Purchase photos

Musician Neil Young taps Hays commerce

3/9/2009

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

It's not everyday that a world-renowned musician and social activist pulls into Best Radiator.

But when you've got a "leaky radiator," there are priorities, and Scott Simpson's reputation for custom-building radiators is well known -- all over Kansas.

Still, Friday was a big day, not to mention long, for Scott and Denise Simpson, as musician Neil Young and crew pulled in with a 1959 Lincoln Continental that had been stripped out and fitted with electrical generation and hydrogen-producing capabilities to push the car along at more than 100 miles per gallon at speeds of up to 140 mph.

The Lincoln's conversion was made by a Wichita company for Young, who is participating in Automotive X Prize, a $10 million contest sponsored by Progressive Insurance to "design viable, clean and super-efficient cars that people want to buy."

Young chose the 1959 Lincoln retractable hardtop to show that even older, lumbering cars -- the Lincoln at 19.5 feet long and weighing in at about 3,000 pounds -- can be fuel-efficient.

Scott Simpson was impressed, but he pushed hard to complete the task at hand Friday, custom building a two-stage radiator for the behemoth.

The aluminum radiator took more than 12 hours to build, splicing together two stock radiators that were on hand.

And yes, Simpson said, even electrical driven vehicles need cooling systems, about a third of it cooling the electrical system.

Simpson said the engine compartment had been stripped, replaced with a single rotor Mazda engine to run the generator to produce the electricity. About a third of the fuel consumption is gas, while the rest is hydrogen, which the car makes.

"It's got like a half a million dollars worth of Google software in it," Simpson said of the car.

That electrical equipment, he said, is located virtually everywhere, under the hood, under the back seat and on the dash.

"It's a pretty involved little car," he said.

Simpson was pretty impressed with Young as well.

"He just kind of hung out on the bus, coming in to check things out and shoot the bull," Simpson said of the Young's day at the shop. "He was just a real laid-back guy with a leaky radiator. Just a nice guy."

Denise Simpson said the event almost didn't happen, as Young's group struggled to make connections with Scott Simpson to get the radiator repaired.

Finally, things clicked and the group arrived at about 10:30 a.m. Friday.

During the day, she said, the group was videotaping everything that was going on, sending streaming video to the Web.

They even videotaped an interview Neil Young had with Todd Nelson from Eagle Radio.

"They recorded me doing the interview because they wanted it as part of his documentary," Nelson said.

The focus of the interview, and Young's visit, however, didn't stray to music, focusing instead on the car and the ability to convert an old luxury car to an efficient vehicle.

"He was just another guy with a car," Nelson said of Young's visit to Hays. "That's the way he wanted it. He was just a dude with a car."

After that, Nelson said he broached the subject of getting something to eat and suggested that Professor's Steakhouse had a back room that might offer some privacy.

"Neil Young jumped in my vehicle and rode shotgun," Nelson said. "It was just surreal."

While the back room did offer privacy, by the time Young and his crew were finished eating, a small crowd had gathered. After shaking a few hands, signing a few autographs and posing for a few pictures, the gang was headed back to Best Radiator.

The Simpsons didn't tag along for the meal, the result of the 121âÑ2 hour push to build the radiator.

"We were pretty blown out," Scott Simpson, "so we went home."