Hours before the kickoffof his 2008 tour, Neil Young is leading his band through a brand-new song called “Sea Change” in an empty arena in St. Paul, Minnesota. “It’s a transformation of civilization,” Young sings. “From nation to nation, an age of innovation.”
The sea change Young is singing about is also his obsession of the past year: the transformation of his 1959 Lincoln from a nine-miles-per-gallon gas guzzler into an electric vehicle that can get 100 miles to the gallon. “As audacious as it seems, I’m trying to eliminate roadside refueling,” Young says in his dressing room. “People can say I’m crazy — that’s fine, I expect that. I’m a rock & roller trying to do something that may not even be possible. But, frankly, I have nothing else to do.”
The project began when Young was walking through his collection of antique cars at his Northern California compound. “With the energy crisis, I thought, ‘This represents an era that’s over,’ ” Young says. “I decided that I wanted to do something with one of my cars to make a statement about technology. Anyone can do it. You don’t have to have billions of dollars and be Ford.”
After some Googling, Young stumbled across an online clip of auto-hacker Jonathan Goodwin on MTV’s Pimp My Ride turning Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1965 Chevy Impala into a biodiesel-operated car. Goodwin, 37, is hailed by car junkies as the “Motorhead Messiah.” Young and Goodwin soon began exchanging e-mails and made plans to bring the Lincoln to Goodwin’s garage in Wichita, Kansas, even though Goodwin had no idea whom he was communicating with. “For the first month, I thought he was Neil Diamond,” Goodwin says. “To this day, I’ve never listened to any of his music.”
Young and his longtime producer Larry Johnson drove the Lincoln from California to Wichita over the course of nine days, eschewing the modern highways in favor of the historic Route 66, filming the trip for a documentary tentatively titled Line-Volt. When Young arrived in Wichita, he and Goodwin began working on the behemoth Lincoln. Young purposely chose such an enormous car to send a message. “That’s what America is,” he says. “You’ve got huge people with long roads in this huge country.”
In theory, the 19-foot-long Lincoln will soon be a self-charging machine. Goodwin’s tiny ethanol-fueled engine powers a generator that charges the batteries sitting in the trunk, which in turn fuel the car’s electric motor. “We are so close we can taste it,” Goodwin says. “The goal is having an engine that won’t require refueling, and the ethanol will work like the oil in your engine does now.” The Lincoln currently gets about 80 miles to the gallon; when it reaches 100, Young plans to race it cross-country with other 100-mpg vehicles for a $10 million prize funded by the X PRIZE Foundation.
Young has spent much of the past year in Kansas working with Goodwin on the Lincoln. He helps Goodwin weld and shop for parts, or he just hands him the tools he needs. “He’s been absolutely awesome,” Goodwin says. “Neil stays at a hotel nearby and walks to the shop in the morning, like an employee. Sometimes he’ll break out his guitar and start writing songs.”
“Our approach is going to be rebuilding and repowering existing vehicles,” Young says. “If we do something that’s interesting to one of the big automakers, that would be great.”