Making it Electric

My initial encounter with the now popular trend of retrofitting classic cars with electric motor happened at an eco-beer fest in Boise, Idaho a couple of years ago. The eco beer fest is always a great event, where local and visiting microbreweries who specialize in green operations and organic ingredients converge to share their creations. The event is not only for breweries; rather, it is an opportunity for other local green industries and organizations to showcase their efforts—one of which was the Green Car Club of Boise. At the time, there were only a few cars in town that had received the retrofit modification, so the exhibit drew a great deal of attention for this very fact. Furthermore, the cars that had been modified were classic cars—the sort you would never expect to see running on electric power.

The other weekend, the eco-rides made another appearance at a local car show— one that is revered for top-restorations and high performance muscle. As a fan of history, I really enjoy these artifacts, and I was elated to at the presence of the eco-rides in this setting. Once again, the small nook where these rides sat drew a notable crowd. Motor heads and eco-fans alike flocked around the scene, asking questions and sparking conversation. Perhaps the most impressive of the rides resting on the green grass was a modified 1968 Chevy Blazer. Fire engine red, this vehicle has always given the appearance as the epitome of poor fuel economy; yet, here she stood in the corner with the other eco-cars. The back bed of the Blazer was loaded with battery cells.

I allowed myself the time to really look over these amazing rides, and realized the owners had not only modified the mechanics of the car, but had also really taken the time to clean up the process. What was once a mess of wires and haphazard batteries was now a neat, clean exhibit of organized tubing and colorful, well-placed cells. The engines appeared solid, and the cars themselves appeared to be in fabulous condition. It really appeared as though the groups appearance at the eco-beer fest a few years prior had highlighted the experimental process of their mission; and now, they managed refined the task to not only effectively retrofit these old cars, but they can now do so with the skill of professionals, not amateurs.

Making it Electric

Image courtesy of iStock

I allowed myself the time to speak with Bob, who owns the Blazer, about his practice with converting his classic vehicle into a modern eco-machine. He noted a few of the challenges with the procedure, and spoke about the positive aspects. Not surprisingly, Bob mentioned the issue of weight as being the biggest challenge in converting a car. This is not just an issue of packing weight, but more of a balance act. While it is certainly true that adding the ten-plus batteries needed, will put more weight on the back end than usual, and the front-end risks being to light without the engine, this is not the main trick in loading the added weight of the batteries. Rather, the major issue rides with equally dispersing the weight so that the wheels receive the weight proportionately enough to avoid steering difficulties and tire wear.

Bob was very open in admitting that the conversion is not really something you should do if saving money is your goal; rather, this is a procedure for someone who really cares about the world and being green. Costing about $8,000-$11,000 for a DIY job—excluding the cost of the car itself—and the $2,000-$5,000 of replacing the batteries every two to five years, there is no way you will make back the investment in fuel savings. Bob has no regrets in his decision. He feels it is worth the cost to do his part in cutting down on carbon emissions, and at the same time he can drive the classic blazer he has wanted since he was a child.

Bob gave me some great advice about avoiding the use of a kit for the conversion, which you often see advertized when looking into this option. He explained that often the kits included only the easy to find necessities, while missing many of the pricier and trickier pieces to find. Kits also never include the batteries, and ignore the fact that these conversions actually require more than just adding parts to an existing body. The kit is just someone doing your shopping for you with a giant mark up at the end. If you also decided to have the conversion performed for you by an expert, the kit is completely obsolete.

Bob informed me that the best thing about converting a vehicle to electric, apart from investing in a greener world, is it brings people together, despite their stance on the environment. Car shows are great examples. Most of the people stopping by are high-octane gear guys who know lower MPG is more power, yet they love the ingenuity required to put something like the Blazer together. They stop and chat, asking questions and admiring the work of another. This is a powerful thing, as there is nothing better for the earth than better communication between people.

While I personally doubt I will ever be in a position where I can afford to convert my own car to electric power, I love the idea. People like Bob who take the time and invest the money and time to achieve something as magnificent as his Blazer are generous; what they have done benefits all of us. Clubs and groups that center on electric conversions exist nearly everywhere. If you are interested in learning more about the process, or just to check out what other people are working on, try looking to see if there are any in your area. In the end, it’s all about having fun, and sharing experiences with people who care.

By Jack Payton
Jack Payton is a car nut in the purest form. He loves to write about everything gear related, and rebuilt his first engine at 15. He works as a freelance writer for the online tire retailer tireseasy.com. In his spare time he enjoys cruising, attending car shows, and collecting vinyl.

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