DIY: Electric Kit Carsby Richard Rowe
Electric cars were born over a century ago in the barns and garages of backyard tinkerers, so it is perhaps no surprise that their modern day descendants are doing the same thing. Whether you're looking for a fun weekend toy or a truly economical way to get back and forth to work, a DIY electric car might just have your name written all over it.
The bad news is that very few people are making dedicated electric kit cars, and those that are often are working out of a two-car garage somewhere in the outskirts of some remote city. Unless you want to spend the next six months trying to align wavy panels and bolting together misaligned chassis components, you'd be best off starting with a really reliable chassis. Powertrain components are easy enough to come by, so the whole ordeal shouldn't be much more difficult than assembling that same kit car with any other powertrain.
Buying a Chassis
To get any kind of range or speed out of your electric, you'll need the lightest weight chassis available. For a cool, lightweight chassis that will handle like its on rails and accelerate like a rabbit, you could do little better than a Shelby AC Cobra replica. For the best in the business, take a look at the roadsters offered by Factory Five Racing or Superformance; both offer kits nonpareil in price, ease of assembly and engineering. As of 2010, you can get a roadster kit for about $13,000 sans engine and transmission.
The powertrain is where you're really going to save money. With a full complement of batteries, motors and driver, you can expect your roadster to ring in at about 3,000 pounds. For a respectable 13-second quarter-mile time, you'll need about 270 horsepower, which translates to 201,420 watts. Luckily, there's an easy source for a motor (or pair of motors) and batteries that produce 201 kW of power without taking out a second mortgage--a used forklift. A good used forklift with that kind of juice will run you between $3,000 and $5,000, and comes with every battery, motor controller and piece of equipment you need to power your electric wonder car. Granted, forklift parts aren't the lightest out there, but you'll spend four times that amount purchasing anything better. Be forewarned, though; you'll have to install a gearing unit to raise the motor's RPM, or your car will never do more than 15 mph. Still, even with the additional parts you shouldn't be into your car for more than the cost of a base-model Prius.
Going the Distance
If you're planning to drive your electric car more than 10 miles to and from the car show, sooner or later you'll have to address the recharging issue. One thing you might want to consider is an onboard generator, which would technically makes your car a series-hybrid. A small 20-horsepower generator will fit under the hood, will recharge your batteries at a steady rate when you get low on juice, and will still allow you to maintain about 43 mph if the batteries go completely dead. One side benefit to on-the-fly recharging is that you can carry far fewer of those heavy batteries you would otherwise need to maintain an acceptable range.
Richard Rowe has been writing professionally since 2007, specializing in automotive topics. He has worked as a tractor-trailer driver and mechanic, a rigger at a fire engine factory and as a race-car driver and builder. Rowe studied engineering, philosophy and American literature at Central Florida Community College.