Mercedes rules 

So when Towns, a network engineer at HighMount Exploration & Production, decided he wanted to design his own natural gas-powered vehicle, his natural choice was a 2004 Mercedes-Benz SL600.

Plenty of automakers have introduced cars that run on compressed natural gas, but Honda Civics aren’t quite as sexy as the 510-horsepower, twin-turbocharged V12 engine SL600. And Towns wanted to show the world that performance and responsibility aren’t mutually exclusive.

“For me, this was my dream car,” he said.

Dream car and pet project. Even before his dreams of powering his black bullet with CNG, Towns had gone all out to customize the car.

After perusing the boards on, which bills itself as a “Mercedes-Benz Enthusiast Community,” Towns heard tell of a kit people were using to ramp up their cars’ power. Through the grapevine, he learned who was doing the highpowered customization, and his relationship with Speedriven Inc. began.

The Chicago-based performance shop specializes in Mercedes and boasts of “building big power that is reliable, dependable and (most of all) usable” — exactly what Towns wanted.

If you punch it down, you’ve got 800 horsepower to do whatever you want with.

—Bernie Towns

“I got my car back, and it just drives normally,” he said. “But if you punch it down, you’ve got, like, 800 horsepower to do whatever you want with.”

With its pedal tweaked and metal polished, Towns took his SL600 to its first challenge — breaking the 200 mph mark at the Texas Mile last October. Although he topped out at 174.9 mph, thanks in part to a heavy crosswind, Towns began thinking about performing the same feat with a CNG-powered vehicle instead of a gas guzzler.

For a guy who works in the natural gas industry and has a need for speed, it was a no-brainer.

With 80 percent less emissions than gasoline, CNG is the earth-friendly option, and it can work just as well even for power enthusiasts, Towns said.

He and his engineering buddies at Speedriven are out to prove any car can be converted to CNG. All it takes is substituting out CNG tanks for gas tanks and adding conversion units for the engine and engine control module, he said.

“You don’t sacrifice any performance at all,” he said. “Even if there’s a little added weight, we can alleviate that by actually giving it a little more performance.”

And Mercedes has been all ears.

Currently, Towns’ group is holding off on designing a CNG system for the SL600 until they learn if Mercedes will instead send a 2011 model with a new engine design to try.

Once they have that answer, Towns and his associates expect the process to take a couple of months. They hope to then try for the next great challenge — breaking the land speed record of 227 mph set by Audi’s CNG-powered vehicle.

Additionally, Towns hopes to break the record right here in Oklahoma, which he calls the natural gas center of the United States. The group estimates five miles of straight road will be enough to get up to speed, and Towns has already started scouting locations for the run, which should happen sometime in the summer or fall.

Should his venture prove successful, Towns said he hopes it prompts Mercedes and other automakers to make CNG an option on all vehicles.

“I think that it will show people you can still drive a clean, pollutionfree vehicle that still has all the performance and fun you need,” Towns said.

“You’re saving the planet while you’re still enjoying your dream car.”

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