US gas guzzlers go green
Americans are finding ways to keep their love affair with big, fast automobiles alive in the era of $3-a-gallon petrol and concern for the environment. This week the singer Neil Young, who is an enthusiast of 1950s vintage big fantail cars, is making his way to Wichita, Kansas, in the heart of the US. He's driving a Lincoln Continental Mark IV, a huge gas guzzler, and one of the largest cars to hit the open road. It is immensely stylish, with a wide front grille and neo-deco bumpers at either end -- and one of the most polluting vehicles to have graced Route 66.
An avid collector of vintage American cars, Young has only recently turned to environmentalism. With the release of his new album, Chrome Dreams II, he is on an odyssey across America, documentary film crew in tow, figuring out how Americans might keep the romance of the open road while caring for the environment.
Young is driving his car to Wichita, where it will be converted into a 100mph diesel-electric hybrid running on renewable fuel.
"It's the story of the resurrection and repowering of the car that represented the American Dream," Young said recently. "So the car has to go to Wichita, to have its engine replaced with a giant electrical engine. It works off the grid -- you plug it in at night. So it has very low emissions and a lot more power. It's a lot faster -- it does 0-60 in six seconds. America is never going to be frugal. It's too big; the roads are long, the people are big, they like big cars. So there's a challenge to figure out how to retain all those things and be clean."
Behind the rock star's conversion are some quietly spoken visionaries with a welding torch who are showing the beleaguered US car industry a way out of its doldrums.
Motor manufacturers are opposed to government plans to raise the target for cars to 35 miles-per-gallon on the grounds that Americans won't buy fuel-efficient and alternative-fuel cars because they are too cramped and meek.
But the gas-guzzling US car industry is under attack as more than a dozen states have enacted laws requiring dramatic reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions by cars. At the same time, drivers find they cannot go very far in a 15mpg 4x4 when petrol costs the equivalent of more than e2 a gallon.
Larry Urry, who will adapt Young's car, says, "What's really nice is that we can combine huge horsepower and efficiency in a beautiful car, unlike all those hybrids that are ugly as sin."
Young is not the only celebrity driver on the books. In the corner of the workshop, a 1987 Jeep belonging to the California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is in the process of being converted to run on used chip fat.