I left the Central Valley of California on Wednesday to pick up an enclosed trike in Chicago, pulling a Featherlight Model 1645 aluminum trailer that weighs less than 200 lbs. I’d bought this little trailer in 2003 to haul a GEM Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV), which fit perfectly, and the specs for the Wildfire trike indicated exactly the same width. The only question was should I take the Volvo wagon which got, at best, 32 mpg, or the tiny Smart Car which seemed to be a mpg champ – at least when I drove it. I finally decided, at the last moment, to order a hitch from RedTrailer.com and take the Smart Car. But not so much because I knew I might get awesome mileage, but because nobody I’d heard of had ever tried to pull a load like this – certainly not for 2300 miles. I am a sucker for pushing the envelope.
I am camping out to save money. Each morning I buy a cup of coffee. Each evening I buy a bag of ice for the food in the cooler. I can make a very comfortable bed in the Smart by folding the back of the passenger seat forward, connecting 3 Sears garage foam squares between the dash and tailgate, and covering them with a thick foam pad. I use memory foam. It is so comfortable that I glance at it yearningly as I drive, even though I’m not tired yet. I’ll wake at first light, buy coffee, drive all day, stopping to visit interesting places, and drive into the night until I get tired, pull off on some quiet side road and sleep for 6 hours or so, then do it all again.
I love the stars after moonset on the deep Nevada backroads. It is worth the trip just to discover where you are – and I don’t mean where in Nevada you are; I mean where in the Milky Way galaxy. Only one out of a thousand people have any idea what I’m talking about. The sky is so black out there that you can see the dust clouds obscuring the broad reach of the spiral arms. You’re floating in it. It is a revelation to anyone. It is a must.
When the Great San Fernando Earthquake struck, I was 250 miles north, sleeping on the second storey of my 1894 baloonframe Western Victorian. It swayed like a ship in a swell, jerking me out of a dream. I leapt to my feet and stood before the bay windows, peering out into the darkness to the south, knowing somehow it was The Big One. Finally. Later, the company called and asked me to deliver fresh water to Hollywood with my 8000 gallon water truck during the emergency. The power had gone out in Hollywood. I mean ALL the power had gone out. That first night, there were no lights. No lights in the entire valley. The people looked up and saw the stars. Many saw the stars for the first time in their lives. Some were scared. They told me this as I gave them water.
I thought they were fools. They were from Hollywood and they didn’t know the stars.
My instrumentation consists of a Hamilton vertical card compass and the garden bird on the hood. The compass keeps me from wasting my miles going the wrong way. The bird tells me when there is a crosswind and what my headwind speed is. It lets me drive faster when there is a tailwind. I don’t use a Scangauge (yet). I also carry an anemometer although I now rely increasingly on the bird.
Driving across the Great Basin on Hwy 6, I was able to utilize all relevant hypermiling techniques safely. I achieved 59.3 mpg between Bishop CA and Delta UT. My worst tank was pulling the trailer over 10,200′ Lovelock Pass in CO, where the MPG fell to the ridiculous leadfoot EPA rating.
Crossing the Great Plains, I split my time between the interstate and secondary roads, averaging around 50 mpg. When I reached Chicago, I had spent $134.96 on premium gasoline over 2300 miles, $4 on coffee and $5 on ice. (I had about $40 of food and beverages with me. The potato salad turned out to be the best value.)
Today I will pick up the 100 mpg Wildfire 250 to haul back on the return trip – which should be interesting. In fact, I’m thinking, “This is where the adventure really begins…”
I picked up the Wildfire and the photography doll who owns it and drove around on the Chicago freeways to get a feel for how it would handle on the interstates back to California. The tongue weight was about 50 lbs and I was really surprised at how nicely the whole package handled. The Wildfire 250C specs dry at 750 lbs and the trailer is less than 200 lbs, just squeaking under the maximum weight I want to tow with the Smart Car. The Smart itself will pack about a ton for this trip, placing the combination at just under 3000 lbs – about the weight of a GM “subcompact”.
I woke at the high point of the highway and descended into Lusk WY. This is the unlikliest place in the USA for a Smart Car or a Shandong Pioneer trike. No one owns a car here. Pickups and pickups. Half have dualies.
Pulled into the horrible coffee stop where they pour yesterdays coffee into the Guatemalean Organic Blend to make a joke on the yuppies who dare stop.
5:30 a.m. Old wranglers with handlebar moustaches, teens going to work in dirty pants congregating around the counter.
“Lookit them little cars!”
“What kind of mileage you get in that thing?”
“I’m getting 40 in the white one, towing,” I reply.
Silence. Darting glances at the cars, then back at me.
No one says a thing. I leave, feeling like I have commited a perverted act in public…
The highway is empty. I guess people can only afford to drive to work.
I ease the Smart Car slowly through the gears, using the Constant Throttle Technique, until I reach 45 mph. As I shift into 5th, I feel the little three-cylinder engine settle down into its power band.
It took a while for me to realize that there is absolutely no difference pulling the trailer with the Smart Car or just hypermiling without it. The Smart finds its own comfort band and tells you with the up or down arrows on the display. All it thinks of the trailer is that you are on a steeper hill. That’s it.
Also I had wondered if the trailer might sway and get the Smart into a dangerous oscillation, particularly on downgrades. Not a concern. Never happened. The only thing worth mentioning is that leaving Chicago, on the rough freeways constantly under construction, I came upon a bump at an overpass and slammed on my brakes too hard. The Smart’s anti-lock brakes instantly engaged, pulsing, and kept the wheels from sliding. I’m running 40 psi on all tires.
It wasn’t until I got to the Pine Ridge Reservation that I began getting 40 mpg. Up to then, I’d been shifting earlier, rolling faster, thinking it would be easier on the Smart. That was not the case. It cost me mpg. What works best is to forget about the trailer. The Smart doesn’t seem to care that it’s back there, so why should I?
3656 miles so far on this trip from southern California to Chicago and back. No problems at all. I hypermile all the time anyway so the only difference is I’m slower on grades, sometimes dropping down to 3rd, or on rare occasions into 2nd at 20 mph. Very little traffic on these backroads.
I stopped by Clipper Turbine’s manufacturing plant in Grand Rapids and was offered a tour. That was extremely interesting. Then I visited the Hydrogen Engine Center in Algona, along Hwy 18 where many 2.5 MW Clipers are turning and learned about using ammonia as a transportation fuel.
Cruising into California on Hwy 6. My trip odometer hit 4700 in Bishop CA!
Below are some great hypermiling forums where people react to my trip.