NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Doug Pelmear may have patented the final auto-industry solution -- a working, 400-horsepower, big-block V8 engine that really does get 110 miles per gallon.
But he's running on fumes.
"I have seen a lot of things. Was it ugly? Yeah," he told me over the phone last week. "But you learn to see what you have. And you don't cry about what you don't have."
This sober Pelmear is a faint echo of the sparkplug of an entrepreneur I met three years back. The then-successful Napoleon, Ohio, speedshop owner had combined a 19th century engine technology called the Stirling with rotating-fire cylinders and in-piston magnets to dynamically alter the horsepower and fuel consumption of traditional V-block motors.
"When you're chugging up the hill towing the boat, it's all firing along as a standard 40-horse engine getting eight miles to a gallon," he explained. But on the level highway, he says, the magnets in the cylinders nudge the heavy pistons along, keeping the engine driving with minimal fuel usage.
"The carbs shut off," he said. "Fuel consumption goes smack down to zero."
Now, was Pelmear quirky? Oh, heavens yes. He's like me, self taught. Independent. He controls his own PR, prefers 20-hour workdays in the shop to fundraising. He saved his own money to build his magic engine for a Ford (F) Mustang II, a car he drove from Ohio to Las Vegas and back on just a couple tanks of gas.
That stunt got the attention of journos, including me. I covered it, so did CNN. He struck up relationships with local universities. I'll never forget how Tom Stuckey, then president of Northwest State Community College, confirmed to me that Pelmear's big idea was as big as they come.
"It all works," Stuckey said. "I know it sounds crazy. But it works."
Pelmear even found a start-up carmaker partner called Revenge Designs that announced it would build a massively powerful cousin of Pelmear's engines for a new generation of fuel-thrifty muscle cars. With investor dollars flowing into nutty ideas such as Instagram (FB) or electric carmaker Tesla (TSLA), Pelmear figured that it would be only a matter of time before he'd be doing well and doing good.
"I never did this just for the money," he has told me over and over through the years we've stayed in touch. "I just hate where the country is going. And something like this means you fill the SUV once a month or two. That would be huge. Huge!"
But Pelmear didn't figure on one thing: He -- like all of us -- was living in the early millennial digital-age crack high where information was seen as the magic answer to every problem. In the world where jazzed-up smartphone pictures branded as Instagram sell for a cool $1 billion, who is going to care about a muscle car from what looked like a shade-tree mechanic -- no matter how many miles per gallon it got?
So Pelmear did not find funding. Revenge Verde did not place orders. And his big-block 110 MPG dream sat in his garage -- the side project for much smaller, mostly family-run auto shop.
"I thought it would be the oil business that would run me down. But it's the car industry," he said. "My engine costs just a few thousand more per car to install. But nobody was going to pay for that. So nobody paid for it."
A 30% MPG gain
To Pelmear's credit, he's getting on with what remains. He's back to market with a new, streamlined idea based on his patents.
"I had to make a sellable product," he explained. He's testing the variable firing technology from his patented engine as a $1,400 aftermarket kit. "It takes a two-hour turn to put it in a vehicle. That is reasonable downtime and at a reasonable cost."
He plans to brand it as Skip-Fire and says it should net a 30% increase in mileage for those who install it, making it ideal for fleet vehicles or local delivery trucks.
"For taxis, ice cream trucks, you know, that is a lot of savings," he said.
So far, Pelmear has tested the Skipfire on 60 cars with the goal of shipping a full product in early 2014.
"You'd be shocked by the number of people I've talked to about this," he said as our latest conversation wound to an end. "My plan now is go direct to consumer and cut out all those people."
"It will take off. But it all takes longer than I expect," he said. "We live in crazy days."