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In Carolina, '81 Benz smells like fries

Published Aug. 24, 2005

Morgan Crawford broke ground by driving cars powered by used vegetable oil. Now he's experimenting with something new: cold weather.

The former University of South Florida student now calls Raleigh, N.C., home.

"I had enough of the warm weather," said Crawford, 26, who is working on a doctorate at North Carolina State University. "My car has been running fine up here so far on sub-30-degree mornings."

Crawford, who snagged used cooking oil from Harvey's 4th Street Grill and Hooters on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard to feed his converted diesel tanks, was known around USF for driving cars that smelled like onion rings and french fries. Before moving north, he lived on Snell Isle in a garage home detached from his parents' house. He used an outdoor BioLet, a waterless toilet that turned waste into compost.

"You put mulch in it every time you use it," Crawford said. "It comes out looking like a big oatmeal cookie."

When he lived on Snell Isle, he commuted 80 miles a day to USF.

"He draws a little crowd and people show a little amazement," Harvey's general manager Dan Harvey said this spring. "I think the kid's showing a lot of creativity. Maybe he's on to something."

Crawford's diesel-engine cars use fuel found in vats outside restaurants. Crawford funnels it through a filtering hose into a converted tank in his vehicle, where the oil is heated. The allure of NC State's alternative fuels program drew Crawford north, where he now drives a 1981 veggie-oil-powered Mercedes donated to him by Ian Phillips, vice president for research at USF. He fuels up at the NC State cafeteria.

"I get the same reactions," Crawford said. "People notice it and ask me questions."

Before moving, Crawford sold his converted 1985 Volkswagen and 1983 Mercedes for three times their Kelley Blue Book value.

Through media coverage and his Web site,, he has left an impact on the bay area. Crawford said a St. Petersburg trucking company contacted him about converting to veggie oil.

"I showed them how to run their trucks on waste veggie oil," Crawford said. "They're running five big Mack trucks on 100 percent pure veggie oil."

Crawford also made a convert out of Hillsborough High School student Jackson Goss, who bought a $700 fuel system from Crawford for his 1986 Mercedes.

"The main thing I wanted was someone personally to talk to," said Goss, 18. "I had his e-mail and cell phone for advice."

Though Crawford has fled north, his protege continues to spread the veggie oil message around town.

"Everyone knows, and now everyone is like, "When gas is $8 a gallon, Jackson is going to be driving around on vegetable oil.' "