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If A New Electric Car Is Too Expensive, Build Your Own

If electric cars are expensive so far, the choice is growing, so is the affordability. But if $30,000 is still too much, then how about converting your own oldie into an EV?


Hearing the litany of complaint around the high price of most electric cars, it makes you wonder why electric car conversion shops haven’t blossomed more and why are we not seeing more drivers taking matters into their own hands. I’m guilty as charged. I’ve been toying with turning one of my 1974 Alfa Romeo Spider into and electric car, EV.

Discarded Old Cars. If you go to an electric car event, chances are you will find someone who converted a car into an electric one. By now the secret out, Geo Metros are getting scarce and highly sought after. Some of them have shed their pistons and use an electric motor.

According to VentureBeat, David Brown brings to the Defcon hacker conference in Las Vegas his retrofitted “Voltswagon”1974 Volkswagen Beetle. How fitting for a hacker’s convention. Our very own David Herron converted a Karman Ghia to electricity, apparently catching a lot of glimpses. Another local around here converted a Geo Metro and drives it to work for pennies a mile.

I also covered elsewhere another great conversion candidate, the Mazda Miata. Called the Electric Cutie, this little project has upgraded its original gel-pack battery pack lithium. The original pack gave it 60 miles, the new lithium one, which cost slightly more than the original gel-pack not only offer a better range, but the car is once again lighter.

Whiles these cars make sense, there are other projects that should raise your eyebrows. How about a Mercedes 300 SL from 1952 whose first owner decided to give it an electric heart? This is a gutsy leap and certainly shows a certain amount of faith since recently a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing, went for $4.62 at the Gooding & Co., Scottsdale, Arizona auction. Granted it was special, one of 29 alloy-bodied Gullwings produced and highly sought out, but in general, Gullwings run around $400,000 in great shape.

While the Mitsubishi i MiEV can be bought for less than $30,000, the price drops down to around $21,625 and even lower in certain areas, as far down as $17,000. Converting an old classic to electricity makes sense to some, depending on your emotional attachment. While I have no problem looking for a discarded Alfa Romeo Spider shell to convert, I would have second thoughts doing the same on a step nose GTV.

In the end, $30,000 to go around town is just the beginning of a new technology hitting the road with bells and whistles. If that is too much, you could pick up a $500 junkyard queen and bring it to a shop that will give you 40 to 60 miles with a $10,000 conversion or do it yourself from $1,500 to how much you would like to spend.


Nicolas Zart    July 30, 2012 - 9:01PM

In reply to by Aaron Turpen

Wow, going high-end with a conversion shop over there? That is hellishly expensive. I guess if you go lithium with a polish :) I was quoted a lithium pack that would take my Spider 60 miles for $11,000. I could go for gel-packs at a fraction of the cost with the same range.

I personally wouldn't want to own a cent to a bank. Don't even have an account at one, not after what they've done to our economy :)

Aaron Turpen    July 30, 2012 - 9:49PM

In reply to by Nicolas Zart

I keep an account at our local bank (I know where the owner lives, literally) and PayPal. :)

As for the quote, we're talking about a Toyota 4x4 Pickup truck here and it would be lithium batteries and would retain its 4wd and 1/2 ton cargo capacity. There's a company in Boulder, Colorado that sells conversion kits for current hybrids (to make them PHEV) and they've put together a quote to fabricate a few things I'd need to go with (trans plate and so on). Great couple of guys I met a couple of years ago at the Sustainability Fair down there ( This one would linclude LiFePO batteries to sit where the fuel tank and catalytic converter used to be (more or less balancing the battery load on the left and right side at the rear axle). The rest of the batteries would be at the mid-point and the motor, electronics, etc. would be under the hood. To it I'd like to add a propane-fueled generator for longer distance.

I'm working on putting together a Kickstarter to see if I can actually make all this happen. That's why I know. ;)

Nicolas Zart    July 30, 2012 - 10:45PM

In reply to by Aaron Turpen

I hear you, I'm doing the round of advertisers but in this economy, a lot of companies are wimping out.

That's a nice setup and I think PHEV is a better bet if you need to the cargo space. What about VIA? ;)

The more I think, the more I want to do my Alfa Romeo electric Spider on the intelligent cheap. Spend on the lithium pack, right now I too favor LiFePO but do everything else myself with my Alfa mechanics in Culver City, CA, Omega Motorsports.

David Herron    July 30, 2012 - 11:02PM

In reply to by Nicolas Zart

VIA Motors is not a conversion shop (doing it for the public) and are not planning to sell to individuals any time soon. Also the price for their vehicles is pretty steep in up-front price. To make it work out monetarily you'd have to be driving a lot of miles per year so the fuel savings are significant enough.

Nicolas Zart    August 8, 2012 - 3:11AM

In reply to by David Herron

Yes, I think VIA is aiming OEM, most likely GM. It would make so much sense for a global player to buy their technology. I was impressed with what they had at EVS26. It would make perfect sense for many fleets. I'm sure if you approached them with a good project and a lot of money they would look into it :)

Nicolas Zart    August 9, 2012 - 2:46AM

In reply to by David Herron

I remember talking to them and it seemed they were hinting at it. I thought they wanted to be bought out but become the "PHEV" arm of of GM. As much as I think it would be a good idea, I don't see it happening. GM has fantastic engineers, its management doesn't do it justice and would most likely swallow it and take it completely over.

I like these guys, they've done a great job and they deserve the their rightful success.

David Herron    August 7, 2012 - 4:08PM

In reply to by Aaron Turpen

There are other shops besides and it may be possible to find the adapter plate has already been made/designed for your vehicle and you don't have to have it custom made.,,, etc ..

The price you name is probably in the right ballpark, especially since you're talking about an AC drive rather than DC. The AC drive systems are more expensive.

Make sure to get a BMS for the lithium pack. There's a big pile of .. er... misinformation out there that BMS's are unnecessary or even dangerous. What's dangerous is to believe that line of reasoning.

Aaron Turpen    August 7, 2012 - 4:18PM

In reply to by David Herron

It's quite possible the trans plate has already been made by someone, since this tranny was used by Toyota for about 12 years and in 2 or 3 models. I haven't priced batteries elsewhere yet, but will be talking to Bill Dube at KillaCycle and will see if he might have a source - maybe through Boulder Electric Vehicle, which is now buying in bulk. You never know. They promised me a test drive, so I need to schedule it. I drove their prototype a couple of years ago and now I want to get in the real thing. Meanwhile, the Toyota sits in my back lot keeping the compost heap and weeds company. :)

David Herron    July 30, 2012 - 10:53PM

It's a lot of work to do a conversion - so I would not recommend it if your car is something like a Honda Accord, because the electric version of that kind of car is the Nissan Leaf or Ford Focus EV. If though you have something real specific you want, go for the conversion, just be prepared for it to take a lot longer than you expect.

As for Lithium versus other battery types - think about the long term cost. Lead acid packs are generally good for 300 charge cycles, and it's easy to find lithium that's good for a couple thousand charge cycles. That's important and amortizes the cost of the pack over more driving range. Also you can take lithium batteries into deeper discharge than you can with lead acid, meaning you get more effective amp hours than you do with lead.

Nicolas Zart    July 31, 2012 - 10:36AM

In reply to by David Herron

Yes, it always boils down to this; do you want to spend the money now or later? Although Aaron makes a good point that no banks would lend you money for a conversion, I know I'm not the only one who doesn't want to owe money.

Conversion take a long time, sometime over a year, depending on the level of preparation needed. It's much like the restoration of an old classic.

It makes a lot of sense if you have the time and the money and if you do the math first, you will savw money in the long run. I think they are the best around town cars. You get to choose the car you love and then run for pennies on the mile.