Colette Brooks’ sprawling ocean-view property is dotted with tricked out cars — from a low-rider Lincoln Continental to a Cadillac with plush leather seats.
But it’s her 1996 Chevy Tahoe that turns the most heads with a rear window decal declaring “It’s time to kick gas” and a personalized license plate reading “OFFOIL.”
The petite 49-year-old business owner might be a car junkie, but she’s indulging her obsession without polluting the air by running her rides on biodiesel and other alternative fuels.
“I feel so superior driving next to a Hummer and going, ’Dude, yo, look at this, this is what you should be doing,”’ Brooks said.
With her earth-friendly car finder service, Biobling, Brooks is one of many entrepreneurs turning gas guzzlers into green machines as the interest in alternative fuel steadily spreads nationwide. Auto shops and online-based businesses are popping up in places as diverse as Maui, Hawaii, Louisville, Ky., Easthampton, Mass., offering do-it-yourself conversion kits, recycled vegetable oil, fuel delivery, and other services.
Current concerns about climate change, high gasoline prices and uncertain availability of foreign oil have brought increased interest in alternative fuels.
Hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius are on track to achieve record U.S. sales this year, according to J.D. Power and Associates, and a growing number of gas-electric models are entering the competitive auto market.
Brooks and other small business owners like her want to appeal to people who love attention-grabbing cars but don’t realize they can drive them and leave a smaller tread mark on the environment.
LoveCraft Bio-Fuels in Los Angeles has converted more than 1,400 vehicles to run on vegetable oil by installing a system of heaters, pumps and filters. Its most famous client was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who modified one of his Hummers.
“To take the vehicle that symbolizes one of the worst environmental violators and get it to run on vegetable oil was pretty cool,” LoveCraft co-founder Brian Friedman said.
Brooks runs Biobling with her husband, Eric Cadora, who scours the Internet to help clients find used cars that can run on biodiesel. The couple charge a 10 percent finders fee and more if the vehicle gets tricked out with custom paint, wheels or decals.
Brooks began promoting green cars when she bought a Prius in 2002. After discovering its benefits, she bought a fleet of hybrids for employees at her advertising and marketing company.
Two years later, she was amazed to learn that any old diesel car could run on biodiesel with little or no modification. That’s because it’s made with plant oil refined to remove a sticky compound called glycerin that would otherwise harm engines. The concept dates back to the late 1800s when the first diesel engine ran on peanut oil.
She set off by buying a diesel Mercedes. Her collection grew as she trolled through e-Bay and other Web sites for old muscle cars she’s coveted since she was a little girl.
Today, at least 10 vehicles are parked on her property in Malibu. They include the Lincoln Continental Mark V designed by the late fashion designer Bill Blass. The gold luxury coupe has tinted windows to give it a “gangsta” look, Brooks said.
Her Chevy Tahoe demonstrates that it’s possible to drive a jumbo SUV without fouling the air. And with an increasing number of filling stations in Southern California selling biodiesel, motorists don’t have to go too far out of their way to feed their green machines.
A Los Angeles architect who got his 1980 Mercedes coupe from Biobling boasted that he hasn’t bought gasoline in nearly a year. Though he spends about $3.29 per gallon for biodiesel, Warren Wagner said he didn’t mind paying more for fuel that’s produced domestically.
“I’m not supporting big oil,” Wagner said. “When I’m driving it around, my car is an ambassador for alternative transportation.”
The Southern California Biodiesel Users Group boasts about 2,000 members. This month, some of its members formed a 100-car “bio brigade” that cruised through a section of Los Angeles to publicize their pledge to establish more biodiesel filling stations.
Meanwhile, people from as far as Japan and Portugal are contacting mechanics at LoveCraft to order conversion kits, Friedman said. To meet demands in the northwest, the company has opened an auto shop in Portland, Ore.
Four friends who had Lovecraft mechanics convert a Ford pickup to run on vegetable oil plan to take the truck on a yearlong road trip from Orange County to the tip of South America. Their mission is to advocate the use of recycled cooking oil to fuel diesel engine cars.
“People are going to think we’re totally insane,” said Sean Robbins, 25, of Newport Beach. “But if people can learn about how simple it can be to make a few mechanical changes to let cars run on veggie oil, then it’ll be worth getting laughed at.”
And an auto mechanic living in the bucolic Ojai Valley north of Los Angeles is out to show that biodiesel isn’t for wimps. Joel Woolf’s company Veg Powered Systems calls its conversion service “Veg My Ride,” a riff on the popular MTV series “Pimp My Ride,” which gives old cars flashy makeovers.
Woolf tests his parts by racing his veggie-fueled trucks in the high desert. He and his friends begin the competition with a tailgate party, where they deep-fry food in a vat of hot oil. When the oil cools down a bit, they filter it, feed the tank and rev their engines.
“We’ll blow their doors off,” Woolf said. “When we’re all done, everybody at the racetrack will know about our veggie truck.”
If they don’t eat his dust, they’ll at least be able to taste his exhaust — it smells like tempura.