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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Big, Bad, and Green

Just today, the head of General Motors stated that the next month will tell the tale of their future survival. What a shame. Like many, I believe that American automobiles were one of the great design products of the last century. I grew up madly in love with Detroit products through films like Bullitt. I joined many of my high school friends in drooling over muscle cars for sale in the local Auto Trader. I still dream of one day owning a Dodge Challenger or a Plymouth Barracuda.

Unfortunately, big and beautiful is mighty expensive right now. The high price of oil and ongoing ecological disaster have made my big car dream seem extraordinarily far-fetched.

But maybe not. This month's Fast Company has an article about Johnathan Goodwin, a Wichita mechanic who is making green look cool. Maybe we don't need to look at a future of super-charged Priuses. Goodwin is building an H3 (above) which can get 600 HP while also 60 miles a gallon. No, I did not lie. 60 MPG! I first heard of Goodwin on the Late Show, when Neil Young discussed his Lincoln Continental which Goodwin will modify to get 100 MPG.

What's the secret to his engineering feats? Not much. Detroit stock parts make up 90% of his machinery. Detroit engineers are in awe.

Two years ago, Goodwin got a rare chance to show off his tricks to some of the car industry's most prominent engineers. He tells me the story: He was driving a converted H2 to the SEMA show, the nation's biggest annual specialty automotive confab, and stopped en route at a Denver hotel. When he woke up in the morning, there were 20 people standing around his Hummer. Did I run over somebody? he wondered. As it turned out, they were engineers for GM, the Hummer's manufacturer. They noticed that Goodwin's H2 looked modified. "Does it have a diesel engine in it?"

"Yeah," he said.

"No way," they replied.

He opened the hood, "and they're just all in and out and around the valves and checking it out," he says. They asked to hear it run, sending a stab of fear through Goodwin. He'd filled it up with grease from a Chinese restaurant the day before and was worried that the cold morning might have solidified the fuel. But it started up on the first try and ran so quietly that at first they didn't believe it was really on. "When you start a diesel engine up on vegetable oil," Goodwin says, "you turn the key, and you hear nothing. Because of the lubricating power of the oil, it's just so smooth. Whisper quiet. And they're like, 'Is it running? Yeah, you can hear the fan going.'"

American ingenuity on display. I love it. Don't wring your hands quite yet. We might still be able to have our cake and look good eating it.

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