Just enough range to get to the beach and back!

1975 Mazda Bongo Meets 2012 Nissan Leaf

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Overcome by the desire to write about electric car conversions after a recent conversation with Graeme from OZDIY, I shared my interest with Facebook and received several generous offers of story. Here is one, written by Ra Cleave and Boyd Benton of New Zealand, with some slight edits by me, to make it easier for foreigners to understand. Ra writes:

Boyd asked me to send a wee writeup about the 1975 Bongo Van that we converted. Feel free to use bits and pieces or the whole of this, and if you have any other questions, just sing out.

My partner Miriam is a coffee roaster who delivers coffee around Rotorua by e-bike. Some delivery days were getting a bit big for the cargo bike, and so Miriam started looking for an electric car or van. New options were few, expensive, and not “iconic” at all. I’d done an EV conversion with my friend Boyd and so we started thinking about converting something “old school.”

After quite a bit of trawling on trade me NZ, Miriam found something called a Mazda Bongo. I thought it was so ugly that she must be taking the piss [making fun of me]. But no, she thought it was cool. Some research showed it was meant to be a van, although it seemed about the size of a chilly-bin [cool box to put your beers in]. More research showed that Japanese people now call their elders “Bongo” (if they like them).

Jono in the Leaf on the driveway — thanks bro! Photos courtesy Boyd Benton and Miriam Odlin.

The Bongo was in Christchurch [800 km away], and we found a pranged Nissan Leaf going at the Christchurch auction house. So, we flew down to Christchurch and pulled the Leaf apart in Miriam’s brother’s driveway. All the useful bits were squished into the poor wee [small] Bongo, and we travelled up country to Rotorua at 70 kph. We rolled into Rotovegas at about 2am on a Monday morning, after using about 5 litres of oil and 10 litres of cooling water!

We spent $NZ 4,400 on the Leaf, and $NZ 15,000 on the Bongo. The Bongo seemed bloody expensive at the time, but Covid-19 had increased second hand car prices and looking back we probably should have put more money into the recipient vehicle. We would have spent about $NZ 3,000 for miscellaneous parts and refurbishments.

Battery modules in place in the Bongo. Photos courtesy of Boyd Benton and Miriam Odlin.
Chassis rail mods. Photo courtesy Boyd Benton and Miriam Odlin

The conversion itself went fairly well. We made contact with one of the few Low Volume Vehicle certifiers for electric conversions in the country, and talked through the conversion plan. The battery modules were bolted down in the cargo area of the Bongo, and the electric motor, inverter, junction box and onboard charger all fit into the rear engine bay. The poor old 1000cc engine was given to our god(less) daughter so she could pull it apart.

Easy as, God daughter gets the old clunker. Photo courtesy Boyd Benton and Miriam Odlin

To make certification smoother, we didn’t cut any of the high voltage cabling, and reused as much of the Nissan electric drive components as possible. A RippleTech REV controller was used as the main vehicle control unit: this allows configuration of drive profiles and handles communication with the Leaf components so the car drives and charges. Boyd Benton, who also worked on the project, tells me: I have been involved in developing the RippleTech aftermarket controller, this allows transplanting the Nissan Leaf drive gear into other things, mostly in the tourism industry.

One of the certification challenges is braking performance. Three consecutive tests have to be completed in two minutes, and each one requires stopping in 4.4 seconds from 100 kph. With all round drum brakes the shoes, drums and brake lines needed to be perfect. Luckily Australian suppliers still had stocks of Bongo brake pads! The Mazda Bongo was more popular in Australia than New Zealand.

Engine bay in the rear made it easier to install the inverter charger and junction box. Photo courtesy Boyd Benton and Miriam Odlin

The first visit to the certifier got a big fail and a long to-do list. The big fails were worn running gear (suspension and steering) and some corrosion. This was partly due to our misunderstanding of the LVVTA certification process: we should have tried to get a Warrant of Fitness first, and got things to the stage where we only failed on the fact that it was a modified vehicle. I guess each country will have different procedures for this. We had the electric conversion side of things pretty much right, as we’d talked things through with the certifier first.

Once the running gear was rebuilt, on the second visit we received the “OK” for use on New Zealand roads! Then it was off to the sign writer and since then the Bongo has been in almost daily use for coffee deliveries, boating, and surfing trips. There are only 2 seats, so on the open road we are limited to 2 people and 2-3 boards. We have had three mountain bikes on a rack, 3 riders and 1 driver, but that was on forestry roads going slow!

Electric Bongo can tow a boat!  Pulling the 25ft Noelex in and out of the water is a breeze.Photo courtesy Boyd Benton and Miriam Odlin

It is certainly capable of pulling larger loads, as the low-speed torque is so much higher. But with the extra weight (mainly due to the battery) the allowed carrying capacity has been reduced compared to the original: it was 500kg but is now only 250kg.

Just enough range to get to the beach and back! Photo courtesy Boyd Benton and Miriam Odlin

People love the van. Miriam often comes back to where it is parked to find people taking photos of it and asking “what is this?” The electric aspect is still a buzz, as it is uncommon for older vehicles to be electric. When people drive it they become WAY more excited about the electric side of it — the one-pedal driving and really fast acceleration make it great fun. Interestingly, Mazda showed an electric version back in 1968.

Coffee in the forest?Photo courtesy Boyd Benton and Miriam Odlin

The 1975 Bongo Van is so small and so uncommon on New Zealand roads that it attracts heaps of attention. It is also super fun to drive, with heaps of torque and that one-pedal EV feel. The total cost was about $NZ 22,400 and I’m not sure how many hours of free labour. So, even though it took more money and time than we expected, it (now) seems totally worth it!

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David Waterworth

David Waterworth is a retired teacher who divides his time between looking after his grandchildren and trying to make sure they have a planet to live on. He is long on Tesla [NASDAQ:TSLA].

David Waterworth has 748 posts and counting. See all posts by David Waterworth