A powerful and responsive, 5.5-liter twin-turbocharged V12 engine is not usually what comes to mind when you think of “green” cars, but – if Bernie Towns and the crew at Speedriven get their way – it soon may be.
Bernie Towns is an engineer at HighMount Exploration and Production – a natural-gas-focused energy company based out of Houston, Texas. “Clean” and “green” are everyday buzzwords in the energy-production industry, and Towns’ own company (Future Power Technology) is no exception, promoting research into new ways to push CNG into the mainstream. In addition to being well-versed in current green-energy trends, however, there is something about Bernie Towns that is different from the usual green-car advocate stereotypes. “I admit it. I’m a horsepower addict,” Bernie says. “I love speed, I love power, and I love my Mercedes-Benz.”
The object of Towns’ current automotive affections is a 2007 SL600 Mercedes-Benz roadster, which – after nearly a year of research and development work by Chicago-based tuning firm Speedriven – now develops over 800 horsepower and over one-thousand pound-feet of torque from its biturbo V12. Good enough for 10-second quarter mile runs and a top speed well in excess of 200 mph.
Towns’ massively powerful Speedriven SL satisfied his need for speed, then, but Towns still felt that something was missing. “In the IT and tech worlds, we literally spend hours of every day coming up with ways to do business in more efficient ways and in more environmentally responsible ways,” explains Towns. “So there I am, sitting at lunch one day and the people are talking about an article on CNG cars, and it suddenly hits me: we should convert my SL to run on natural gas!”
[insert pregnant pause here]
I think it’s time for a bit of a confession: Speedriven is my day job.
That’s right. Along with my partner, Marcin Kogut, I spend my 9-5 hours (sometimes 9-9 hours) talking people into spending their hard-earned money in the (somewhat frivolous) pursuit of more horsepower and more speed. As it says up there on my byline, however, green is the new fast. I really believe that, and Bernie is certainly a believer, as well. He’ll talk your ear off about CNG projects and the fuel giving off 80% fewer harmful emissions than gasoline, and all of that. What’s more, Bernie has the resources to figure out flame-front speeds, burn temperatures, and other technical things we need on our end to properly tune for the gas and convert the car – as such, I think it would have been irresponsible not to jump at the chance to convert a twin-turbo V12 Mercedes to CNG …
… but that just opens a huge can of worms. See, Bernie wants a CNG Mercedes – but he doesn’t just want a CNG Mercedes with 1000-plus lb-ft of torque. Instead, Bernie wants the fastest CNG Mercedes in the world.
The current record, at 364.6 kilometers per hour, was set by Audi back in 2009. That 364.6 translates to just over 225 mph, which they did in a heavily tuned Audi S4 making about 700 hp. “That wasn’t standing-mile speed or anything,” Bernie assures me, “that was all they could get out of that car. The Mercedes has a bigger engine to start with, and it’s a slipperier car – from the factory at least. By the time this is all said and done, we’ll be making at least another 100 horsepower over the record Audi, and Mercedes has already given us better aerodynamics to work with. 230 mph to 240 mph run on CNG. That’s the goal.”
“Why can’t we do it?” asks Towns. “We know that Oklahoma and Texas have an abundance of natural gas, and a ready infrastructure of responsibly operating and producing companies that employ thousands of Americans all the way from production to distribution at CNG-filling stations that are already in place and available to the public. This is exciting and this is fun and there is no better and more brilliant use of this type of clean power than in our vehicles.”
The next test of Bernie’s car is scheduled for the Texas Mile event in March, and the SL600 is already at Speedriven, getting fitted with a new turbo assembly designed to push the boundaries even further. “The first step to put the ‘pedal to the metal’ on this project is for Speedriven to get the hardware to where it needs to be,” says Towns. “I think 200 in a standing mile, with 240 mph or so as the top speed. Once we’re happy with the hardware and with the programming and we’re getting the results we want on gas, then we’ll convert the car’s fuel system and scale the math appropriately for the CNG. That way we’re dealing with known quantities all the way through, introducing new variables one at a time. That’s how Speedriven wants to move forward and that’s how everyone on my end likes to do things as well. Methodical. Step by step.”
Bernie Towns and everyone at Speedriven are moving forward and gaining support with each passing week. Towns offers that his group has been in touch with Mercedes-Benz USA, and that the ANGA and NGV America have also been approached about “getting on board” with the project.
“We’re pretty excited. I’m pretty excited,” says an emotional Towns. “It’s not everyone who gets to go out and do something really exciting with emerging technology and clean energy and break speed records in the same car they drive home every day and still get to call that ‘work’. This is great!”
Yes, Bernie. It really is.