Spoiler: This should have been the joyful story of a successful conversion of an old fossil-fume-farting classic car into a high-tech electric classic car. Instead, it all ended in confusion and disillusion. Still, the plan made sense, and I really hope some of you will comment with your own experiences.
I have this ability to get carried away by an idea. And to this day, all spontaneous ideas I have ever had have cost me a small fortune. This time, though, I managed to stop myself and it cost me only a little cash and a lot of agony.
I have always been obsessed with EVs, and even though I have a reservation down for the Tesla Model 3, the dream of an electric conversion of an old classic won’t leave me.
Reading Nicolas Zart’s article “Is Converting Old Cars To Electricity A Collector Crime?” and the enthusiastic comments that followed made me jump right into it without thinking straight. Could there possibly be a better way to spend time waiting for the most anticipated automobile in history (the Model 3, that is) than building your own electric classic?
The first love
You may know how it feels — your first car is simply the best. Mine was a 1977 Volvo 242DL, so I looked around and instantly found the perfect donor car: 1987 Volvo 240GL, much of the same design as the 1977, but more comfortable and sturdy looking. Exterior and interior in mint condition. Story went that the engine had swallowed coolant from a blown gasket and had since been left to rust internally for 6 years. Perfect!
How was this car perfect? Well, first of all, it shares so many parts with the Volvo 100 and 200 series ranging from 1972 to 1993 that you will probably never run out of parts. Second, the build is extremely simple and solid. Third, the engine compartment is huge and will fit an electric motor and up to 50 kWh of batteries right there.
In Denmark, certain rules apply for vintage cars when they reach 30 years of age. You can still drive them as much as you want, but insurance and road tax is cut in half. This was all I could think of. A small voice inside my head, however, was trying to warn me that in this country this could not possibly be an easy task. I refused to listen.
Oh, and I stumbled across this lovely piece about X-Ray motors in Detroit, which offers electric conversions of its customers’ old-timer Volvos. I was ready to dive in. I bought the old hack for $1,000 without thinking twice.
The hardware of dreams
One of the most complete sources of knowledge in this field is EV West in California. It has done some amazing conversions, and even has turnkey kits available for some models. So, I reached out to the California company from over here in Europe and discussed the Volvo, and I got some straight answers. None of us had a clue that I was wasting everybody’s time. …
As it turns out, the engine compartment would fit the new NetGain Hyper9 120V AC motor together with 5 Tesla Model S battery modules for a total capacity of 26.5 kWh at 114V. Now, it’s actually quite astonishing that these parts weigh almost exactly the same (about 200 kg) and take up no more space than the original engine. Nothing would have to be mounted beyond the original frontal crumple zone. However, if that crumple zone was to be utilized, another 5 battery modules would actually fit. Not even mentioning the gas tank in the rear where another 5 modules might fit. Theoretically, this car could fit 79.5 kWh worth of Tesla Model S battery modules! Without even using any trunk space.
The Hyper9 motor is especially interesting because it’s of the switched reluctant type (like the one used for the rear drive of the Model 3 described in detail in a couple of articles by Steve Bakker). It has a solid rotor with no copper windings, thus giving it a high temperature tolerance and high power-to-weight ratio of about 1 hp per pound. EV West has often used the reliable Curtis AC-50 motor, which has a power-to-weight ratio of 0.6 hp per pound.
38 CALB 100Ah battery units = 12 kWh at $6610 (+$300 for hardware). Weighs 266 pounds. Estimated range: 40 miles.
5 Tesla Model S battery modules = 26.5 kWh at $7900. Weighs 275 pounds. Estimated range: 100 miles.
Result of choosing Tesla: Less volume. 14.5 kWh more capacity. Only $1000 more for almost double the capacity. Only 9 pounds more weight. Over double the mileage.
OK, Tesla batteries rule!
All of this planning and dreaming made me so happy. I envisioned the old Volvo silently cruising along, with almost no shift in weight distribution, and with a power source so clean that the billions of gallons of gasoline consumed by the 2.7 million 240s produced over two decades would all be forgotten.
Then the chilling realization of a bureaucracy designed to smother all initiative slowly emerged. I controlled my urge to just click “Buy” on the EV West webshop and called the Danish Motorist Association for advice. After some explaining, they redirected me to a so-called national test center for automobile conversion. You know, everything from engine tuning, to rebuilds for handicap vehicles, to chassis design for garbage trucks.
The test center is called Autoconsult, and a quick look at its website showed all kinds of technical details for approving all kinds of vehicles — except electric vehicles. Go figure. …
Anyway, the kind Preben Egelund who runs the place took his time to explain the details for me. All the while, he probably thought I was a poor sod, who would never be doing any such conversion.
Ridiculous approval pricing
At this point, I had to question the validity of the numbers thrown at me. I could not believe what I was reading, but Preben Egelund was clear as morning dew and presented the horrifying facts to me in an email. In order to get the converted Volvo approved, the following had to be done:
EMC (Electromagnetic Compatibility) test at a German test center: $4,700
Electric safety test at a German test center: $4,700
Documentation with technical description of battery setup by Autoconsult: $3,100
Choice between unknown tax on battery pack or charge cycle test at a German test center: 3 full charge-discharge cycles at $1000 per hour (duration usually 7 — 10 hours).
On top of this comes all the costs for transportation, and it is important to note that if anything does not pass these tests, you start over…
So, approval price ballpark: $20,000! And since it is virtually impossible to do it right the first time around, this could easily double. The hardware alone was about $20,000, so in total we are looking at $40,000 if all goes well in the first go. My brain goes numb…
I reached out to Søren Ekelund, who had done a series of conversions of brand new Nissan Quashqai almost a decade ago, of which 2 prototypes started out on a trip around the world (one of them made it!). He said he would not be surprised if the final cost would reach at least $60,000! OK, knockout…
Well, I was in effect stranded with an old Volvo in my driveway and I was feeling depressed by the whole thing. Even if I eventually will fit an electric drivetrain in this car, in the meantime, I cannot register it in my name without it being able to drive legally, so in pure frustration I started dismantling everything in that huge engine compartment — with a lot of help from my son, who was eager to learn more about the legendary Volvo engines.
After a few days, my garage was littered with filthy bits and pieces. Engine parts soiled in muck, tubes and pipes full of rotten water and rust. Finally, I had the cylinder head off, and underneath was the depressing evidence of how this fossil fuel slurping machine had choked to death in coolant after 200,000 miles of roaming the roads:
Apparently, the previous owner was in no rush to fix the thing, so he left it there for 6 years, and so everything was stuck in extensive rust. There was still wet thick slush slowly eating its way down between pistons and cylinders.
This is where my next crazy — albeit much cheaper — idea kicked in: to make this thing run again in time for the arrival of my Model 3, and do a thorough comparison between the two: Volvo 240 series widely considered the safest family sedan of the mid 1980s vs. Tesla Model 3, probably the safest family sedan of the late 2010s. Could be interesting in a historical perspective, since the basic purpose is still the same: move the family safely, comfortably, and affordably from A to B.
Back from the dead
Now, the weather this May in Denmark has been exceptionally warm and dry, beating the record from 1889, so I have been busy fixing this old beast with a lot of thoughts going through my mind, like: Why bother? Am I being a hypocrite enjoying the unnaturally warm weather that might have something to do with the damage the machine I am trying to fix has imposed on the atmosphere? Will I be able to fuel it with non-fossil synth-fuels in the future? Will the enthusiasm we are seeing these years over vintage automobiles rise or fall? And how will that affect our daily acceptance of the avalanche of EVs rolling in?
We actually managed to assemble the engine, and it started at the first try! It’s a Volvo — what can I say? It cost me $500 in parts, and the value of the car literally tripled when it came to life. Not exactly what I had in mind, but don’t worry, when I get my Model 3 (which I might actually have a chance to pay for now that this project failed), this car will serve as an example of the old days, and will probably not run that many miles anyway.
I reached out to the Danish Road Safety Agency to discuss the possibility of going easy on these crazy conversion rules for old-timers, and their press secretary Kim Østrøm was kind enough to make some inquiries, but regrettably he eventually informed me that there are no exceptions for what we call veteran vehicles over 30 years of age, and there are no plans to change that. Bummer.
But, fortunately, others have succeeded. Enjoy the stories of these successful Volvo EV conversions: Greg and Wayne’s electric Volvo 240 and Martijn Hendrik’s Volvo 240 GL Classic Electric. Proof of concept. It can be done!
Should I move to another country?
When reading about EV conversions in the US, Australia, and Russia, it seems there are no particular issues with approval. I found this on electric conversions at the U.S. Department of Energy — Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy — Alternative Fuels Data Center:
All-Electric Vehicle Conversions: A vehicle with an internal combustion engine can be converted to an EV by completely removing the engine and adding a battery pack, one or more electric motors, high-voltage cables, and instrumentation. To maximize EV driving range, such conversions are often performed on smaller, lighter-weight vehicles.
Neither EPA nor CARB require that EV conversions be certified, as long as the conversion does not add a device that produces fuel combustion emissions.
Really? Sounds to good to be true…
I realize that this has not been the story many of you hoped for. It should have ended with the materialization of a road-legal classic electric car, but instead I revived a drowned internal combustion engine. Sorry about that. Spent a month on it, and now I am done and I still have to wait another 8 months or more for the Model 3. So much time… No, I won’t revive any more ICE’s. Promise.
Please let me now if you have insight in the rules and regulations for EV conversions in your country. We should not give up on this. I am pretty sure the interest in electrified vintage cars will explode when the EV revolution is in full gear. I mean, just think of all those boring self-driving computers on wheels. Driving might soon be a thing of the past for most of you, and something kids today will never experience. So, keeping more of these old cars on the roads with clean drivetrains would be awesome.