Grease Bandits

Illustration by Bob Aul

My name is J.P. Caballero, and I'm in the band known currently as dios (malos), and I am guilty of making several consecutive cross-country trips fueled by a combination of double cheeseburgers, whiskey and gallons upon gallons of sweet sweet crude. A touring rock band operates on the same basic logistics as a professional army. Without cheap and readily available fuel coming down the supply line, you will be shot to death, or at least interned in a prison camp and poked with sticks. Ten thousand miles over five weeks in a large van with a trailer and six hungry mouths comes right out of your gross earnings. Erwin Rommel never had it so hard.

Anyway, we demand a lot of resources just to operate on a functional level. So when I heard that you could power a car on discarded cooking oil, I was interested—discarded cooking oil is free and plentiful. Through our management and mutual friends, we got in touch with Aaron Stuart of Piebald, a band who had converted their own van and starred in Grease Brothers, an MTV documentary about vegetarianizing an old RV and going cross-country. He was a young, longhaired beardy dude who said "dude" a lot, and a traveler-slash-journeyman mechanic who was trying to make something pretty different happen for good reasons.

He explained the system to me: waste cooking oil (or fresh vegetable oil, for that matter) is collected in a heated tank, strained through a series of filters that remove impurities and then injected into the engine of a diesel car with a flip of a switch. And yes, it makes the car smell like a $5 all-you-can-eat buffet.

As a concept, it's easy. But the realities of the conversion commit you completely. You need to find grease—grease of an acceptable quality. We stuck with Asian restaurants. Then you need to collect it discreetly, usually from the grease dumpster—that could ruin a few sets of clothes and anger the occasional 56-year-old Chinese restaurant owner—and then switch the filters every thousand miles or so. Our first tour on grease was a six-weeker with the Starlite Mints that culminated in a tent set at the Bonnaroo fest in Manchester, Tennessee, for 5,000 people and one naked man who climbed our stage rigging then fell and broke his leg during the third song.

But aside from a bad batch of watery grease that required a tank drain, the system worked, and we managed to do more than 9,000 miles on a grand total of $600 for from-the-pump diesel fuel. Even after the $2,500 we spent to convert, it was still cost-effective. We were proud, and dubbed ourselves the "Grease Bandits."

It's a satisfying feeling when you can do a 500-mile stretch of driving and the gas gauge never moves. And when you find a good batch of grease that's going to save you a few hundred dollars. And when you don't make daily payments to big oil. And when you smell chow-mein exhaust. And when you realize that you can work on your car successfully, and that there is a disconnect between what you're told works and what you can actually pull off if you try a little harder. In my imagination I can see the future: higher and higher gas prices and Mel Gibson and Australian men in studded codpieces, and then the grease bandits—renegade short order cooks who burned down the Denny's and refused to go back to Mobil.


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