Green Your Ride: Customize through Converting

Ah, at long last you can buy an electric vehicle (EV) made by a major manufacturer. Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt are being joined by new entries almost monthly, but not long ago it looked as if this day would never come. That’s why a group of determined electric car enthusiasts took matters into their own hands and made their own. These enthusiasts of the electric car world, while not the first to harness electrical power for travel (this happened in the late 1800’s), did put pressure on automakers to get them going.  Meet California resident Ed Thorpe. He is one of several members of the electric auto association who literally drove auto manufacturers to produce modern electric vehicles by refusing to take “no” for an answer.

 When the California Air Resources Board first codified its Zero Emissions Mandate in the 1990’s, several auto makers built and released electric vehicles onto the market. Most of them, such as the hatchback that Ed drove, were leased to customers rather than sold. While leasing the 1998 Honda EV Plus, Ed joined the East Bay chapter of the Electric Auto Association and was elected to the national board for two terms (six years). Throughout his stint on the board, he revamped their magazine Current EVents and put direct pressure on auto makers such as Tesla, Toyota, and Nissan to “seriously start making EVs,” as Ed puts it. Unfortunately, the fruits of the Electric Auto Association’s lobbying efforts took more time than anticipated to develop due to opposition from other lobby groups such as oil companies.

After four years and 90,000 miles of blissful all-electric driving, Honda terminated Ed’s lease and took the EV Plus off the road. The same fate met every other EV that had been leased, rather than sold. Then, the electric car market went through a dry spell. According to, not a single electric vehicle graced the American market between 2004 and 2007. Honda still hasn’t re-introduced a fully electric car. That’s why Ed and hundreds of other previous EV drivers decided to take matters into their own hands. Ed bought a 1974 Fiat X1/9 that someone in Texas had already converted to run on electricity and started converting his wife’s 1985 Toyota MR2 after it failed California’s stringent smog test. After the Toyota is converted, he can either hold an empty toilet paper tube up to the smog sensor or take the vehicle to the Bureau of Automotive Repair to claim a permanent exemption from smog.

Ed’s sporty Fiat runs on twelve 12-Volt lead-acid batteries, allowing him to drive between 25 and 30 miles per charge. However, this is not enough for his daily commute of 60-70 miles. He plans to upgrade the Fiat with eighteen 12-Volt lithium-ion (LiFePO4) batteries so that he can drive farther. In addition to giving him more power, the LiFePO4 batteries will be lighter and smaller than the lead-acid batteries, allowing him space to install a better charger and controller for his motor. His goal is to ultimately reach a driving range of 100 miles like he had with his EV Plus so that he can use it to commute to work again.

When asked why he chose to convert, Ed says, “Converting is less expensive than buying new, and allows me to select my components and not have to deal with a lot of regulations since the original gas car is already registered and certified. Plus, I love to build things and converting a gas car to electric improves its efficiency dramatically. One of the biggest savings is the car itself – saving money, material and energy by converting an existing on-road vehicle rather than building one from all new components. Plus they are quiet and, depending on the vehicle, can be quite flashy. That’s one of the reasons for going with the X1/9 – a two-seat sports car that looks great.” Ed is glad that Nissan and other auto manufacturers are finally putting electric cars on the market again. However, he calls the Nissan Leaf’s range “a little stilted at 70 miles per charge usable range.”

Ed currently drives a Toyota Prius to work, and spends about $35 per week on gasoline. For the same commute, a less efficient car would cost him $50 per week or more in fuel. If he was driving to work on pure electricity, he could spend as little as $15 per week to power the car. A brand-new Nissan Leaf costs $27,000 after federal tax savings. However, Ed obtained his Fiat at the bargain price of $4,000. According to Manzanita Micro, a supplier of LiFePO4 batteries, upgrading the batteries will cost Ed approximately $8,000 to $10,000. When converting from scratch, the motor and its components cost somewhere between $3,000 and $8,000 while battery cost range widely depending on how far the converter wants the car to go. For traditional lead-acid batteries, one can pay as $3,000 or less to obtain a driving range of about 30 miles. Many EV owners find this sufficient for daily travel, and keep or rent a gasoline-powered car for the rare occasions when they need to go further.

If your favorite car has just broken down or you are looking to buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle, converting a vehicle to run on electricity should be high on your list of considerations. You can use a car that you already own like Ed Thorpe is doing with his wife’s Toyota or obtain an old car with a busted engine for almost nothing. For the conversion itself, you can contact your local Electric Auto Association chapter for assistance. The Electric Auto Association has several chapters in the United States, two chapters in Canada, and one chapter in Europe. Electric Auto Association members are very friendly and can help answer many of your questions.

Visit to locate an Electric Auto Association chapter near you!

Photo Credits:

Electric Vehicle Search –

Fiat, Fiat Motor, and Honda EV Plus – Ed Thorpe


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