Do-it-themselves electric cars

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 30, 2012 - 11:14 AM

As commercially made electric vehicles start to hit the road, a passionate few have already been there by building their own.

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Roque Haines converted an internal combustion automobile to an all-electric car called the Electric Aztec 7 in his St. Paul garage. Haines showed some of the 15 batteries that provide power for the car, which has gull-wing doors.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Quinn Sullivan considered it a trade-up.

He hung up the keys of his muscle car and commuted from Anoka to Minneapolis each day in a modified Saturn coupe with the equivalent of a souped-up golf-cart motor.

The reason?

The muscle car -- a 1973 Dodge Challenger -- guzzled gas at the rate of nine to 15 miles per gallon. The 1996 battery-powered Saturn, modified with an electric motor, didn't use any gas. Plus, Sullivan did the gas-to-electric conversion himself, giving that weathered little Saturn some cachet.

"I really like the technology behind it. It's just as cool if not cooler than the Dodge Challenger," said Sullivan, who converted a second Saturn when his first was totaled in an accident.

He moved the car to Oregon, where he's now studying engineering. He left the Challenger parked in his grandma's barn in southern Minnesota.

With all the hype about the next generation of electric and hybrid cars rolling off factory lines, there's a small but passionate group of do-it-yourself drivers who have converted their internal combustion vehicles to electric. Drivers say they're motivated by the engineering challenge and the politics surrounding going gas-free.

"There are a handful of people working on conversions each year," said Jukka Kukkonen, an electric car consultant from PlugInConnect and past president of the Minnesota Electric Auto Association. "Conversions are pretty complicated and pretty time-consuming to do. You have to be mechanically well inclined."

Sullivan, then working as a security guard at a Minneapolis hospital, said the price of gasoline was "insane" -- around $3 a gallon -- when he started his first conversion around 2009. Sullivan, 28, said he could change his own oil but had no formal mechanical training at the time.

Upon researching electric cars, he said he was impressed by their efficiency.

"With internal combustion vehicles, it's only 20 percent efficient. With electric vehicles, 90 percent of the electricity you charge your batteries with is used to turn your wheels," Sullivan said.

Sullivan bought an old Saturn from a friend for $150. He wanted a Saturn because its nearly all-plastic body meant less weight. He spent 400 hours of labor and $11,000 on the conversion. He used an electric car conversion kit now available to consumers.

"The factory transmission for the gas car stays. You ditch the gas motor, radiator and fuel tank," Sullivan explained.

He mounted the electric motor under the hood and installed lead-acid batteries.

The biggest difference is the car's range. The Saturn can travel 35 miles per charge, and that was even lower in the winter, when the cold affects the batteries' capacity. He charges the batteries with a 120-volt plug like those used on most household appliances.

Sullivan commuted 22 miles one way each day, which meant he had to plug in at work. He was able to find outlets in the garage where he parked, but an unexpected power shutoff did strand him one time.

New lithium-ion battery technology means drivers can go 100 miles or more per charge, Sullivan said.

"The common theme is everyone wants to see more electric vehicles on the road and see them grow and displace some of the miles driven by gasoline vehicles," Sullivan said. "There are environmental and political impacts of using gasoline from overseas."

Roque Haines converted an Aztec 7, a 1970s kit car, into an electric vehicle. He showed it off recently at the National Plug-in Day event in St. Paul featuring electric and hybrid vehicles.

"It really irritates me to see money go to countries that really hate us," explained Haines.

He searched for the perfect conversion car before finding the Aztec, with a sleek body and gull-wing doors hinged at the roof. Also, it doesn't have power steering or brakes -- so it uses less electricity.

"I wanted it to be something I wasn't embarrassed to be seen in," Haines said.

The car can reach speeds of 85 miles per hour. The conversion cost: around $10,000. Haines, a mechanical engineer, describes it as an unusual hobby where you can actually recoup some of your money with the finished project.

"This is all 40-year-old technology," said Haines. "You don't have to be an engineer to do this kind of stuff. It just takes some basic tools to do it."

Mechanic Stewart Roberts converted a Mazda truck in 2000 and drove it for a decade. He estimates he cut his fuel costs by 90 percent. The truck had a 40-mile range, which more than covered his six-mile drive to work each day.

Roberts owns the Foreign Service, an import and hybrid auto repair shop in Roseville, and has helped a few others with conversions. He decided to try one after seeing conflicting and often misleading information about electric vehicles in the media. He said common fears surrounding electric vehicles, including the notion they don't have enough acceleration and "range anxiety" -- the fear of running out of power mid-trip -- are largely myths.

He predicts DIY conversions will always be a niche market, especially with the availability of factory-made hybrids and electric vehicles.

"It's an eccentric group," Roberts said. "There's a lot of creativity involved and there's a lot of engineering, too."

Shannon Prather is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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