Mechanic Mark Penta has no environmental axe to grind. Around the time this race-car aficionado did his first “Greasecar” conversion, in 2001, vegetarian transport was only beginning to assume its place in the pantheon of renewable alternatives. Now, five years later, he finds himself at the forefront of an eco-revolution.
In case you haven’t heard, grease is in. Drivers the world over are scrambling to convert diesel cars to grease power — a.k.a. waste vegetable oil, or WVO. With a dozen employees, the Gilead Garage. The shop perches atop a streambed in the middle of a stunning valley, several miles from the nearest gas station. Penta’s charming, two-story red cottage is across the street.
On a recent spring afternoon, Penta takes a break from tinkering to show me around his veg-mobile factory. He has short hair and a clean-shaven face. When he looks up from an engine block through square glasses, his eyes stray, and I can tell he’s still preoccupied, Zen-like, with his task. Penta exudes “guy’s guy” energy — imagine Gary Snyder swilling beers on pit row at the Daytona 500.
Today the mechanic is standing by a sleek, electric-blue 2002 Volkswagen Jetta. The car’s hood has been popped and its trunk gutted, as if for a drug bust.
In a good month, he’ll turn four diesel cars, typically Volkswagen or Mercedes models, into “veg” rides. At about $800 per job on top of a thousand-dollar kit, his services may sound expensive — but wannabe veg-o-philes are willing to fork over the green. Penta’s clients have come from as far as Nova Scotia and Virginia to pick up a converted car; he often retrieves them at the Amtrak station in nearby Randolph.
“We’re totally swamped,” Penta declares, wiping a grease-stained hand on his shorts.
How do Greasecars work? To illustrate the process, Penta points to an empty tire well in the Jetta’s trunk. That’s where a 13-gallon veg tank will go. Grease gets pumped from here into the engine, where it’s filtered for impurities, then siphoned through a fuel injector into the cylinders.
Driving on vegetable fuel may sound like a gimmick, but Penta’s work is highly technical and precise. As he meanders through the shop, he explains that each Greasecar kit has been specially designed to match the car make and model. “People sometimes put the wrong tanks in the wrong vehicles,” he relates with a sigh. “I’ve seen plenty of disasters . . . People [who] know nothing about cars . . . buy some old diesel car, and they have nightmares.”
Penta pauses. “But we’re doing it pro,” he boasts. “It’s worth spending the extra time so people don’t have a problem in a year or two.”
Greasecars aren’t for everyone. First of all, you need to find a fuel source. Most restaurateurs are happy to donate leftover grease, but that’s a messy transaction. Then there’s the risk of gunking your engine. Why? Grease can’t be left in fuel lines, or they’ll clog — like what happens when you dump bacon drippings down the sink. “I’ve had a tank clog up that ruined a vacation to the Jersey shore,” Penta attests.
Then he beats himself up over it. “That was sloppy,” he admits, bowing his head. “It was my fault. I was real sloppy with my filtering . . .”
Fortunately, veg cars are calibrated to account for the clog factor. Greasecar kits include a computerized valve that switches a car’s fuel source to diesel at the beginning and end of each trip — a so-called “purge.” That explains why even grease junkies need to fill up on fossil fuels from time to time — like, maybe every 2000 miles. The “purge” ritual also suggests there’s something a bit mystical in veg-o-philes’ grease obsession.
“People get way into this,” Penta says. “I’m probably too into it — but there are certainly people out there like me.”
Enter the “Greasecar Forum.” Like any responsible subcultural institution, Greasecar has created an interactive web presence. Every day, the forum gets saturated with grease communiqués — and Penta, as site moderator, reads a ton of them. He estimates he spends about 10 hours a week on the site.
Comments on the “Greaseboard” are surprisingly thoughtful, with a strong whiff of the politically charged or greasily evangelical. Contributors with names such as “Ugly greasanova,” “Veggypig” and “Batteryboy” offer epic postings on a regular basis.
Judging by their web commentaries, many Greasecar aficionados could just as easily crush a beer can on their foreheads as sign up for a meditation class. Penta is a textbook exemplar. The mechanic asserts he was “born a car guy.” He went to automotive school in Colorado, and estimates he’s owned about 45 cars. “I wouldn’t consider myself an environmentalist,” he speculates. “I go out to mingle with the redneck race crowd just the same.”
But ask Penta about renewable energy, and he chats about hybrids and emissions standards as if they were grocery items. Before he got a salary and “bennys” with Greasecar, he worked at Northern Power Systems, a wind-power company in Waitsfield. He and his wife are “avid recyclers.”
As if to illustrate his own ideological paradox, Penta leads me out of the garage toward a blue, 1982 Mercedes 300TD wagon. He explains that he bought it to accommodate his growing family. Judging by the ski rack and plush leather interior, it looks like your average yuppie cruiser. Penta admits he likes to listen to books on tape while driving to Greasecar in Massachusetts. But then he reveals, popping the hood, that the wagon is actually a one-of-a-kind WVO prototype.
The engine is bursting with extra hoses and gadgets: time-delay widgets, an extra-special heat exchanger, high-tech veg filters. “This [car] is like the Enterprise,” Penta says proudly. “It’s like the grease-geek machine.”
On the other side of the barn, I notice two more obviously macho toys: a squat off-road Jeep and a green tractor. Neither vehicle would normally be associated with grease power by Penta’s clients, many of whom are socially conscious professionals. But both the jeep and the tractor have been vegged. “I don’t see any environmentalist cruising up these old logging roads in my Suzuki,” Penta observes dryly.
A few minutes later, he proceeds to fill the tractor with grease. The fuel spews from a long red hose, which is connected to the huge plastic container of WVO tucked into the corner of Penta’s shop. Between the French-fry smell and the sight of his futuristic lawn-mower, I wonder if I’ve been beamed up to a post-oil paradise.
But then a gigantic, gas-powered Ford truck pulls over on the side of the road, and I’m jolted back to fossil-fuel reality. “Oh, that’s just Mike,” Penta explains. “He’s stopping by to drink a few beers — just a local guy from up the road, got a furnace running on grease.”
If Greasecar fanatics are a curious sort of new-age pilgrims, then Penta is their mild-mannered messiah. As Mike sidles out of his truck, Penta mentions that other neighbors have begun to embrace his veggie ways. In fact, given the recent surge in interest, he’s making a conscious effort to keep his car clientele local. “We need to work on more localized” fuel systems, declares Penta — despite Greasecar’s growing automotive anti-empire.
As twilight bounces off the streambed below, Penta’s wife pulls into the driveway with their 2-and-a-half-year-old son in tow. Once set loose, the boy waddles up to Dad’s grease tractor as if he owns the thing. That’s because he often drives it while sitting on Penta’s lap. As Mom hoists the little guy to the helm of the grass-muncher, Penta and his buddy talk trucks.
Like Penta, Mike doesn’t have much affinity for flower-child ecology. He works as a welder in the Barre area. His belt reads, “North American Hunting Club: Life Member.”
“I’m all with veg,” says Mike. He would’ve bought a diesel truck instead of the one he owns now if the law had allowed it: Vermont statutes prohibit the sale of diesel autos. “It’s ridiculous,” Mike says. “You can buy your 10-miles-per-gallon Hummer, but you can’t buy a new diesel.”
Penta says he shares his friend’s concern, but points out that old-model diesel trucks are actually the next frontier for WVO. In fact, Greasecar kits are available for selected diesel pick-ups. He recently converted a 2004 Dodge — evidence that the Penta-costal grease gospel could help convert drivers on both sides of the political aisle.
Mike’s indignation fades, and our discussion returns to cars. When Penta finds out that my ride — a cream-colored, 1985 diesel Volkswagen Golf — is partially converted, he insists on lifting my hood to see what kind of system I’m working with.
Then his tiny son steps between us and places a dandelion head on my engine block.
“For you, Daddy,” says the boy.
Penta pauses to flash a bashful smile. “Aww . . . that’s sweet,” he responds. “Now watch your fingers.”
Cars: We love 'em. U.S. drivers burn about 60 million gallons of gasoline per day. Almost everything about our lifestyle incorporates the automobile, from suburban homes to drive-thru burger joints.
But Americans are starting to realize their vehicular days are numbered. Reports suggest we've already reached "peak oil." The last few weeks have brought another flurry of record-high gas prices. And transportation emissions continue to contribute to global warming.
Vermont is ahead of the peak-oil curve, but only sort of. In 2000, the state had more than 14,000 miles of roads, and about half a million registered cars and trucks. Legislators spend roughly twice as much on new highway construction as they do on public transportation. There are still about 600 gas stations statewide, and the average Vermonter works 20 miles from home. So what's with the car obsession? Must be a love-hate thing.
What's it like to live and drive during the last gasp of the gas-guzzler era? From now through the Fourth of July, Seven Days will spotlight six car subcultures. Chances are, they'll be up in smoke before you can say, "Road trip!"
The original print version of this article was headlined "Sanctify My Ride"