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Convert It author Mike Brown works with class to convert two VW Rabbits to electric cars
'Convert It' co-author Mike Brown teaches a class of 25 how to convert a pair of Volkswagen Rabbits from gasoline to electric drive at a recent workshop in Washington State, sponsored by Solar Energy International. Volts-wagens, as some refer to them, are popular EV conversions, especially the Cabriolet convertible model. Range with lead acid batteries is around 40-50 miles at highway speeds.

The Book that Saved the Electric Car

Electro Automotive's Shari Prange talks about the book that kept the EV dream alive and the business that supplies the parts.

By Bill Moore

Every serious electric car enthusiast probably owns a copy of Mike Brown's 'Convert It.' If they don't, they should.

First published in 1993 by Brown and his business partner Shari Prange, it is considered by many the bible on how to convert a gasoline engine car into an electric one. Now that I've finally decided to do a conversion project myself, I recently dusted off my copy and started wading through it, trying to get a sense again of what I am going to need to make the project happen. Besides at least $10,000 in cash, a suitable donor vehicle and lots of talented friends with welders and electrical experience, I am going to have to start making some very important decisions, starting with the type of vehicle and then the kind of drive system that will power it.

The vehicle choice is an easy one: a Chevy S10/GMC Sonoma-class light truck. I want something in which I can haul things from 2x4s to cinder blocks, from mulch to motor scooters, electric of course. It's not easy to do any of these in a Honda Insight. A Ranger or similar type Mazda, Nissan or Toyota would also work, but the S10 lends itself more readily to installing the batteries under the bed and between the frame rails according to Wayne Alexander, who's done multiple conversions of this type over the years.

Next came the drive system decision: DC or AC? Each has its merits with AC being somewhat more efficient and capable of doing regenerative braking, but also costing about twice the price of a DC kit. As most people contemplating doing a conversion are wont to do, I cruised over to the Electro Automotive web site run by Prange and Brown to start doing some comparison shopping, which at my present level of ignorance only left me with more questions than it answered. The Azure Dynamics (formerly Solectria) AC55 drive looks like a promising AC choice, but at nearly $12,000, it would push my budget to the point of pain.

So, I did what any good "investigative" journalist-cum-neophyte-car-converter would do, I called California and left a message about wanting to do a telephone interview. A short time later, Shari Prange called back: free publicity is a wonderful motivator for any business, large or small. She was a fountain of information about the business of doing conversions and the impact of oil prices on the small niche business that has been an important catalyst for keeping alive the dream of electric cars in the famine years of cheap oil and vision-less energy policy.

When Brown and Prange wrote 'Convert It', they found themselves riding on the coattail of the First Gulf War. While most people seemed little concerned about containing Saddam or the price of crude oil, a few individuals here and there decided to do something about the situation personally -- or at least began thinking about doing something about it -- by ordering 'Convert It.' Those were halcyon days for the California couple and their small electric car parts business.

Then, as Prange tells it, the bottom dropped out in the Fall of 1996 when Republicans took control of U.S. Congress. At least that's her perspective on why interest in the book and buying conversion kits simply dried up, forcing the business to limp along through the remaining years of the Clinton presidency and a good share of the George W. Bush years.

July of 2005 was like all the previous Julys since that ill-starred election in '96: a trickle of orders barely keeping them afloat despite the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq fueling steadily rising oil prices. Then came August and for no easily discernible reason, book sales on Amazon took off and parts orders began to flow in. EVs were back.

The premier of Chris Paine's "Who Killed the Electric Car?" would be another year away, as would Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." Still, something apparently tripped the trigger of mass consciousness. Perhaps it was the manifestation of the Hundredth Monkey phenomenon, but gradually more and more people began to think seriously about doing what a relatively small handful of pioneers had done before them.

Prange theorizes that it was a spike in gasoline prices. Based on Amazon.com sales of 'Convert It', she muses that for a lot of people $3/gallon gasoline seems to be a sort of price threshold at which they begin moving beyond the "toying" with the idea to making a serious commitment that involves the investment of no small sum of money and time. As we talked, she and her small staff were preparing to ship orders to Washington, Texas and Florida. She also recently received inquiries from New Zealand, Switzerland and Israel. Orders for drive systems are running 50% DC and 50% AC, despite the latter's heftier price tag.

She explained that she's had to out-source to sub-contractors order processing, shipping and customer service. They've hired more machinists to mill the adapter plates that allow the electric motor to mount to the original transmission. Assembly of the custom VW and Porsche wiring looms has also been contracted out to a supplier. Both are popular "donor" vehicles with hobbyists because of their light weight and relative ease of conversion. Prange mentioned a Solar Energy International-sponsored workshop Mike Brown conducted last November in Washington State that attracted 25 people and resulted in two more electric VW Rabbits [see group photo below].

SEI Electric Car Conversion Class, Nov. 2007

While business has certainly picked up and people have stopped referring dismissively to electric vehicles as the "cars of the future," it remains relatively small as enterprises go with Electroc Automotive shipping two kits a week, plus the "stray" partial kit. Still it's enough to keep Prange so busy that she hasn't had time to even rent "Who Killed the Electric Car?" Instead, she finds herself answering "tons" of emails from people writing her to say "I want one."

Besides being concerned about renting more storage space -- their current space is rapidly filling up with parts and equipment -- Prange also worries about what she calls the "flip-side" of rekindled interest in electric cars. She's seen booms like this before and it always seems to spawn two types of "hotshot" promoters: cynical opportunists and well-meaning neophytes who are in over their heads. Neither is all that good for the industry.

As for folks looking for advice on an electric car conversion, those light trucks -- the Rangers, etc. -- continue to be popular as are the older Volkswagen Rabbits and even Beetles. [See also Professor Carmona's Electric Bug]. Surprisingly, at least for me, Saturn SC-class sedans are proving increasingly popular, as are Geo Metros and the smaller Hondas and Mazdas. There even appears to be some rising interest in converting classic cars from the 40s and 50s, but Prange advises customers to check on the weight of the car or truck first. The lighter the chassis the better the performance and range. She told me that a fair number of people inquire about converting their big SUVs and similar vehicles, a move she tries to discourage.

She agrees that if a customer is looking for a practical street car, then they should consider using an AC drive system. Builders who are more performance oriented or price sensitive, will likely go with a DC system, both of which Electro Automotive offers in complete kits. Her battery of choice is the Decca Dominator, mainly because Solectria had had great success with it in fleet operations of its converted Geo Metro.

As for the book that started it all, she would love to find time to update it, noting that while most of it remains relevant, its section on AC drive systems is now out-of-date. She said she hopes to scan it using OCR software, which will give her a digital copy of the text that she can then revise, bringing it into the 21st century.

And what of my own personal electric truck conversion? I've found a couple of potential S10/Sonoma donors that will work, but in the interim since talking to Prange, another, even more intriguing truck option has presented itself, but more on that later when and if it develops. If it does, it will be an electric truck conversion unlike any other.

Times Article Viewed: 24451
Published: 02-Mar-2008

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