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Peanut Butter and Harley-Davidson

By Bandit

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As usual when I visit my 78-year-old mom, she slips me clippings of stories she reads about motorcycles. As she slid this one onto the desk, I noticed that it was the same one Earl McNeely sent me from federal prison in Texas. When I was in Vietnam, my mom sent me clippings about guys who were wiped out on motorcycles. Of course that was to push her feelings on helmets. Years later, she gave up on helmets and fought along side of me in the name of freedom, at least intellectually.

On one recent afternoon, she gave me an article from The Los Angeles Times about a guy named Harold Benich, who turned his Softail into a soybean-burning bastard. When I first read the short piece and studied the photograph, I got the impression that he had altered an Evo engine to make it run on diesel fuel, but that wasn't the case. He had replaced the Evo engine with a small displacement diesel turned sideways in the frame. According to the National Biodiesel Board in Jefferson City, Mo., it is the first diesel-powered motorcycle in the country to run.


I gave Harold a call and found out that soybean oil is combustible at 300 degrees, which makes it very user friendly. Standard diesel fuel is combustible at 150 degrees, although there is a substantial difference in the flash point. "If diesel oil prices go too high, the trucking industry could turn to soybean fuel," Harold explained. He gets 100 miles to the gallon. Unfortunately, soybean oil is $2.50 a gallon, compared with $1.39 a gallon for gas in Pennsylvania. With diesel fuel prices cresting the 2-buck mark, soybean fuel could become an alternative.

According to the Biodiesel Board, trucks, cars and even planes run on food oils. But the motorcycle crowd may be reluctant to play since the installation of diesel motors in their bikes, as Harold has done, may reduce their ability to have kick-ass power. "Soldiers rode such bikes during the world wars to save fuel, but since then they've gone the way of the Edsel," said Jenna Higgins, a spokeswoman for the Biodiesel Board, a trade group that promotes food oils as gasoline alternatives.


The 21 HP Perkins Diesel pumps up to 35 horses!

The positive aspect of soybean fuel is its cleanliness, before and after it's digested by a diesel engine. "You can eat this stuff," Harold said. "Cleanup consists of a little water on a rag. It's wonderful." Soybean oil is consistent and readily available. "When others speak of alternative fuels, they are often referring to waste vegetable oils. These oils are not consistent and should be used in home furnaces where conditions don't change," Harold explained. "Soybean is pure, can be purchased in 5-gallon buckets or tanker trucks full. Some waste oils contain animal fat, peanut oil or even canola oil. Just depends on the quality of oil a restaurant pays for."

Another garage-inventor, Hugh Gerhardt of Holland, Mich., is working on a custom bike that will take a rider from Corpus Christi, Texas, to San Diego, Calif., on a 12-gallon tank of soybean oil.

According to Jeffery Bair of The Associated Press, "Harold's bike gets 100 mpg, roars like a jackhammer and smells like a fresh batch of McDonalds fries."


Harold used $15,000 in H-D parts and an engine he rescued from a construction site. "People wonder whether I have come to mow the lawn," he said. "It doesn't accelerate like a stock H-D, and costs a third more to run currently (4 cents a mile compared with 3 cents a mile for the stock bike), but the fuel won't catch fire and it runs so clean even the fish will eat this stuff. It's also readily available. Currently, due to the influx of foreign oils, farmers are paid not to grow crops of soy. If demand grew, the likelihood of reduced production costs are great and the price would drop, making it even more competitive with fossil fuels."

Using food oils for fuel is not a new concept, according to the AP story. "Inventor Rudolph Diesel ran the first diesel engines on peanut oil in the 1890s, and Erwin Rommel, the crafty German general, put cooking oil in tanks when they ran out of gas in the Sahara Desert during World War II."

Some vehicles combine food oils and standard fuels, according to a fuel salesman, but Harold wanted to go where few had gone before. He attempted to make the standard aircleaner cover conceal his sideways engine. It works until he fires that sucker up. "Some guys just thought it was a Softail, until I start it."

Harold grew up in the Great Lakes Region near Erie, Penn. "I started riding with a Harley Sprint when I was 14." Although his wife thinks he's nuts, they've stayed hitched for 11 years. "We live five miles from Albion, which is a town of 2,500. We're in the sticks. My neighbor thinks I'm building a space shuttle in my garage." Harold worked for Detroit Diesel for 14 years before joining the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections' Vehicle Restoration Department. "We have 60,000 square feet and it's packed with vehicles to tinker with."


Harold suffers from rider's block (snow) from October until early April. "We still have snow on the ground from Halloween, when it started. This year we had record count. Currently we're up to 180 inches of snow for the season. I bought a '92 Fatboy and was riding it when my neighbor suggested, 'Your next bike will have to be diesel.'"

Harold started thinkin' and the snow started falling and the next thing he knew he was buying a 2000 frame, transmission, front end and controls. "The bike is Bozo-proof," Harold said. "It operates just like a stock bike, no strange controls, levers or switches."

Harold started playing with alternative fuels a decade ago. "I had a diesel generator that ran on soybean oil. I was generating my own electricity for nothing."

There's the story of Harold, a brother, an inventor and a man concerned about the country's fuel problems. We'll keep in touch with him and see where he goes with this. Wonder if he can make whiskey...


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