Neil Young takes the wheel for the green car cause.

Retrofitting an Icon: Neil Young updates his music with an album dedicated to green cars, while driving one too—a 1959 Lincoln Continental convertible that gets 80 mpg.

A s the Big Three collapse from the collective weight of too many SUVs, it’s nice to know that the industry blames its troubles on factors beyond its control. That’s the gist of recent remarks the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers filed on behalf of its 11 carmaker clients.

The Alliance hates California’s plan to regulate tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions. Having failed to win agreement in three ongoing court cases, the automakers are now pursuing appeals. “With the U.S. and global economies in a severe recession, this is the worst auto market since World War II,” read Alliance remarks submitted to the EPA. “Due to a combination of credit unavailability, financial collapse and lack of consumer confidence, U.S. sales have dropped from 16.1 million units in 2007 to 13.2 million in 2008 to now an estimated 9.9 million in 2009.”

“YOU’VE GOT HUGE PEOPLE WITH LONG ROADS IN THIS HUGE COUNTRY.”

All those are indeed factors, but so are the carmakers’ uninspired, gas-guzzler-based product lines. Sure, Honda and Toyota are suffering, too, but not as much. The California plan will require fuel-efficient cars, and that’s where the profits will be anyway.

As McKinsey and Company recently warned, low oil prices now are, paradoxically, likely to cause high ones tomorrow. Why? Because oil collapse depresses the search for new supply, which in turn is likely to create a shortage when (and if) the economy comes roaring back.

Automakers could perhaps take inspiration from the Progressive Automotive X Prize, which recently signed up no less than 111 eager teams to compete for $10 million in prize money. The cars with the best 100-mpg production-ready technology in two classes (mainstream and alternative) split the purse. See www.progressiveautoxprize.com.

The field includes both gas-electric and diesel-electric hybrids, battery cars (the largest field), natural gas and fuel-cell vehicles. Vegetable oil powers several entries. One of the most striking contestants is Neil Young’s over-the-top 1959 Lincoln Continental convertible.

Why start with a 19-foot symbol of the fin era? “That’s what America is,” Young told Rolling Stone. “You’ve got huge people with long roads in this huge country.” The LincVolt is supposed to be a zero-emission vehicle, but for that it would have to have big batteries under the hood. Instead, like the Chevy Volt, the LincVolt uses a small internal-combustion engine (in his case, fueled by ethanol) to power a generator and turn an electric motor. It reportedly gets 80 mpg, on the way to the goal of 100.

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Fork in the Road is Young’s song cycle about green cars, and it will probably do more for the cause than a fistful of Union of Concerned Scientists press releases. Young says, “I decided that I wanted to do something with one of my cars to make a statement about technology. Anyone can do it. You don’t have to have billions of dollars and be Ford.”

If Neil Young (and a Kansas-based mechanic) can paint a gas-guzzler green, why can’t Detroit and its hordes of engineers?

JIM MOTAVALLI is the former editor of E/The Environmental Magazine and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Auto Section.

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