The summer before senior year of high school is often viewed as the last opportunity for childish shenanigans and outrageous adventures before the “real world” begins. Andrew Dowdell and Brian Lutton, two seventeen-year-old seniors at the Out-of-Door Academy in Sarasota, Florida, decided to use their last taste of freedom for a cross-country drive. A typical road trip, though, would’ve been too easy. The boys wanted to flex their automotive savvy—they had been tinkering with cars since they each got their learner’s license, and their school’s robust engineering program helped hone that hobby into a skill. So this past May, they sprang for a 1985 Mercedes they found on Craigslist and made plans to drive it all the way to New York by running it solely on used cooking grease.
The clouded yellow headlights, drab tan exterior, and complete lack of brakes screamed certified clunker, but Lutton and Dowdell got to work, installing a conversion kit that turned old cooking oil into usable fuel, and, “actually just making the car trustworthy and drivable, so it didn’t feel like it was going to kill us,” Dowdell says of the process, which took two months. Lutton handled the splicing and retrofitting while Dowdell manned the rewiring. The boys also gave the exterior a facelift with Rust-Oleum apple-red spray paint and christened the car “John” after a family friend who used to work as a master technician for Mercedes and was a lifeline for the teens when things went awry—they even created an Instagram handle for the car, @johns_veggie_venture.
On July 4, the duo put “John” to the test—and it failed spectacularly. “July 4 ended in a little bit of an environmental disaster on I-75,” Lutton says. Only forty-two miles north of Sarasota, the car’s power steering pump hit an oil cooler line and sprayed oil everywhere. “I had a running bet with my dad that the car would not make it out of Florida, so I was kind of hesitant to make the phone call and tell him,” Lutton says. They had to call a tow truck to haul the car back to Sarasota, and Lutton’s dad got to keep his $150 ante.
Twenty-four hours later, the pair had patched up the car, and they left again on July 6. This time, the car rumbled sure and steady along the highway, and the boys shifted their attention to the next issue at hand: fuel. Dowdell and Lutton had to call around to twenty restaurants in Florida before they found one willing to share their used cooking oil. Grease from Poppo’s Taqueria in Sarasota fueled the first leg of the trip, and it wasn’t long before they learned the weight of their restaurant decisions.
For the first six hundred miles—about how long their tanks of grease would last—the smell of tacos, quesadillas, and pinto beans wafted through the air vents. “The oil we used made the car smell like whatever was cooked in that oil,” Lutton says. Rhode Island reeked of mozzarella sticks and marinara sauce from an Italian restaurant. The Ohio stretch stank of deep-fried fish from a seafood joint in Middle Bass Island. But it was scattered, smothered, chunked, and diced hash browns from Waffle House that became the adventure’s signature scent.
“Waffle Houses were some of the friendliest people we could find, and they would always offer their oil to us,” Dowdell says. The boys became Waffle House regulars, stopping at between ten and fifteen of them along the way. Fueled by the Southern breakfast staple, the car surpassed even Dowdell and Lutton’s expectations when it made it all the way to the Canadian border. By then, the teens had grown so attached to the car, they decided to make one last pit stop at Kettering University, an experiential learning STEM university in Michigan, before heading home.
Despite its mostly impressive performance, the car wasn’t without its quirks. “There was always something either going wrong or about to go wrong,” Lutton says. Before they even made it out of Florida, the driver’s side windshield wiper got stuck in the vertical position just as a heavy thunderstorm swept in. Every few minutes, Lutton would reach his arm out the window and shake it free. At one point, they snapped an axle in half. “I was absolutely convinced on the way up that the car was just going to burst into flames at some point,” Dowdell says, “which it did.”
Sitting in rush hour traffic in Worcester, Massachusetts, the car’s familiar scent of hash browns and waffles was suddenly overpowered by a different fragrance: fire. Smoke billowed out of the air vents, foot pedals, and the steering column. Unfazed, Lutton maneuvered the flaming Mercedes off the highway with no power steering, brakes, or a functioning engine. Lutton dumped fifty Aquafina water bottles, which they intended to drink, on the fire while Dowdell worked to turn the terminal off. Standing beside their soggy, smoking car, Dowdell and Lutton vowed that they would do whatever it took to get the car to Kettering University.
A tow truck dropped them off at the closest Advance Auto Parts, and the boys got to work rebuilding the car’s wiring harness. Miraculously, just a day after the car was sizzling on the side of I-290 West, it was up and running again. On July 30, Dowdell and Lutton made good on their promise and pulled into the parking lot of Kettering. “We were excited to be able to show them and say, ‘Yeah this car was on fire yesterday but here we are,’” Dowdell says.
The two never expected to get emotionally attached to the clunker, but all of the mishaps and hilarity that ensued along the way forged an unexpected bond between the boys and the car. And so for now, the vintage Mercedes will carry them through senior year, too—on any given afternoon, you’ll find it sitting in the school’s parking lot, waiting for the bell to ring so the boys can pile inside and embark on their next adventure.
Source: Garden & Gun Magazine