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The 600 pounds of batteries in the truck bed didn't make it any easier to steer. (Peter Cheney/Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
The 600 pounds of batteries in the truck bed didn't make it any easier to steer. (Peter Cheney/Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

Electric cars for do-it-yourself mechanics Add to ...

There are things that money can't buy. A truly interesting car is one of them. For that, you've got do it yourself.

I learned this back in high school, when I spent my days playing Dr. Frankenstein with an old Fiat 600, bolting on a polished intake manifold, a short-throw shifter I machined in shop class and a Fagst 770 deck lid (don't ask). That little Fiat was my personal engineering thesis, and no car since has brought me more pleasure, no matter the cost. If I won the lottery I could buy a Ferrari, but would it equal the little Fiat I built with my own hands and (limited) ingenuity? Definitely not - buying is one thing, creating is another.

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Last week, I got behind the wheel of something that took me back to those sunlit days of homebuilt wonder, but with a new twist. The car was a 1958 Chevrolet Apache pickup that had been given the ultimate makeover - the V-8 engine had been torn out and replaced with an electric drive-train.

Under the Apache's hood was a collection of cables and electronic boxes that looked like the propulsion system of an intergalactic cruiser. And in the pickup bed, mounted under protective covers, was a rack of batteries powerful enough to carry out an electric chair execution.

Bizarre. But also cool.

The truck was the handiwork of Greg Murray, a Vancouver modification guru who started a company called Electric Autosports. (He built the truck for Steam Whistle Brewing, which has dubbed the truck Retro Electro.)

The truck was a true skunk works effort, unlike anything else that I'd ever seen or driven - which is, of course, the hallmark of a true custom car. This was both good and bad. The Retro Electro had an undeniable presence, and it was a blast to drive a 1958 pickup truck that didn't make any noise. But there was no power steering, and the 600 pounds of batteries loaded in the back didn't help matters - every corner was an arm wrestling match. The brakes were pretty scary, too.

But this is how progress gets made. The Wright Brothers airplanes weren't easy to fly, but they pointed the way to something new. And so does the Retro Electro - it's an electric car that you don't need a PhD to understand.

Compared to high-tech factory electrics like the Nissan Leaf or the Tesla Roadster, the Retro Electro is a stone axe - lithium/iron phosphate batteries, brass connectors, and a cockpit-mounted control box with a switch that looks like the one on a kid's train set.

And that's what Murray was shooting for: "I want to make electric cars that a normal person can work on," he says. "You shouldn't need a laboratory and a white coat to fix your car."

The auto industry's approach to electric cars has been a road-going version of the space program. Murray has gone the other way. Instead of inventing all-new vehicles, he puts electric drivetrains into old ones.

For about $25,000, he'll sell you a kit that will let you electrify your own car. The package includes batteries, an electric motor, and a regenerative braking system. When you're done, you'll have a non-polluting vehicle that will do about 130 kilometres on a charge.

I was intrigued by the idea of the homebuilt EV, and whether it could change the way we think about alternative energy. Electric cars have a number of limitations. The most glaring is range, which comes a slap in the face after a life spent with gasoline-powered cars that can be fuelled anywhere in the world.

As long as you've got a credit card, you can jump into your Toyota Yaris and drive to Mexico. Try that in an electric car and you'll understand the true meaning of range anxiety. (When Mitsubishi decided to demonstrate the capabilities of its pure-electric i-MiEV by driving it across Canada, it was followed by a 18-wheeler generator truck.)

But the other big limitation of electric cars is the sheer inaccessibility of the technology that defines most of them. Unless you're an MIT professor, you won't do much poking around under the hood of a Tesla or a Fisker. The components are alien, and the cars have complex digital hearts - millions of lines of computer code that control everything from the brakes to the massive energy stored in their lithium-ion batteries.

The Tesla may be a work of genius, but a do-it-yourself project it is not. "It could only have been made in Silicon Valley," says Murray.

His cars are very different. They use less powerful (but more stable) lithium-iron phosphate batteries, and relatively simple components that a home mechanic can understand. "Not everything needs to be a space ship," he says. "We want to make a more accessible vehicle."

Murray's journey into the world of electric cars began four years ago, when he married a marine biologist who opened his eyes to the environment. Until then, Murray had been an inveterate fossil-fuel fanatic - he grew up modifying gas-powered cars, and once got nine speeding tickets in three months.

His wife's appreciation for the natural world made Murray question his approach to automotive performance. At the time, he was driving modified Subarus with twin turbos and remapped software that jacked up both their horsepower and their fuel consumption - he was lucky if he got 200 kilometres on a tank of gas.

Murray's wife was doing a PhD on harmful species. Now he was wondering if he was part of a harmful species himself: "I started thinking that maybe my hobby was a problem," he says. "I was a fossil fuel junkie."

In 2007, Murray made his first electric car - a 1991 Miata that used a motor he found on the Internet and a CVT transmission from a Polaris all-terrain vehicle. Not long after that, someone hired him to convert a Volkswagen van to electric power. As he finished the VW, he had an epiphany: he was clean.

"I was used to being covered in grease," he says. "But once I threw away the engine all the dirty stuff was gone. It was like working on a computer. You don't walk out with grease under your fingernails."

Murray builds his electric cars in a back-alley shop in Vancouver. He doesn't advertise. But that doesn't stop people from finding him. "Every once in a while we'll look up and somebody will be standing there in the shop," he says. "They gravitate to us. They want to see what we're doing."

Driving the Retro Electro and talking to Murray took me back to a time when I was exploring the world of technology on my own. I may not be Leonardo da Vinci, but as I worked on shining metal parts out in my parent's unheated garage, I felt a connection with the eternal spirit of invention.

I have written before about the forces that conspire against the do-it-yourselfer, and the electric cars made by major manufacturers are another nail in the coffin of the home mechanic - are you going to spend a weekend tinkering with the digital nervous system of your Tesla?

Murray's cars are less sophisticated than a Volt or a Tesla, but there's a place for them in the shops of gear heads that like to work on their own cars. Some do it to save money. Some just like to take things apart and change them.

This is good. Henry Ford was a tinkerer. So were da Vinci and Thomas Edison. When there are no more like them, the world will be a worse place.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

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