Motorhead Messiah.

Johnathan GoodwinSo, ever read something that simultaneously delighted and pissed you off? The November issue of Fast Company has a fascinating read about Johnathan Goodwin–a 7th grade drop out with no formal automotive training–who has done some amazing things with a bunch of spare GM parts.

[A]merica’s most revolutionary innovations, it has long been said, sprang from the ramshackle dens of amateurs. Thomas Edison was a home-schooled dropout who got his start tinkering with battery parts; Chester Carlson invented the photocopier in his cramped Long Island kitchen. NASA, desperate for breakthroughs to help it return to the moon, has set up million-dollar prizes to encourage private citizens to come forward with any idea, no matter how crazy. As the theory goes, only those outside big industries can truly reinvent them.

Goodwin is certainly an outsider. He grew up in a dirt-poor Kansas family with six siblings and by age 13 began taking on piecework in local auto shops to help his mother pay the bills… After dropping out of school in the seventh grade, he made a living by buying up totaled cars and making them as good as new. “That,” he says, “was my school.”

Along the way, Goodwin also adopted two views common among Americans, but typically thought to be in conflict: a love of big cars and a concern about the environment. He is an avid, if somewhat nonideological, environmentalist. He believes global warming is a serious problem, that reliance on foreign oil is a mistake, and that butt-kicking fuel economy is just good for business. But Goodwin is also guiltlessly addicted to enormous, brawling rides, precisely the sort known to suck down Saudi gasoline.

So what’s this guy done? Well, just about everything you can imagine: dropping diesel engines into Hummers that he runs on veggie oil… electric biodiesel hybrids… hydrogen biodiesel combinations, you name it.

“Johnathan’s in a league of his own,” says Martin Tobias, CEO of Imperium Renewables, the nation’s largest producer of biodiesel. “Nobody out there is doing experiments like he is.”

Nobody–particularly not Detroit. Indeed, Goodwin is doing precisely what the big American automakers have always insisted is impossible. They have long argued that fuel-efficient and alternative-fuel cars are a hard sell because they’re too cramped and meek for our market. They’ve lobbied aggressively against raising fuel-efficiency and emissions standards, insisting that either would doom the domestic industry.

And despite doubling a 1965 Chevy Impala’s gas mileage and upping its pull to 800hp for MTV’s “Pimp My Ride” and having some of his conversions shown to GM by the environmental group EcoTrek, it doesn’t appear that Detroit is paying much attention. You can imagine Goodwin’s frustration.

If the dream is a big, badass ride that’s also clean, well, he’s there already. As he points out, his conversions consist almost entirely of taking stock GM parts and snapping them together in clever new ways. “They could do all this stuff if they wanted to,” he tells me, slapping on a visor and hunching over an arc welder. “The technology has been there forever. They make 90% of the components I use.” He doesn’t have an engineering degree; he didn’t even go to high school: “I’ve just been messing around and seeing what I can do.” …

He speaks of the major carmakers with a sort of mild disdain: If he can piece together cleaner vehicles out of existing GM parts and a bit of hot-rod elbow grease, why can’t they bake that kind of ingenuity into their production lines? Prod him enough on the subject and his mellowness peels away, revealing a guy fired by an almost manic frustration. “Everybody should be driving a plug-in vehicle right now,” he complains, in one of his laconic engineering lectures, as we wander through the blistering Kansas heat to a nearby Mexican restaurant. “I can go next door to Ace Hardware and buy a DC electric motor, go out to my four-wheel-drive truck, remove the transmission and engine, bolt the electric motor onto the back of the transfer case, put a series of lead-acid batteries up to 240 volts in the back of the bed, and we’re good to go. I guarantee you I could drive all around town and do whatever I need, go home at night, and hook up a couple of battery chargers, plug one into an outlet, and be good to go the next day.

“Detroit could do all this stuff overnight if it wanted to,” he adds.

Which gets to my conflicted response: How can this country be filled with such innovative and curious minds and yet still be stuck with the same old crap?

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