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Converting Classic Cars to Electric

A guest post by classic car enthusiast Jack Payton.

My first experience with the now growing trend of retrofitting older vehicles with electric engines occurred during an eco-brew fest in Boise, Idaho a few years ago. The beer fest is always a fun time, with neighboring microbreweries specializing in green operations and organic ingredients. But the event is not only for breweries. It’s also 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. Furthermore, the cars that had been modified were classic cars—the sort you would never expect to see running on electric power.

This weekend, the cars made another appearance at an annual car show—one that is known for top restorations and high performance muscle. As a fan of history, I really enjoy these artifacts, but I was thrilled to see the eco-rides in this environment. Once again, the small corner where these rides sat drew an impressive crowd. Gearheads and eco-fans alike flocked around the scene, asking questions and sparking conversation. Perhaps the most impressive of the rides was a modified 1967 Chevy Blazer. Fire engine red, this vehicle has always seemed the epitome of poor fuel economy, yet here she stood with the other eco-cars. The back bed of the Blazer was, of course, filled with batteries.

The 1967 Chevy Blazer

Over the years the owners had really taken the time to clean up the process. What was once a mess of wires and random batteries was now a neat, clean display of organized tubing and colorful, well-placed batteries. The engines looked solid, and the cars themselves appeared to be in great condition. It really seemed as though the group’s appearance at the eco-beer fest had highlighted the experimental process of their work; now they have refined the task and can retrofit these old cars with the expertise of professionals.

A look under the hood.

I took some time to talk with Bob, who owns the Blazer, about his experience converting his classic ride into a modern eco-machine. Not surprisingly, Bob notes the issue of weight as the biggest challenge in converting a car. This is not just an issue of packing weight, but more of a balancing 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 too light without the engine, the major issue is equally dispersing the weight so that the wheels receive it proportionately enough to avoid steering difficulties and tire wear.

Bob was very candid in admitting that the conversion really is not something you should be doing if saving money is your goal. With a cost of $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 about his decision, however, as he feels it’s worth it to do his part to cut down on carbon emissions while at the same time driving the classic Blazer he has wanted since he was a child.

Bob advises avoiding the use of a kit, which you often see advertised. He told me that usually the kits include only the easy-to-find necessities, while leaving out many of the trickier pieces. Kits never include the batteries, and they ignore the fact that these conversions really require more than just adding parts to an existing body. The kit, basically, is just the result of someone doing your shopping for you with a huge markup. And if you decide to have the conversion performed for you by an expert, the kit is useless.

Bob told me that the best part about converting a car from gas to electric—apart from knowing you are investing in a green lifestyle—is that it brings people together, regardless of where they stand in regard to the environmental movement.  The car show is a good example. Many of the folks stopping by are high-octane gearheads who know lower MPG is more power, yet they love the ingenuity required to put something like the Blazer together. They stop to chat, asking questions and admiring the work. This is a powerful thing; there is nothing better for the earth than communication between people.

While I doubt I will ever be in a position where I can afford to convert my car to electric, I love the idea of it. Folks like Bob who take the time and invest the capital to achieve something as wonderful as his Blazer are generous, because what they have done benefits all of us. Clubs and groups that center on electric conversions exist all over. If you are interested in learning more about the process, or just want to see what other folks are working on, check 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.

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 the online publisher for the tire retailer tires-easy.com. In his spare time he enjoys cruising, attending car shows, and collecting vinyl.

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