Project Spotlight: Dirigo, the Homemade 99 MPG Car

Bill Buchholz has built one of the most unique looking experimental diesel powered cars on the road. A one-time contender for the $10 million dollar Automotive X Prize, Dirigo is made of fiberglass and wood, Western Red Cedar to be exact, and has gotten up to 99 miles per gallon (mpg); 89 mpg and 92 mpg recorded in events and competitions throughout the United States.

The first thing that strikes many people about Dirigo is the design. With the wooden planking and the pointed back end, Dirigo looks a bit like a boat. As it happens, Mr. Buchholz is boat builder by trade and lives in the historically nautical state of Maine; however Mr. Buchholz insists that the design just came out of necessity to keep the car light and aerodynamic.

The Western Red Cedar wooden planking is easy to build compound curves out of and is light— Dirigo’s body weights only 120 pounds. During the design process the team that made Dirigo tossed around the idea of if wood was carbon neutral. Although the team never reached a concrete conclusion on the carbon neutrality of wood, people continue to positively respond to the wooden body Mr. Buchholz pointed out,

“People look at things that are different all the time. If you see a Lamborghini go by it catchers your eye, but it does not move you or inspire you to smile and wave.”

Dirigo is the product of The Maine Automotive X Team, with the original goal of winning the $10 million dollar Automotive X Prize contest. A prize incentive has historically lead to great human achievements Mr. Buchholz said,

“Lindbergh flew the Atlantic for a prize, there was a prize offered for the first transatlantic flight and that’s why he did it.”

The Maine Automotive X Team originally consisted of some twenty active members and now is composed of just Mr. Buchholz. At the start of the project Mr. Buchholz was just a member of The Maine Automotive X Team; never in his wildest dreams did Mr. Buchholz expect to end up with the completed Dirigo, or to be the manager of The Maine Automotive X Team’s 501c3 nonprofit that was formed to raise money for the project.

The Maine Automotive X Team was committed to using off the shelf technology that was easy to get and could meet the design parameters of the Automotive X Prize, all the while keeping the price relatively low. Thus, The Maine Automotive X Team went in search of non automotive components—specifically UTV parts that belonged to John Deere Gators or Kawasaki Mules. The Team settled on a 1985 Kawasaki Mule purchased on eBay for the UTV’s strut suspension, rear differential, steering, and most importantly the Daihatsu diesel engine. By the time the team received and stripped the Mule, only six team members remained.

From the parts of that Mule, Dirigo emerged. A three wheeled, front wheeled drive, five speed manual transmission, two seater, with five cubic feet of cargo space in the back and powered by a 28 hp, 3-cylinder Daihatsu diesel engine. As for the vehicles name, Mr. Buchholz explained,

“Dirigo is the Maine state slogan and it is Latin for leading the way or I lead. It comes from the political myth of as goes Maine so goes the nation. So we though well we are the team from Maine, Dirigo has a nice double entendre so let’s do that.”

With the deadline for the Automotive X Prize approaching fast The Maine Automotive X Team, which now consisted of three members including Mr. Buchholz, realized that Dirigo was not going to be ready. The team set a new goal of entering Dirigo in the Green Grand Prix. This goal was met and Dirigo placed second, going up against thirty competitors, at the Green Grand Prix with 89 miles per gallon– not a bad début.  As for the overall cost and time of the project Mr. Buchholz said,

“It took around $15,000 dollars and it took eighteen months of Saturday mornings. Three guys, eighteen months, Saturday mornings.”

Since the Green Grand Prix Mr. Buchholz has become the sole driver of Dirigo and has registered Dirigo as a modified motorcycle. Insurance, however, is a bit vague.  Technically Dirigo is 1985 Kawasaki Mule 750. Interestingly enough, Progressive Auto Insurance, who was a sponsor of the Automotive X Prize, does offer experimental, three wheel vehicle coverage plans. In the long run, determining how to insure and register a vehicle like Dirigo should not be a deterrent to anyone who is thinking of embarking on such a project. Mr. Buchholz never thought about it while building the Dirigo,

“People who are going to think about building these things are free thinkers; they will not be thinking about the paper work, they will find a way.”

Since becoming the caretaker of Dirigo and manager of the nonprofit, Mr. Buchholz has been busy.  Mr. Buchholz organized a cross country trek across the United States with other former Automotive X Prize contestants and has participated in a number of “green” events; such as partaking three years in a row in The One Gallon Challenge and returning to the Green Grand Prix. Additionally Mr. Buchholz and Dirigo have been featured in a number of publications including The New York Times and The Boston Globe.

Dirigo’s diesel engine is currently running off at the pump diesel fuel but could be tuned to use bio diesel fuel. However, Mr. Buchholz does not feel comfortable burning food for fuel. On the topic of ethanol, Mr. Buchholz said that his dream scenario would be to use sugar cane from Cuba. Ideally this scenario would get America off corn, solve some American Cuban relation issues, and rebuild Cuba’s sugar cane industry. For now though, Mr. Buchholz would be happy upgrading to a three cylinder smart diesel engine.

Riding in Dirigo is quite the experience. Even with honeycomb core boards for sound reduction and marine insulation throughout, the differential of Dirigo causes some cab noise. Noise aside, Dirigo rides great. Reaching speeds of up to 75 miles per hour, equipped with cruise control, a sun roof, removable windows, and two seats that hug the body while Dirigo takes corners as if the car were on rails.

How does Dirigo feel to drive? Mr. Buchholz explained,

“I mentioned Lindbergh before because I think about him a lot and what it must have been like flying that airplane. It’s a lot like this, you are really aware of what you are doing, you are really driving the car, your trying to make it go and it’s not hard, I think it might be like driving an early 1950s MG, like driving a MG TC. You’re really driving it; you’re not just pushing a button with this car.”

As for what the future holds for Dirigo Mr. Buchholz said,

“That’s the big question, maybe it’s going to go to the grocery store, I don’t know. I drive it around because it is fun to drive, and people look at it and smile and wave, and it is also cheap to drive.”

Dirigo’s next public outing will be at The Mother Earth News Fair in Western Pennsylvania, 100 miles southeast of Pittsburgh in Silver Springs. And yes, Mr. Buchholz will be driving Dirigo all the way to Pennsylvania and then back home Maine.

The Maine Automotive X Team nonprofit is still active and Mr. Buchholz is interested in all comers who want to embark on some projects and follow an ideology that Mr. Buchholz shared,

“Owner builders, if you start, if you just start, and don’t think about the end, but just start doing it, with some rhythm and pace, even if you do it really slowly, even if it takes you five years, and you only spend $2 thousand dollars a year in materials, after 5 years you have a car. And five years is not really that long. And to have a project like this in your life is inspiring and fun.”

Learn more about Dirigo and get in touch with Bill Buchholz via The Maine Automotive X Team Website at

Image Source: Andrew Meggison,

Andrew Meggison was born in the state of Maine and educated in Massachusetts. Andrew earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and International Relations from Clark University and a Master’s Degree in Political Science from Northeastern University. Being an Eagle Scout, Andrew has a passion for all things environmental. In his free time Andrew enjoys writing, exploring the great outdoors, a good film, and a creative cocktail.

Andrew Meggison

Andrew Meggison was born in the state of Maine and educated in Massachusetts. Andrew earned a Bachelor's Degree in Government and International Relations from Clark University and a Master's Degree in Political Science from Northeastern University. In his free time Andrew enjoys writing, exploring the great outdoors, a good film, and a creative cocktail. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMeggison