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ODA Engineering Students Cross the U.S. on Vegetable Oil

Andrew Dowdell ‘20 and Brian Lutton '20 modified a 1985 Mercedes-Benz 300CD to run on vegetable oil to power their 6,000 mile-road trip.
Over the summer, Out-of-Door rising seniors Andrew Dowdell and Brian Lutton purchased a 34-year-old car that had been left in an abandoned field. The pair spent weeks cleaning the interior, replacing the vacuum system, fuel injectors, fuel lines, coolant system, and hoses, rewiring almost every system. Even more impressive, the students who had collectively completed ODA’s engineering, advanced computer engineering, and computer science courses, put their knowledge to the test when they retrofitted the fuel system for use with a used vegetable oil kit. After countless hours working to ensure the vehicle was road-worthy for their intended trip, the newly registered car, dubbed “John” was filled with its vegetable oil fuel at the local Waffle House, and with plenty of snacks for the road, they were off.  

Over the course of four weeks, Andrew and Brian set off on a 6,000-mile, round-trip adventure filled with enough excitement to last a lifetime. The two students departed from Sarasota and traveled up the entire eastern seaboard to the Canadian border, then south to visit Kettering University, the school they both hope to attend.

The Mercedes, running primarily on vegetable oil recycled from Waffle Houses along the way, was an ongoing project that kept the two students on their toes the entire time. Fording a river on Middle Bass Island in Lake Erie destroyed the axle boots, an instrument cluster fuse melted in Rhode Island, the motor mount failed in Bar Harbor, and the terminals caught fire in Massachusetts. Each of these challenges was met head on, and there was never a thought of cutting the trip short.

“The trip really helped me expand upon my knowledge of cars and I learned a lot about quick fixes when the car broke down,” said Andrew.  “I will never forget when we were driving through Worcester, MA, and smoke started pouring out of the dashboard. We got the car to the side of the road and immediately got to work. I disconnected the battery to stop the fire from growing while Brian put out the fire.”

After making their way south to Youngstown, OH, to Brian’s grandmother’s home, the boys enjoyed the first home cooking they had tasted in weeks. The next day they woke early in anticipation of their visit to Kettering University.

“We drove to the campus and the sight of the “Kettering University” sign over John’s red hood is a picture that will stick with me forever,” said Brian.  “All of the work we put in over the past months came together at that moment when we rolled past the sign and parked in the admissions parking lot. We were almost immediately approached by inquisitive students who were interested in the car’s story and why we were there. I talked to many students, staff, and anyone who was curious. After we left the campus, as we were driving up the hill, I looked in the rearview mirror and above John’s red trunk lid I saw the school I want to spend the next four years of my life.”

Andrew and Brian say that although the trip was challenging, they both came away from the experience with a great sense of accomplishment. “We had fun along the way, tested the water with different modifications, but most importantly, we learned so many things,” said Brian.
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