Electric Tin Lizzy
By Bill Moore
According Internal Combustion author Edwin Black, Thomas Edison and his protege Henry Ford were developing an all-electric version of the Model T that both men hoped would break the back of the powerful industrial cartels of their time.
When a suspicious industrial fire destroyed Edison's research complex in West Orange, NJ, the collaboration that might have changed the face of the America in the formative years of the Auto Age faded into a footnote of history. While Ford would call on his old friend more than a decade later -- as war loomed in Asia -- to help find an indigenous plant source for natural rubber, they would never work on their electric car project again.
Instead, it would be a father and son team in Utah that would eventually realize Edison and Ford's dream.
Ken Robbins and his son Denver, the owner of Dark Sun Productions, have taken their 1922 Ford Model T Touring car and converted it to run on electric power for a surprisingly small amount of money, plus their own time. Using the drive motor and controller from a used EZ-Go electric golf car, they have created a quiet, clean and reliable EV that remains true to its 85-year-old heritage.
Ken Robbins works on adapting the EZ-Go golf cart electric motor and transaxle to fit unobtrusively into the Model T's original drive line and differential.
According to Denver Robbins, his family has owned the antique Ford -- which they found in a Utah barn and spent a decade restoring -- since 1982, but as it's aged, it's become increasingly difficult to maintain. In order to continue to enjoy the heirloom, he and his father decided to investigate doing the electric conversion. However, because the car is so valuable as an antique, they wanted to make sure their alterations could be easily reversible, allowing them or the next owner to restore the car back to its original configuration. In restored condition, Model Ts will sell today for between $25-35,000USD.
After months of research they came up with a plan that involved splicing the EZ-Go golf car transaxle into a spare drive line that they had purchased (see photo above). With the help of a local machine shop, they carefully cut, machined and fitted the electric drive into place. The original Ford engine, complete with an electric starter, was cocooned and stowed away for possible future use, along with the original, antique drive line.
Denver Robbins describes himself as a "motorhead" who has also been interested in electronics. He had once thought of becoming an electrical engineer, but got involved in the film business as a Hollywood make-up artist who has worked on Stephen King films. He calls the blending of his fascination with electronics and automobiles as the "marriage of both interests."
The result is what he calls a "ghost vehicle" this is so quiet that he can now hear the tires crunching on the pavement, which used to be lost in the "grumble" of the primitive gasoline engine. In keeping with the EZ-Go drive system the vehicle operates at 36 volts, which gives Robbins' electric Tin Lizzy (as they were affectionately known) a top speed of 15 mph, half that of the original Model T. This doesn't bother him, in part because it also now has surprisingly good torque and "goes up hills like no ones business."
He is also happy to trade speed for greater reliability and ease of operation, as well as significantly reduced maintenance costs (finding replacement parts for an 85-year-old automobile is time consuming and expensive.)
"I am not one for cruising down the street as fast as I can in this vehicle. I kind of like the slow pace. It's really nice."
Because of the antiquity of the vehicle, he's not run into any state regulatory issues of operating a car with a golf car motor on pubic streets. The original EZ-Go would have been banned from operation on pubic thoroughfares. In fact, the state doesn't even bother him to register it anymore.
While he usually drives the car in warmer weather -- it has no heater and an open cabin with just a canvas top -- he has driven in snow and was surprised by how well it performs; a fact that he attributes to its large, narrow tires which sink through the snow to the road surface below.
"The only hope you had for heat in the winter was what would come up through the floor boards from the exhaust," Robbins commented.
The hardest part of the project was getting the EZ-Go drive shaft to mate up with that of the Model T. The splines on the ends of the drives where completely different and required extensive machining -- and lots and lots of careful measuring and remeasuring before any cuts were made.
The Robbins working on their Model T electric car conversion. More project images are available here.
"Everything that we did had to be very meticulously measured," he said. He also noted that he got a mixture of reactions from the various businesses he and his father had to deal with; from the very conservative "our-product-wasn't-really-meant-to-do-that" to the very excited who were curious about what they were proposing.
He's found that in the month since completing the project that he's getting a spectrum of responses. Those who know about the project are approving. Those he takes for a ride for the first time and haven't had the "Model T" experience (the rattles, smells and noise) are disappointed to learn that it's electric.
"They kind of want to see the antique nature of it," he explained.
The other modification Robbins and his father had to make was finding a way to incorporate the EZ-Go pedal-type potentiometer (the accelerator) into the Model T's steering wheel-mounted accelerator lever. The golf cart's forward and reverse control knob is mounted under the front seat within easy reach, but out of the way enough to maintain the antique car look and feel.
His advice to anyone else looking to convert an antique car is do lots of planning and measuring before doing anything else.
"We spent about a month and a half just on planning before we made any modifications." He said he and his father spent a lot of time measuring the vehicle and all the parts they were going to use before starting the conversion.
Now that he's left with the carcass of a used EZ-Go golf car, he and his two teenage sons are planning to weld it to a three wheeler they have to create a "golf cart on steroids."
Waste not, want not!