Article

Converting Your Car to Electric

Ben Parker

Article Highlights
  • There is tons of upside to converting a gas powered car into electric. For many old cars you’ll get better torque, and you’ll increase the life of the car. 


  • It’s important to choose the right car. Manual cars are the best cars for these conversions, it’s a plus if you can get something for cheap as well. The cheapest it’ll cost you will be around $15,000 so getting a car for $300 isn’t a bad choice.  


  • You’ll gut the car of anything that is related to the internal combustion engine. Basically everything except auxiliary electrical components, and things related to the drivetrain of the vehicle. 


  • Either you’ll buy a premade kit, or you’ll have to (either yourself or a shop) fabricate parts to mate your motor to the transmission. You’ll connect the battery to the motor and configure the battery controllers. 


  • Finally you’ll install all the final components to actually turn the ignition and get power to the accelerator and brakes. 


  • The cost really depends on what car you choose to convert. Some cars have premade kits for them that are nearly plug and play, but besides that it may cost you over $10,000.


  • The upside of converting your car to electric is that your car will run for a lot longer than it would with a gas vehicle. You can feel good about preserving a piece of history as well as making a more environmentally friendly choice.

I spent the summer of 2016 in Japan. It was truly a dream, I’ve always admired Japanese culture from afar and had always wanted to visit. In 2016 the opportunity arose for me to go there for work and I was beyond excited for countless reasons, the food, the sights, the culture, and of course, the cars. While there I met one of the two loves of my life. My 1989 Nissan Pao. I didn’t actually meet it in Japan but I was introduced to the Pao there, and after returning to the states I got one as soon as I could. 

Aside from this car being semi-rare, and very JDM, this car is beginning to be an old car -- more like has been an old car. Now passing its 30th birthday the car is older than I am. Having a 30-year-old car in California is tough, even more so if it’s a carbureted one. If you’re like me and you have an old car that you love that you don’t want to get rid of converting it to an electric car may be the thing to do.

Electric car conversions are becoming a much more common thing and there are increasingly more options for anyone looking to turn their dinosaur eating old project car, or their daily driver into an electric dart. For some cars, there are even electric car conversion kits available that are nearly bolt-on. Otherwise, you may be looking into doing something more custom, and or sending your car off to a shop to have this done.

Choosing the Right Car:

Manual Transmission: 

If you ask one of the few shops that do electric vehicle conversions if they’ll convert your automatic car, they will tell you no. If it isn’t already a manual car it will need to be before this conversion happens.


Low Cost: 

The right car should be one that you either already own, or that you can get for cheap. Conversions are expensive and so although an electrified R34 Skyline admittedly sounds pretty cool, it may not be the right choice. 


Space:

This is less of a concern and more of a watch out. The batteries that will go in the car will take up a lot of room and you may lose the trunk space you so loved to store your junk in. 


Maintainable: 

Just like any project car, you should try and make sure that parts will be available for this car if things go awry. 


For arguably the best electric conversion garage EV West, they’ve got a few preferred cars (although for the right price they’ll work on nearly anything). I exchanged a few e-mails with Michael Bream at EV West who was perfectly nice and helped me to understand the costs of going into converting my obscure car. If you look on their website you’ll notice they’re populating their site with some exciting package options. Most of them are German, Volkswagen or it’s sibling Porsche. So these may be good options as you can nearly always find a Beetle for sale for a good price. But again EV West will work on almost anything with four wheels, like this cool Morris Moke they did a while back.


Electric car conversions are becoming a much more common thing and there are increasingly more options for anyone looking to turn their dinosaur eating old project car, or their daily driver into an electric dart.

The Process:

Step 1: Gut the Car 

Remove all evidence that this car ever used fossil fuels. Pulling out the engine, the fuel lines the gas tank, the carburetor if there is one, radiator (unless the DC control is water cooled), whatever other auxiliaries that you feel you should remove. 

Step 2: Marrying the Motor to the Transmission

As I stated before the reason you want a manual transmission is because the electric motor doesn’t need multiple gears as the torque is increased so you’ll fix the electric motor in first or second gear usually. To mate the transmission to the motor depending on the car that you’ve chosen you’ll need to buy or make a plate that matches these two together. 

Step 3: Power and Batteries

You’ll need to bolt-on and configure your DC controller, and install your batteries. The ideal battery currently is Tesla Model S Battery Module. This most often goes in the trunk. The wiring will go through the controller to the motor. A contactor will also be installed to manage the power running from the battery to the controller. You’ll also have to install the charge port onto the car. A common thing to do is to install the charge port where the gas cap was previously.  

Step 4: Electronics

I won’t go into too many details (because I’m no engineer) but essentially you’ll need to configure your CAN bus system to manage all of the electronics in the car. A voltmeter will need to be installed into the cabin or perhaps the dashboard to show you the batteries charge. A new ignition switch will interact with the contactor to give power to the car.

This is a really rudimentary version of the actual full process but needless to say this is not a project that I, and maybe you couldn’t handle on a weekend. I put my trust in the guys at EV West, or at least I plan to. The conversion is arguably more straightforward than other conversions, or engine swaps, it just requires knowledge of working with electrical components. Components that carry a lot more voltage than I’m used to working with.


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As I mentioned, in the beginning, it’s really tough to continue to have old cars. Every state is increasingly becoming more strict with emissions and that’s going to continue.

The Cost

Here’s the kicker, it really really depends. The biggest factor is the car that you choose to do this with. If you choose something like a Beetle, this actually might be a project that you can do yourself and would cost you around $8,000. Otherwise, it’s up from there really. When I spoke with the guys at EV West they quoted me for around $15,000 for everything (except labor) I’d need for my little Pao. So that goes to show why picking the right car is half the battle. You should also be prepared for any car to cost well over $5,000 because when doing anything to a car it costs about 3x what you’d expect, and then 2x that. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t do this.

Why You Should Convert Your Car 

As I mentioned, in the beginning, it’s really tough to continue to have old cars. Every state is increasingly becoming more strict with emissions and that’s going to continue. The time is coming when access to parts for a lot of old cars won’t be as good as it is now. All those old engines that you’d like to be swapping into your project car are getting old. But there’s a way that we can preserve these things of beauty and that is by shocking them back to life with an electric motor. It is really bittersweet though, and I understand that. Forever I wanted to put a meaty SR20DET into my little Pao, so I could hear the roar of the engine and the whistle of the turbo. I’ll definitely miss the smell of gasoline when I turn the key in my little carbureted beast but I’ll actually be able to cruise through SMOG every year from now till I’m dead. 

The other reason is that converting your car is incredibly sustainable. For one thing, by converting your car instead of buying a new one you’re recycling what would be thrown away, and theoretically taking one new car off the production line and thus less natural materials used. For another, you’ve extended the life of that car for years longer than it would’ve lasted as an internal combustion engine. Lastly, you’re not using any more fossil fuels, and significantly reducing the amount of oil that you’re using. 

I’m willing to bet that ten years from now (I’ll come back to this article and give an update) a lot of people will be doing this or wishing they did. A lot of gas-powered cars will die on the way to that day. May those cars not be yours, may those cars just be Dodge Darts, and PT Cruisers.