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Backstory: Saving the planet, one car at a time

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Greg Abbott's Ford F-350 is parked outside the hangar door Saturday morning at the Santa Monica airport, site of the first Alternative Car and Transportation Expo. It's a large pickup that looks as if it gets about one mile per gallon. Amid all the solar, ethanol, and natural-gas hybrid cars here, the truck doesn't seem to fit the profile of the neighborhood. "What does it run on?" I ask.

"Biodiesel," says Mr. Abbott, better known as "Gadget," smiling puckishly. I, for one, am not sure what biodiesel is, sounding as it does both clean and unclean. I learn that it is fuel made from vegetable oils or animal fats. These are the kinds of engines that run on soybean and fryolator oil. In other words, where we see a McDonald's, they see a filling station.

The truck delivered an electric motor from Gadget's shop to the expo, where he is converting a 1978 Triumph Spitfire from a combustion engine to fully electric. Yesterday the motor was missing. The one he had ordered sat in a warehouse for a week while the shipper went on vacation. So Gadget pulled a motor out of another Triumph Spitfire he owns, averting a crisis.

9:20 a.m.: A crowd gathers around the Triumph. All weekend, people will filter in and out of the expo, but a group always surrounds Gadget's car. This is a real-time reality show – without the filming and Richard Hatch. Actually, there is filming – a crew is documenting the conversion. I ask Gadget why he is doing this in such a public venue, where failure would be so visible.

"Essentially, I grew up in a circus family," he says. His father was a firefighter. At public demonstrations, he was always the guy who jumped from a rooftop into the safety net. His mother was adventurous, too. Gadget has a photo of her water-skiing, on a disc, backwards – while eight months pregnant with him. "She says it helped her balance," he says.


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