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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Naughton

Why would you convert a classic car to electric? Part one: Where did this idea come from?

Updated: Nov 19, 2020

I have often thought this is a question of "you either get it or you don't" however having been totally obsessed with anything related to electric vehicles for the last few years I haven't always acknowledged that most people really do have an incomplete picture of the potential benefits of electric vehicles and battery storage. There is so much misleading information out there which is based on poorly informed opinion and fear that 'they will take our utes away.'

The progression of EV's from speculative to definitive is happening so rapidly that it's impossible to keep up as a casual observer. I'm fairly obsessed with the whole subject but I can tell you one thing and that is electric vehicles powered from onboard battery storage will be the most widespread technology of the future.

The capacity of new and emerging battery technology is so good that it is already apparent that fossil fuels will not be needed in any transition. Fossil fuels are already far more costly than renewables and battery storage even before carbon emissions and ecological degradation is factored, so why would governments continue to heavily subsidise old technology when taxpayers are overwhelmingly ready to move on with cleaner air and an increase in better jobs?

So what about EV conversions?

In the past I watched as clever people in their garages created electric conversions using components that were quite costly despite their clunkiness and limitations. Yet these conversions using some of the first EV dedicated DC motor/controller setups and powered by heavy short-life lead acid batteries were amazing. They were fun to drive and useful for running to the shop and back charging at home possible with a rooftop solar setup. This was how we got EV's back then because there were none for sale. But I never thought spending that sort of money on a little suzuki or barina appealed, I was driving proper old cars pre 1980's and that's what I wanted to have as an EV. But it meant taking out a pretty big loan and as a student on a tight budget that wasn't going to happen.

In about 2012 when the second vehicle from Tesla, the model S came out, more people started to notice that hadn't followed the beginnings with the roadster. Sometime before a company HPEVS started selling the AC50 electric motor. With the solid looking curtis controller this was the basis of a kit made to work with EV conversions. And then lithium battery cells were becoming more available so EV conversions started becoming interesting with good performance, regen braking and the lightness and range of batteries like the Calb cells. This is the basis for Nick Lake's 1964 VW Beetle conversion which was the first EV I got to drive. And it still performs well with very little maintenance required. Even without a complex battery management system there hasn't been a noticeable reduction in range and Nick uses it often.

So for me things really got interesting when Netgain motors released their stunning aluminium-cased Hyper 9 motor. Their mean looking red Warp DC motors were legendary yet for me I was waiting for a motor that had good performance but with the added features of an AC motor and controller that could be programmed to have things like variable regen.

The AC50 was and still is a great motor but the Hyper 9 just looks better and seems to be able to promise more. Plus the SME controller is about half the size of the Curtis and the combined setup looks a step up. The motor is so efficient at 94% it doesn't need to be open for cooling which means it can sustain cleaning with a high pressure hose. And more unbelievable to me at the time was the price, only a fraction more than the AC50, the Hyper 9 became the equivalent of the Countach poster of desire.

By the time I was talking with suppliers about having a Hyper 9 sent I was clear about how I would go about converting a variety of vehicles. There were and still are many sleepless nights working through all the possibilities. I even detoured from a Europe trip for a short visit to Richard Morgan in Wales to find out more about the process. Electric Classic Cars went from one man with an electric beetle to a relatively huge success in a few years. Richard and co. are really doing exciting things, having converted all sorts of interesting vehicles and they even have their own TV show about it.

So it was an uneasy decision between suppliers but I decided on sourcing the motor and components from two California companies that do conversions while also supplying parts for DIY'ers and small companies. Both EV West and Stealth EV had the right mix of components I wanted at the right price. Being invited to convert Southern Cross University's beloved Kombi has been an incredible opportunity despite untold mountains of challenges that needed superhero skills to overcome.

The beauty of this project was that the client didn't really have specific requirements so it meant I could use the components I knew would integrate very well and provide them with things they didn't initially think they needed such as electric power steering and to be able to have enough range to move between campuses in one trip. Once I suggested things they were always on board. I discovered having good useable range in an electric kombi increases the cost and complexity by a reasonable amount however I think it is worthwhile. More about the Kombi project to continue.......

#electrickombi #electricclassic #electricconversions #evfuture

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