yduJ's First Electric Car

In 1996 we bought a 1981 VW Rabbit that had been converted to electricity. It was $3,000, which was way less than other cars available then.

This is definitely a no-frills car. Manual steering. Manual brakes. No heat. Some of the batteries are mounted in the spare tire well, so we leave the spare tire at home. After all, we're not going to get very far away! Since it's a conversion, it looks just like any other 1981 Rabbit on the road. There's a lightning bolt painted on the back (an eight-year-old said, "your car has a Harry Potter scar!"), and a little sign that says "The switch is on to electric," but other than that, you have to look under the hood to tell.

When we got it, its batteries were old and tired and didn't hold as much charge as they had in their youth. We were getting about 9 miles to a charge in the winter time, with a top speed of maybe 40 mph. Batteries do much better when they're warm---which is why the EV1 is only available in the warm parts of the country: they didn't want to have to deal with the problem---so when summer rolled around things got a bit better, and we started having top speeds of 45 and a range of about 12 miles. We drove it with this limited range for about 9 months, but it was only barely adequate. We did learn very accurately the distances to various services (train stations, grocery stores). Sometimes at the end of a trip the batteries would be so far gone that it would barely limp along at 20 or 25mph, holding up traffic or requiring a pulloff. And the separate battery that runs the lights, wipers, etc, was in even worse shape, and often we would end up driving that last quarter mile in the dark! Good thing the car is white!

When we bought it we knew we'd have to spend some money on it for an upgrade, or at the very least a battery replacement. We (well, really Ken) investigated the possibilities, and it turned out that the kind of batteries we had (Trojan 5SHP) were very rare and thus very expensive. We had six of them at 12 volts for a total of 72. We did learn before buying the car that the motor was rated to 96 volts, so if we wanted we could have 8 batteries instead, which would improve top speed (probably 45 was all we were going to get out of it, even with newer batteries, if we remained at 72V.) So we looked at other kinds of batteries, and eventually decided to go with 8 of a cheaper, lighter kind (Trojan SCS225). We spent $700 on 8 batteries, where 6 of the old kind would have run us more than $1000. Unfortunately we now had to figure out where to put the extra two batteries! They are shorter but the same footprint so we couldn't just wiggle some extra room out of the space the old ones were in.

We also had to think about the battery that runs the accessories, since if it wouldn't go 5 miles with the lights on, it surely wouldn't be able to handle increased range. We opted for a DC to DC converter that would step down the 96 volts from the 8 big traction batteries to the 12 volts that the accessories expected. This was mildly expensive, about $350. But it means you don't have to worry about two separate systems being charged the same amount before a trip, something that had been a hassle, and it is much lighter weight than even a small car battery (which wouldn't even have been sufficient for the job). Another consideration was the recharging system. The old one we had was pretty klunky, a huge 1950's technology monstrosity that sat in the garage, and had no idea how charged the batteries were, but rather relied upon the user to set it for the correct amount of time. A better charger would be one that had some idea how charged the batteries were, was smaller, lighter, and could be installed in the car so we could charge up at other places than home. So we got such a beast, which was pretty expensive, about $850.

Neither Ken nor I had time nor inclination to do major welding work to put in new brackets and so forth, so we advertised on the EV mailing list, and got an out of work engineer who was happy to help design a plan and install everything for $25/hr. Seemed like a good price, though of course we hoped the number of hours wouldn't be too numerous.

The whole package---new batteries, new charger, DC-DC converter, labor, new battery cables (the terminals were a different size, how totally annoying!), ancillary parts for installation---ended up running about $2500, making the total cost of the car $5500. Not too shabby, and now it really lives up to its NRGIZR license plate: it keeps on goin' and goin'... We've had it up to 65 on the freeway, and its range is something like 25 miles.

The following summer (1998) we had a much smaller improvement project, which was to add heat! We replaced the heat exchanger with a small electric heater core, and wired it all up to the various existing switches. The heat is fairly wimpy, but it does the job when defrost is called for.

Several thousand miles and 8 more Boston winters did a number on this car. It needs a lot of TLC---rust on the body and under the hood where sulfuric acid mist sprays during charging and the back battery compartment has a small collapsed place (not that the batteries are falling out, but the surrounding "trunk" platform is no longer sound)---and we don't have the time and energy to do the repairs.

So we advertised on eBay, got one bidder for $1000. Sadly, the very week the fellow was supposed to pick it up, we inadvertently parked it head-on into a howling snowstorm, which clogged up the DC-DC converter and burned it out when we tried to start it after we plowed. So we negotiated a discount and sold it not-quite-running for $800.

Now we drive a Solectria Force.


Ken is maintaining a set of electric vehicle links if you want to learn more about the resources on the net that can help you buy or build your own!