Electric cars have been around since the beginning of the automobile. Fossil fuels are cheap and easily accessible, while battery technology has advanced slowly, making internal combustion the obvious choice for the first 100 years of the car.
For decades, enthusiasts have been trying to make electric cars a viable option. Small manufacturers and hobbyists were hacking together EVs long before Elon Musk had made his first website. And there is still a community building their own EVs, some with decent results.
Cars like this classic VW Beetle are ideal for EV conversion. The lightweight construction and simplicity of design make converting far easier than modern cars while also making them more efficient. (Photo: Getty Images)
Who wants to convert a car?
Just a decade ago, it wasn’t possible to get into an EV on the cheap; the Nissan Leaf was 35-grand and only had a 70-mile range. A Tesla Roadster was over $100,000 and was basically a toy for Hollywood stars. Building your own electric car seemed like a pretty good idea before 2010.
Today, those second-hand Nissan Leafs are selling pretty cheap, and new EVs are leasing out at for less than an Accord, so we have two main categories of enthusiasts converting cars.
First, “The Maker” – who can’t stand the thought of hitting a little white ball with a stick on an overly manicured lawn and would rather spend time building something with a tangible outcome. Despite the busted-up hands and free-flowing profanity, making things is what this person does for relaxation.
The second car converter, “The Thought Leader” – won’t drive the same thing as everyone else. They could drive a new Tesla, but instead want to convert something like an old VW Beetle or street rod, so they can be unique and environmentally conscious at the same time.
It’s important to note, neither of these people are really saving any money converting a car and it really is about having or doing something differently.
Selecting a car to convert to an EV
When it comes to choosing a starting point for your project, remember: Simpler is better. The accessories in most cars run off the engine. To make life easier, belt driven accessories like the power steering pump and air conditioning compressor will need to be eliminated. Also consider doing without power brakes (which rely on engine vacuum) and any heater that relies on the engine’s coolant.
If you start with low expectations for luxuries, you won’t be disappointed. This explains why cars like classic VW Beetles and air-cooled Porsches are popular choices for conversions. Yes, there are always options to make accessories work with electric power like they do in mass-produced EVs, but it adds cost, complexity and energy consumption.
The electric motor will likely be smaller than the combustion engine it replaces, but the battery packs will require far more space than the old gas tank. If you select a car with a large engine compartment, you can fit some of the batteries alongside the motor. If you want a decent amount of range, you will also need to fill up the space of the old gas tank, and likely a portion of the trunk with batteries.
This electric motor is using a direct drive unit instead of multi-ratio transmission like gas cars. These are more commonly found in mass market EVs, but one of these can be used in a converted car. (Photo: Honda)
Getting power to the ground
Some conversions use the car’s existing transmission while others convert to direct drive. Electric motors have full torque from 0 rpm, and spin faster than gasoline engines, so different gear ratios generally aren’t necessary. If you can’t reverse the polarity on the motor however, you will still need a transmission (if you want reverse).
Using the existing transmission is the easier option. You will need to buy or fabricate a couple of pieces. An adapter plate to bolt the motor the transmission bellhousing and also a coupler to connect the motor output shaft to the transmission input shaft will be required. Obviously, you’ll also need a way to mount the motor in place of the old engine. If you have the ability to build the mounts, I don’t need to explain it to you, conversely, if you’re looking for a complete instructions, this critical step probably isn’t the place to experiment with your first experience machining and welding. If you’re not a pro — get help from a pro.
Power is nothing without control
Your gasoline car uses a throttle body to control the amount of air entering the engine to determine power output. An electric car uses an electronic equivalent called a speed controller. You will need to make sure the one you pick is rated to the volts and amps you intend to run in your car.
More importantly than just matching specs, you will want to find one that is either easy to program, or even better, one with off-the-shelf programs that will just require minor adjustments for your particular car.
There are plenty of conversion kits on the market to make an ICE powered car an EV. They usually arent cost effective when comparing performance to a used mass market EV, but enthusiasts like the challenge of building something themselves. (Photo: Getty Images)
Letting someone else do the work
Several companies can you complete kits right now to convert certain cars to EVs, starting at around $7,000 without batteries and going well into the five figure range. You will find a few listed below with links.
If you want the satisfaction of knowing you built the car yourself, but don’t feel like you have the time or expertise to source all the parts, this is the way to go. There are several kits available, most won’t return the performance of a modern EV, but hey, it’s a hobby right?
It’s been rumored that General Motors is considering adding an EV option to its successful crate engine program. Last year, the eCOPO Camaro was shown off as a finished car and as a conversion kit. The car is rated at 750 hp and 600 lb-ft of torque. The kit is not yet available, but may be arriving in the near future.
Buy it built
If you want something ready to go, companies like Zelectric and others, will sell you a pre-built electric vehicle. Again, you aren’t going to end up with something comparable to a Tesla Model 3 in terms of modern convenience, performance or safety. What you will get is something cool. Everyone in LA is pulling up to the valet in a Tesla, but how many people silently and cleanly slide up to the front door of the hottest restaurant in an electric VW Thing?
Letting someone else do all the work also means paying them for it. A Zelectric conversion starts at $53,000 for the most basic kit and goes up from there. It isn’t easy, or cheap, being green.
This is a look inside the engine bay of a VW Thing converted by Zelectric in San Diego, California. The company has the ability to build converted cars at a level well beyond what most enthusiasts could ever hope to accomplish. The air-cooled flat-four is long gone, replaced by a torquey electric motor. Zelectric conversions aren’t cheap, but for some are well worth the price. (Photo: Zelectric)
You can — but should you?
The question you have to ask yourself is, “Why do I want to do this?” If it’s a hobby to occupy your spare time and maybe learn something, then building your car might be worth it. If you want a car that gets attention while telling the world you’re an environmentalist, then you might be a good candidate for a kit or probably a pre-built converted electric car.
If you really want to save money but not buying gas and want to help the environment, this probably isn’t for you. Used EVs are now available for under $5,000, and you won’t even get started building your own for that kind of price. While a Leaf, i-MiEV or an electric Smart Car might not be as a cool as a converted street rod, it will likely be far more useful on your daily commute.