What’s better than one Fiat Spider conversion story? How about two Spider conversion stories? Barb and Derek met with me this morning to share their stories of converting two Fiat Spiders to electric powertrains. We sat at a café at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art beside the Brisbane River, sipping coffee whilst being entertained by the ever-present bearded dragons.
The big question on my mind was “why would you restore and convert a little known Fiat?” I think the answer is passion. Passion for the car and passion for electric. Derek, after all, arrived on a Onewheel. You certainly wouldn’t do it to make a profit. Although, Derek had no trouble selling his Spider’s ICE (internal combustion engine).
Derek’s Fiat Spider was made in ’75 and Barb’s in ’79. Both would have been privately imported to Australia, as Fiat was not importing Spiders at that time. They tell me that the Spider was quite a popular model in the US. Derek, a mechanical engineer, is mostly doing his own work. Barb, on the other hand, is getting lots of professional help. She is a doctor by profession.
Coming back to the why, both Derek and Barb are tinkerers. Barb used to dismantle clocks as a child to find out how it all works. Derek says he has played around with motorcycles. However, his wife, a nurse, has dealt with the aftermath of motorcycle accidents and doesn’t want to go on the bike with him. The two-seat Spider will make a great weekend driver for them to both enjoy. The Spider appeals to Derek because it was “edgy” for its time, with coil springs and disc brakes — much better than the MGB.
Barb says she hadn’t planned to convert her Spider initially, but to restore what she thought was an original engine. When it turned out the engine wasn’t actually the correct one for the car, she started looking at alternatives. She had already gone to the trouble of purchasing a Fiat 132 motor (ICE), but her panel beater Adrian at Impact Automotive — who was doing the car up — convinced her not to use it. It was expected to last only 5 years. He said she might as well go straight to electric now. Why wait for cheaper and more efficient batteries? Going electric means being able to use the car as a daily drive, not just a weekender, and she could also install air conditioning.
When asked about costs, Barb laughs and says: “Well, let’s say it would be way (way) cheaper to go buy a new Tesla! But for me it’s about learning new things and having the ‘project.’ I’m not planning to sell the car, so it’s certainly not about making money.”
She intends to do some of the work herself: “Bodywork is such an important part of a car’s aesthetic … so I’m leaving that, the conversion itself, and redoing the wiring harness to pros. I plan to put the rest of the car back together myself … with the aid of lots of manuals and the Fiatista who’ve already restored their cars.”
Derek has spent AUS$6,000 on the EV motor and inverter and AUS$20,000 on the battery. He is doing his own work, so labour costs are not factored in. He expects to have excess battery modules and will use them to power his house.
Barb is paying for her panel beater extraordinaire to do the work, and so is hoping for the final bill to be somewhere around $40,000. Adrian has been trained by Graeme Manietta of OZDIY.
She is yet to decide on what engine to go with. “I love the Electric GT crate systems … but they are quite a bit more expensive and I’ve not worked out whether that equates to a genuine saving in installation time etc., and whether they interface better with the existing transmission. (They do have one that is specifically designed for Fiat Spider conversion).”
The costs would be much higher if I was reporting on the restoration. This article is focusing on the electrification of the two motoring icons. Derek and Barb both have solar on their roofs, too, so free power for the Spiders.
What about detractors? Both Barb and Derek say that there has been overwhelming support from both the EV community (through Australian Electric Vehicles Association) and from the Fiatistas — many of whom are grateful to see two more Spiders back on the road. On the flip side, there are those who say FIAT stands for Fix It Again Tony. “And one German friend exclaimed: ‘You bought a 50-year-old Fiat! You F…wit!'”
One member of the Fiat Facebook page said, “As soon as I heard EV I switched off … vomit emoji,” but then came back after he heard that there was a non-original motor in the resto — “It’s your car, you can do what you want!” Barb has been surprised at how supportive the Fiatistas have been overall.
“I also owe a debt of gratitude (and I expect a small fortune) to my panel beater, who is also interested in converting older cars, and has been doing a lot of the research and courses on conversions,” she says.
Close family are on side. Derek’s daughter has already staked her claim to “Charlotte.” Barb has called her car “Pini” (after Pininfarina, the famous auto designer responsible for the Fiat 124 Spider). She hopes that he would approve of the electrification — he was a forward thinker, after all. Her husband can’t complain much — he has a half-restored Hummer under the house!
Derek has avoided telling the Fiat lovers that he is going electric. He needs their help during the restoration phase. He will feel more comfortable “fessing up” after that. He points out that with an electric conversion, the sound of the engine is no longer there to hide other noises made by the car. He says he is going over it and making sure everything is insulated so that he has a very “quiet driving experience.”
“Of course, some people absolutely hate the idea of losing the ICE from a vintage car — and I completely understand that. I’m still struggling to get my head around the idea of having a ‘silent’ car myself!” Barb comments.
I asked if there was a time when they considered walking away from these multi-year, expensive projects. Derek says this occurred in the discovery phase, like when Barb had her Spider sandblasted and found that it had had a serious accident and needed extensive work on the front end. “When the bills add up, do you walk away? Perhaps buy a better one and start again?”
They both considered this tipping point. Barb is too stubborn, she tells me. If she starts something, she likes to finish it. Plus, she had already developed an emotional attachment to Pini. Derek just thought it made sense to continue. “If you are going to convert a car from ICE to EV, make sure it is one you will appreciate for the rest of your life. The Spider is a good example of usable art.” They both believe that you need a reason to restore something you love. As car people, they see each Spider conversion as a reflection of self.
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