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Converting My Car To Electric

Ben Parker

Article Highlights

I’ve owned my project car for a little over 5 years now, and I’m working up the chutzpah to actually get going on it. My car is a 1989 Nissan Pao. Most people aren’t familiar with this car, but for those who are, you may recognize it from Jason Torchinsky over at Jalopnik, he too has one of these. Well, I love this little car, it’s got all the potential to be a cool little hot electric hatch. Right now, it just has no guts. The 1 liter 4-cylinder engine makes all of about 52hp. So when I drove it the 50 miles from Los Angeles to Orange County on the 405 last week it was quite the adventure. 

Anyway, like me, maybe you’ve always wanted to take something old and make it new again. Breathe electric life into an old classic car. Today I’m gonna write out what my pie in the sky dreams are for this car, and you can tell me how crazy I am.

When I got the car, I thought oh yeah for sure, let’s get something bigger in here. Let’s make it go faster. There’s a small Facebook community of Pao owners online, if you search the group for “engine swap” you’ll notice that essentially every week for the past 7 years someone has asked how to do one for this little guy. Practically everyone who has owned this car has at least thought about giving it more power. Many people throw something unnecessarily powerful and large into these things, like an SR20DET from a Bluebird, or an KA24DE. Albeit fun sounding, I’ve come around to thinking why put something outdated into this car that at some point I’m gonna have to pull out again anyway? 

So I joined the fold of crazy people who get it in their head that they should spend thousands of dollars to turn an old rust bucket into an electric car. With that decided, I’ve got to figure out what I want out of the car.

Decide what you want out of your electric vehicle conversion

  1. What do you plan on using the car for? Are you trying to get groceries or track times?
  2. Do you want the car to be comfortable or fast?
  3. What about the car as it is are you willing to change?
  4. What is your budget?

For me, the answers to these questions change every so often. But, for the most part my goal is to get a car that is up on power, not necessarily a track car, but that is comfortable. I’m willing to lose the backseat of the car if need be. As for budget, and to keep my marriage intact, I don’t think I can go much over $20k which understanding what is required is very very easy to spend that much.

Am I crazy for wanting to convert my car to electric?

What are the options for electric vehicle conversions?

As far as I understand it, you basically have two options:

  1. Buy a car that already has an electric vehicle conversion kit for it
  2. Finagle a battery and motor into whatever car you choose 

There’s definitely a lot of other options that essentially fall into these two options or somewhere in between. You can see what it takes to convert an electric car yourself here. You can also see what electric vehicle conversion kits are available here. One thing to note is that your car should be manual. 

But what if my car isn’t a manual, can I still convert it to electric?

The answer is yes but it will be more difficult. My Pao is automatic, so I am also in that boat. So what am I going to do? I’m going to convert the transmission from auto to manual. There are a few options for this as well and they all vary in price and difficulty. For instance, for the Pao, I can buy an old Nissan Micra in the UK for about £900, have the transmission ripped out, and shipped to the states, and then I could probably manage to get it in the car by myself. This is probably the most reasonable option and would leave the car essentially the same. But there’s a problem, the Micra isn’t allowed in the United States and I’m not sure that I can import just the transmission. Also, parts are scarce for the Pao and the Micra. So even if I did swap it, what if it went out? What if something else broke? So what to do?

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Here’s my crazy plan:

Let’s do a chassis swap:

There’s a much more reliable, mass-produced, manual Japanese car that has a similar footprint and wheelbase as the Pao. The Mazda MX-5 is one of the most mass-produced cars ever and there are so many parts available for them you could almost trip over them walking out your door; they’re everywhere. So my crazy Frankenstein plan is to buy a manual 1993 - 1997 RHD Mazda MX-5 (aka Eunos Roadster) rip off all of it’s exterior so it’s essentially just the rolling chassis and drop the body of the Pao right on top of that. After all that, then convert it to an electric car. Hopefully what that gives me is the reliability of an MX-5 chassis, MX-5 suspension, the ability to find parts, and the cool factor of the Pao’s exterior and hopefully a few interior bits like the dashboard. 

Something similar has been done a few different times. There have been a few MX-5 chassis swaps on Hoonigan Autofocus like this one here and this one here. But my favorite one is Matt Urch’s Ford 100E turned MX-5 that you can watch come together piece by piece. This was my real inspiration.

This is so pie in the sky and expensive I can’t even believe it myself. You can tell I’m by no means a mechanic, or engineer either. So if you are, let me know how crazy I sound. 

That’s not where it ends

After that, the plan is to bring the rest of this car to the 21st century. First is a new coat of paint, then updating the power windows, adding power locks, new sound system, new seats, and new wheels. The next portion of the project is creating a Raspberry Pi digital gauge. I’ve already prototyped and built a portion of it with basic HTML and javascript. The plan is to use satellite GPS to determine the speed as most likely the PCM from the Mazda will be tossed in the bin.

So what really is the budget?

Honestly who knows. The hope is that I can do as much of this work on my own as possible. I think I can manage to pull the Pao and the Mazda apart, I can’t actually do the fabrication work to mate the two back together. I can put the interior back together, most of those pieces, and then hopefully convince the EVWest guys to bring back their MX-5 conversion kit. If that’s the case I can probably get this whole thing running for roughly $25k. Which is a big number, but we could have a really cool car out of this at the end. 

What do you think am I crazy?

Hopefully, this inspires someone to join me on a crazy conversion journey like this. So I’m not alone on cuckoo island. If you’re considering an electric vehicle conversion I recommend playing it safe, buy a car that’s as close to ready to convert as possible and get a professional to do the work for you.