resist the erosion for less than $100 however, depending on how long your fuel lines are. But consider the following points. Regular gas is getting pretty expensive too and will probably never come back down. Diesels get better mileage. Biodiesel runs cleaner, and a cleaner-running engine will probably need fewer repairs. Even if you don't really care about cleaner air and using a renewable energy source, I would guess that dollar-for-dollar, running biodiesel isn't much more expensive than running a gasoline car. Might even be cheaper in the long run. One sidenote for the more-time-than-money folks: you can skip the costly conversion process and turn free, recycled veggie oil into biodiesel in your backyard. I've never done it, but apparently, the startup cost is pretty low, and just like building bombs and mod'ing SM57s, you can find out how to do it on the Internet. I have bought backyard biodiesel on occasion, and it worked great. This brings me to my last point. Biodiesel is kind of fun.
I've met a lot of interesting people on the road trying to find biodiesel. There's a website (biodiesel.org) that lists retail biodiesel vendors by state. Still, it reminds me of scoring weed when I was younger. "Dude, I hear you got biodiesel there. Do you have any? How much?" One guy in Santa Cruz who runs a farm-feed store makes his B-99.9 from 100% post-consumer-waste oil, has a solar-powered processing setup, and his pump is solar-powered too. Crazy to think I can drive my huge station wagon courtesy of the sun's energy and oil that cooked a bunch of tacos and Chinese food. In Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, biodiesel is nearly mainstream with several industrial-type filling stations that sell it. At one large, 40-pump commercial filling station in Ventura, I met the owner, 60- something-year-old T. W. Brown of T. W. Brown Oil, Inc. He came out of the office in his white suit and big cowboy hat to shake my hand and thank me for supporting the biodiesel industry. The common link between this aging oilman and the young, idealistic farmer in Santa Cruz is their opinion that change is necessary, and they're both hoping to get that change going. But like I mentioned at the opening of this review, you could think of this as saving money for microphones and owning a car that's as well engineered and built as a vintage German mic. (www.ebay.com, www.biodiesel.org)