Green Your Ride: Reduce, Reuse, Rescue!

Do you have an old vehicle with a bad engine, but a perfectly good body? Does something inside you cringe every time you think of sending it away as scrap metal? Don’t throw it out just yet! Old cars with bad engines can be rescued by being used for an electric car conversion. By converting your old car to run on electricity, you can reduce your carbon footprint, reuse most of the original parts in your car, and rescue it from the landfill. Converting may sound like a daunting task, but thanks to the efforts of thousands of electric car converters who struggled with the process over the last several decades, all of the mistakes have already been made and now the process is much easier. Here, you can learn about how California residents Margaret Milton and Gordon Schaeffer overcame the technical difficulties of the conversion process. Their car is fully electric and can be plugged into a standard 3-prong outlet while its batteries are charged using a charger that is internal to the vehicle.

During the early 1980’s, Margaret’s husband Gordon organized meetings for the North Bay chapter of the Electric Auto Association. At that time, the meetings were purely theoretical and much time was spent chewing the fat about how best to build an electric car. However, no one had actually taken any initiative to carry out their plans. Gordon’s own excuse for not building an electric vehicle was that he already had access to a great public transportation system. One day, Margaret marched into the middle of one of their meetings and confronted Gordon and the boys: “At that point I said something to the effect of, ‘Hello? Have you noticed that I drive all over southern Marin County every day doing my job? C’mon, big talkers! I’ll buy the car, and drive it, too. Make me an electric.’”

Shortly afterwards, Margaret bought an old Datsun pickup truck with a bad engine for $400, then sold the engine and related parts for $300, leaving Gordon with an empty shell that he could use for building her electric vehicle. Gordon designed and installed the electric power system, using mostly war surplus and re-purposed items while Margaret assisted. They used lead-acid batteries to power their car and named it “Gordon Electric.”

Margaret and Gordon first used an orange aircraft generator as a motor, which was not intended for electric vehicles, but designed to generate 28V of electric power to run an airplane’s controls. However, by running electricity through it instead of cranking it from the other direction, it could be used to propel a car. The aircraft generator motor cost them only $100. Due to its original purpose as a generator, it had the ability to run backwards as well as forwards, giving the car the ability to recharge its batteries during breaking. Today, we call this process “regenerative breaking.” However, the aircraft generator motor had a few fatal flaws. For one thing, it was designed to be plugged into a spline and had no drive shaft. Gordon had to find an adapter for it to create a drive shaft, but the drive shaft was never strong enough and kept snapping off. Another problem was cooling the motor. The aircraft generator motor was designed to run hot, and be cooled by fast winds in the sky, so Gordon had to get an electric blower to keep it from overheating. Worst of all, it emitted a high-pitched screech that Gordon described as a “vacuum cleaner on steroids” while driving. Gordon was once pulled over by a concerned highway patrolman who wondered what was “screaming like a banshee.” Gordon explained to the highway patrolman that everything was fine, and was sent on his way, but decided that it was finally time to look for a quieter motor.

Thankfully, modern electric motors are designed specifically for electric vehicles and don’t have any of the shortcomings of an aircraft generator motor. Plus, they are very durable and estimated to last over a million miles. Margaret and Gordon now have a Prestolite MTC 4001 electric vehicle motor, which they still use today in their 1982 Volkswagen Rabbit. The motor has been used in all three of their electric vehicles, including their Datsun. The 1982 Rabbit has traveled over 98,000 miles on the Prestolite motor, and Gordon estimates that there are over 150,000 miles on the motor in total. The motor is powerful enough for highway driving, and so far it does not show any signs of age. In this photograph, the Prestolite motor is being installed in the 1982 Rabbit. The batteries and other components have not been added to the car yet, so the view of the motor is unobstructed.

Controlling the motor was another hurdle that Gordon and other electric car converters overcame. Originally, Gordon used twelve 6V lead-acid batteries for a total of 72 volts. He separated them into two 36V packs and flipped a switch that changed their wiring between parallel and series so that he could use only one or both of the packs at the same time. By using this setup and a coil of stainless steel wire that acted as a resister under his gas pedal, he was able to control the amount of energy that was transferred to the motor. However, the motor still started up too fast, sapping more energy than it needed from his batteries and giving him poor acceleration. The invention of Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) by Russco, Wiley, and others improved the operation of electric vehicles drastically. PWM works by delivering pulses of varying width from the batteries to the motor. The more one presses on the accelerator, the wider the pulses become. While modern PWMs were under development, Wiley gave Gordon the opportunity to conduct practical tests on them. According to Gordon, the transistors were the weak points of the early PWMs, but their performance improved dramatically as transistor technology improved. Gordon now uses a Curtis 1221C-7401 speed controller, which works very well.

Despite all the troubles that she experienced during the early years of driving her electric vehicle, Margaret has fond memories of that time. She says, “I remember making a see-through plastic hood for the engine compartment to show off the weird stuff inside. Building and maintaining an EV was an adventure, not to mention driving it around Marin. Those were the glory days–the eighties–for DIY electric car buffs. We would tow our vehicles to Rallies and shows, talking to people, handing our literature, and giving rides. There was an evangelistic fervor. We were special! We were the wave of the future!”

Margaret decided to trade in the Datsun for an orange 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit for her electric car, so Gordon took out all the electric parts and sold the empty Datsun for $100 to another person who wanted to build an electric vehicle from scratch. By 1990, the body of Margaret’s “Battery Bunny” had rusted so badly that she could see the road through the floor of the vehicle, and the steering system wasn’t much better. The electric motor and its components, however, were still working perfectly. Thus, she asked Gordon to build her the “Battery Bunny II” from a 1982 VW Rabbit that they found on sale for $400 in the local newspaper. The 1982 Rabbit was a diesel-powered car with a bad engine. Its previous owner had been stranded on the freeway, and was fed-up with its performance. If Margaret and Gordon had not rescued the Rabbit, it would have been sent to the scrap heap rather than converted into a functional electric car. Today, Margaret still drives this car for many of her trips, and Gordon borrows it from her frequently. After all, it is still her car.

Although lithium-ion batteries are gradually becoming cheaper, good old lead-acid batteries are still a good option for converters. Margaret paid $1,900 for her current battery pack, and finds the car useful for most shopping trips, doctor’s office visits, and other excursions within 15 miles of their home. With a new battery pack, the Battery Bunny II can go a maximum of 56 miles on a charge, but usually Margaret and Gordon only want to drive it about 25 miles per day. Gordon’s car is a 2002 Toyota Prius that sits in the driveway behind the Battery Bunny II, and is used mainly for long trips beyond the range of the electric car.

In addition to being better for the environment, driving the Battery Bunny II costs less than driving a gasoline-driven car. At night, demand for electricity is low, so power companies have surplus energy. PG&E, the company that supplies most of the west coast with electricity, shuts down fossil fuel-driven power plants at night, but does not shut down its nuclear, wind, geothermal, or hydroelectric facilities. Thus, it has a lot of cheap, green energy available to customers at night that often goes to waste because it is not utilized. Margaret charges her car at night when the price of electricity is 7.5₵ per Kilowatt-hour (kWh) rather than during peak demand times when electricity can cost up to 32₵ per kWh. By using a small meter inside the car, Gordon has calculated that it goes 2 miles for every kWh. This means that each mile costs them 3.75₵. Compare this to an internal combustion engine vehicle that gets 30 miles per gallon on fuel that costs $3.00 per gallon. That’s 10₵ per gallon; more than twice the cost of driving an electric vehicle! With rising gas prices, we can expect to see the gap between the cost of driving an electric vehicle and the cost of driving a gasoline-powered car increase drastically.

Converting an old car to run on electricity does take some time and effort, but thanks to the efforts of Electric Auto Association (EAA) members like Margaret and Gordon, the process has been streamlined and made much easier. Several people besides Gordon have used a VW Rabbit as a shell for converting, while others have opted for flashy and stylish cars. If you have an interest in converting your own car or if you would simply like to learn more about what to look for when buying an electric car, attending an EAA meeting or public car show is a good place to start. Margaret and Gordon now participate in the East Bay chapter of the EAA rather than the North Bay chapter, and take their car to an annual electric car show at Chabot College along with several other electric car owners.

To find your local Electric Auto Association chapter, visit

Photo Credits: Gordon Schaeffer and Margaret Milton

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


Lotus Electric Car to Use ‘Star Wars’ Noises to Warn Pedestrians


In a move aimed at reducing the silent danger from electric and hybrid cars, the European Commission is considering rules that will require these vehicles to emit an artificial noise to alert pedestrians to their presence. The regulation does not specify what the noise should sound like, only the minimum volume. As a result, some car manufacturers have been having a little fun with the type of sound their vehicles will emit. Matthew Reed from Lotus Engineering indicated that their new Evora 414E Hybrid will use a “futuristic sound a bit like Star Wars”.

The European noise regulation is in response to growing evidence of the risk posed to pedestrians from battery powered cars. A University of California at Riverside study recently found that a internal-combustion car could be heard at 28 feet away, but that a hybrid operating in silent battery mode could not be heard until it was only seven feet away.

Despite this danger, critics contend that the widespread adoption of hybrid and electric vehicles has steadily been removing a major source of noise pollution from the environment and that by artificially requiring these cars to make noise, those gains will be erased. In the hopes of mitigating this concern, the noise making technologies being implemented by the car manufacturers focus the artificial sound only in the direction the car is moving.

In addition to Europe, similar plans are also currently being considered in the United States and Japan.