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The automotive world can be a weird one, filled with enough oddball sects and lost tribes for a Game of Thrones instalment: There are chrome-loving low-riders, electric car fanatics, giant-wheeled donkers and, well, the list goes on.

But there's nothing like coal rollers, a group that brings new meaning to the term "dirty diesel." My first encounter came during a trip through Tennessee in a Toyota Prius. Driving a Prius in coal-roller country is like painting a bull's-eye on your forehead, since coal rollers refer to diesel exhaust as "Prius repellent."

While stopped at a traffic light, I found myself behind the kind of pickup truck you tend to see mostly in small towns that have a high concentration of guns and a shallow gene pool: jacked-up suspension, giant wheels and exhaust pipes that resembled the deck guns on the Bismarck. From the rumble, it was clear that it was a diesel.

Moments later, I was engulfed in a thick cloud of black smoke. And by "thick," I mean the kind of solid smoke wall that naval fleets laid down at the Battle of Jutland to evade enemy fire. My first thought: there had to be something seriously wrong with this truck. I beeped my horn to alert the diesel driver that there was someone behind him. The driver revved his engine and the cloud got even thicker.

I had no idea that there was such a thing as coal rolling. Then I ran into more smoking diesel trucks. One fogged me on Interstate 75 as I followed him in my Lotus – among the coalers' dislikes are small, foreign cars. In rural Alberta, I met a teenage boy with a black Dodge Ram pickup that had been decked out with giant exhaust stacks that rose behind the passenger cab like a pair of chrome-plated chimneys. The boy flipped a switch on the dash that pumped a flood of extra diesel fuel into the motor, and a black wall of smoke poured from the exhaust stacks.

Why he'd do this? "It's badass," he replied. "Who wouldn't want it?"

Coal rollers occupy their own special niche in the transportation universe. While most of us try to reduce pollution, coalers go out of their way to generate more of it. They spend thousands of dollars on modifications that turn their trucks into smoke generators, stripping out emission-reduction systems such as the diesel particulate filter and installing "smoke switches" that shoot excess fuel into the cylinders.

Coal rollers use their exhaust smoke as a political message. It is a symbol of freedom and defiance. They lay down clouds of exhaust on hybrid drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and anyone else who strikes them as a liberal who would restrict their freedom to fill the air with carcinogenic diesel fumes.

Coal rollers pride themselves on a defiant, unapologetic approach. Theirs is the school of hard knocks. This has not endeared them to the public, or to the powers that be. Earlier this year, New Jersey passed a bill that prohibits diesel-emission modifications after a member of the state legislature was coal-rolled by a pickup truck while driving his electric-powered Nissan Leaf.

Coal rolling has been described as "pollution porn," and appears to be driven by the same kind of instinct that propels some to stock up on guns in the wake of a school shooting – coal rollers hate nanny-state restrictions. They congregate on Facebook pages such as Cummins Coal Rollers, Coal Rolling Rednecks and Black Cloud Militia. The demographic is young, male and contrarian. To understand the mindset, you could peruse the Coal Rollers page, where you will find a collection of diesel tips, such as these:

  • “If she turns down your radio, expect the words, ‘Can we talk?’ to follow. Avoid this by firmly pressing on the right pedal until ears are numb.”
  • “The louder your diesel, the quieter your passengers sound.”

In an interview with Slate magazine, an unnamed manufacturer of smoke-stack kits explained the ethos that underlies coal rolling:

"I run into a lot of people that really don't like Obama at all," he said. "If he's into the environment, if he's into this or that, we're not. I hear a lot of that. To get a single stack on my truck – that's my way of giving them the finger. You want clean air and a tiny carbon footprint? Well, screw you."

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