Used Cars that Make Great Electric Car Conversions

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Electric cars are catching on. The best-selling electric vehicle (EV) so far is the Nissan Leaf, which has sold more than 100,000 vehicles globally – about half of those in the U.S. Before commercially-available EVs were common, though, the electric car was largely the domain of the do-it-yourself converter. As the trend grew, so did the options. Now there are kits you can purchase that are both vehicle-specific and relatively generic. The number of new or used EV choices on the production market is still limited, so some people are opting to find the right gas-powered used car to convert to an electric instead.
If you’re thinking about this idea, here are a few things you should know before you start as well as the most popular models to convert. Since many have done these conversions before, your way will be easier and the availability of vehicle-specific kits and parts will be larger.

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Five Common Attributes for Easy Conversion

A car should have three things to make it a prime prospect for conversion. Keep in mind that any vehicle can be converted to an EV if you wish, but there are things that make some a better option than others.

The first is light weight. The lighter the vehicle is, the further it can go once the motor and batteries are in place. Lighter weight means less mass to propel which means more energy efficiency and thus a longer range from your EV.

The second is lots of room for batteries. The largest component of an EV is its battery bank or banks, so make sure you have plenty of space for them. Most conversions will place the batteries inside the cargo compartment or underneath the seats. Remember that batteries must be protected, so avoid putting them outside of the protection of the car’s frame and underpan.

The third is a solid chassis. A car with a reputation for bad chassis design, such as a lot of body roll on the road or inadequate spring capacity, is not a good choice for an EV. When you’re finished building your conversion, you can expect the car to weigh a couple of hundred pounds more than it likely did with the gasoline engine, transmission, and full tank of gas in it. Conversions that keep the transmission and driveline in place will be even heavier.

The fourth is a car in good shape. A rust bucket pile of crap as a gasoline car will also be a rust bucket pile of crap as an electric. Make sure the vehicle is in good mechanical order in terms of its chassis, steering, braking, and so forth. You can learn a lot in this regard, of course, by checking the Carfax vehicle history report for the car. Have a mechanic inspect the chassis before you buy as well.

The fifth is either two-wheel drive or a manual transmission. This is due to the way the conversion takes place. A two-wheel drive car can have its transmission removed and probably still operate just fine as an EV if the motor being installed is capable of low RPM output and reversing polarity to go backwards. A manual transmission is often better, as it allows you to keep the gearing in place (including the drive components such as the axles); and further, it allows you to retain the all-wheel or four-wheel drive the vehicle might have had as a gasoline or diesel burner.

So remember, you need a donor car that is light weight, has lots of room for batteries, and that possesses a solid chassis and that is in good shape. A manual transmission or two-wheel drive is also optimal.

Ideally, you will find a good car with either high mileage or a problematic or dead engine. Since you’re getting rid of the gasoline engine and its components anyway, a “dead” car is perfect as it will minimize the price by eliminating the cost of components you’re going to get rid of anyway.

Most Popular Choices

1999 Honda Civic image by .

1999 Honda Civic image by Andrew Plumb.

The most popular car models for EV conversion are all compact vehicles that are relatively easy to find on the used car market. Popular choices include:

While these cars are very common conversions, so are small, two-wheel drive pickup trucks like:

Other popular conversions for those with a larger budget are Porsche 911 models, old Volkswagen Beetles and Golfs, and the Porsche 929. The Beetle and 929 have the advantage of being air-cooled and thus have far fewer components to remove as well as a reputation for easy engine removal.

More exotic conversions that are very popular include iconic vehicles like the VW Bus Type 2, Triumph Spitfire, Mazda Miata, and similar cars. Again, anything can be converted, but some will require more work and have higher replacement/maintenance costs than will others.

Best Choices for the Budget-Minded

EV conversion kit. Image by David Harvey

EV conversion kit. Image by David Harvey

If you’re a budget-minded DIY electric converter, the choices are relatively straight forward. Any small car can be converted. The above-mentioned Aveo, Metro and Civic are good choices and conversion kits and knowledge abounds with many books and how-to’s being published for each. Of the three, the Metro and Civic are the most common and easiest to find help and information for. They also have the advantage of being both plentiful in the used market and aerodynamic for better efficiency.

The conversion itself will involve a motor, converter/controller, and batteries. The batteries are the most expensive part and also the most crucial. They will determine both the charge time and the range of your EV, and they will also be its most costly replacement part down the road. So buy the best batteries you can afford. More is merrier, but quality is better. It’s better to have a car with a 45-mile range but a life expectancy of ten years than a car with an 80-mile range and a life expectancy of four years if the batteries are cheaply made.

The basic steps for EV conversion are simple.

  1. Remove the old internal combustion engine parts. This includes engine, exhaust, fuel system and tank.
  2. Prepare mounts for the motor and place the motor into the car.
  3. Create/prepare mounts for the batteries and place batteries in the car.
  4. Mount the controller/converter into the car.
  5. Add wiring to connect everything together.
  6. Charge the batteries and try it out!

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, the devil is in the details. Those who use a kit purchased specifically for the car they are converting will have an easier time than those doing an off-the-cuff conversion of an unusual car or without a kit. You can expect to do a lot of fabrication, jury rigging, and so forth to make things work. Most conversions can take several weeks to complete unless done by a professional.

For most people, however, the payoff is worth it. Not only do you have a unique car, but you have one that runs on cheap electricity and makes no pollution itself at the tailpipe!

Featured Image by Scott Andress

By | 2018-06-19T15:54:21+00:00 September 4th, 2014|Car Buying|27 Comments

27 Comments

  1. Adam November 27, 2014 at 4:37 pm - Reply

    From what I’ve seen used Honda Civic hatches are still worth good $$ cause people want them because;

    1. They get great mileage
    2. Tuners love them!

    So, not sure if they are ideal for an EV conversion. If you can find one for a reasonable price with a good engine and trans to resell, definitely buy it. 🙂

    • Adrian February 10, 2015 at 8:23 pm - Reply

      I kind of like the idea of going vintage for a conversion. Setting my sights on a Volvo 122 Amazon, a Karmann Ghia or a VW fastback. A split-screen VW bus would be fantastic but they’re getting pricey.

    • Michael February 2, 2017 at 8:30 am - Reply

      I am going to convert a 2000 Toyota Tacoma compact truck. It is a hard truck to find since people don’t give them up easily! But should be an excellent choice for durability and storing batteries under the bed and/or hood. There are a lot of trucks where I live and a few I see are the small ones. Unfortunately manufacturers prefer to make midsize and large trucks now. So they will become harder to find.

      • Eric September 15, 2017 at 1:11 pm - Reply

        Remember that the std 2000 tacoma 2x has r & p steering and not recirculating ball. This r & p doesn,t particularly handle well when weighed down. In my experience…I have this truck,, which I over sprung with helper leafs…

      • mike May 22, 2019 at 10:52 am - Reply

        have a Nissan Xterra I was thinking of doing, did you do your Tacoma??

  2. Dan December 25, 2014 at 5:32 pm - Reply

    Has anyone ever converted a Ford Crown Victoria to an electric vehicle. I have a retired 2004 Police Interceptor that I picked up cheap a couple of years ago and although it is in good shape and runs well, if it ever blows in the distant future I may consider a conversion if feasible. Love the big car ride, safety and comfort.

    • Adrian February 10, 2015 at 8:21 pm - Reply

      Heavy!! Seriously, look at the weight of a VW Beetle (1700 pounds) compared to that monster. You really won’t get very good range with a full-sized American sedan.

      • Scott February 2, 2017 at 10:05 pm - Reply

        But with used, or new Tesla style batteries, you should be able to get around that since they have a high power to weight ratio. Plus, that crown Vic frame is strong enough to hold more cells

  3. mark August 15, 2015 at 10:53 am - Reply

    great site most of the tesla fanclub/groupies /cheerleaders should read this ,they will never afford a tesla , he started with lotus elise w /ev kit , honda insight 1st gen can be made 100% ev ,ive had 9 ,
    woulda coulda 460 mil (that tesla got 2009 )should of been split 3 or 4 ways w other x prize teams (fisker was not in x prize comp) and make a vehicle the average fam of 4 can afford . 70 grand and up should be a 4×4 series hybrid w cng and or diesel generator on board that a contractor ,emergency vehicle, construction folk etc everywhere u go u r pulling up with a 3 or 4 cylinder generator ps thanks talk to me

    • Cameron July 18, 2018 at 8:42 pm - Reply

      The problem with converting a 1st gen insight is it’s just not worth it. The thing already gets 80mpg with a readily available battery upgrade. Decreasing the operating cost by 20% is not worth the price of the electric conversion. Just drive the way it is.

  4. Ivan Buhin June 2, 2016 at 7:02 am - Reply

    I have Alpha Romeo Spider (Qudrifoglio) and would like to have converted to
    electric drive.
    My location is Montreal Quebec Canada.
    Would you have suggestion were and who may do such conversion.
    Thanks, Best Regards
    Ivan

    • Tony June 2, 2019 at 7:45 pm - Reply

      Hi. Did you convert your Alfa? I have one and want to also convert it.
      Thanks,
      Tony

  5. Michael June 19, 2018 at 4:53 pm - Reply

    I have a 2001 Chrysler 2001 PT Cruiser. Do you think it can be converted? i live in Northern New Jersey..Any conversion companies up this way?

  6. Mike Banister August 2, 2018 at 6:14 pm - Reply

    I have a 94 Ford Ranger extended cab I love but worry about the eventual demise of the engine (150k miles). Can the battery pack fit under the bed? Or in the truck box I installed years ago?

  7. Chet August 26, 2018 at 3:34 am - Reply

    I have a 1983 Chrysler Lebaron Town and Country convertible (k car). Any chance of converting to electric?

  8. Ava September 3, 2018 at 4:09 am - Reply

    i’m thinking of converting a convertible BMW E30( 1991) to electric, what do you guys think?

  9. Andrew September 11, 2018 at 1:51 am - Reply

    1987 BMW 325i hardtop Convertible? ,
    Champaign, looking OK.
    Curb weight (without a driver):

    1368 kg / 3016 lbs

  10. DJ October 19, 2018 at 9:33 pm - Reply

    The best part is the top picture. This battery Tech is from the year 2525.25

  11. Matthew Gooch October 27, 2018 at 8:55 pm - Reply

    I have two EVs one complete and the other in progresss. The first in a 79 ford courier the second is 69 VW bug. the ford is pretty stock besides ice and ice components removal.200AH worth of 48 volt chevy volt batteries provide power through axis 2009 24-90v programable controller powering an advanced motor systems 120V DC brush motor that is connected to a driveshaft coming from tranny by 3 belts. I am unsure of HP but I get 20ish in2nd and cruises nicely at 35 in 4th with top speed of about 45. I know it is because of the voltage of system which I plan on bumping up to 80V. The vw has a 96-144v non-programable curtis controller and 120v 105 HP brushless DC motor (i might be off on specs a bit) I was planning on using chains to drive this one basically I would have motor mounted above or behind and to the side of tranny with a solid 1.5″driveshaft about 1ft long going through two bearings to hold tension. if this fails I was going to switch it up so that the tension is on motor instead of tranny.

  12. Michael November 17, 2018 at 11:28 pm - Reply

    If a Honda Civic was had a good body and mechanicly sound how much would that cost to convert (kit etc) and I was also wondering about the Vw beetle ( costs etc)cause I may possibly get access to both

  13. Owen December 20, 2018 at 11:23 pm - Reply

    What is a Porsche 929?! I think you mean an early 911 or 912 perhaps, neither of which are low cost these days, even in poor condition

  14. Mark January 3, 2019 at 5:52 pm - Reply

    Intuitively, it seems an AWD car like a Subararu would be an easier retrofit since you could drive the back wheels bypassing the transmission.

  15. PW Shafer February 6, 2019 at 2:08 pm - Reply

    I want to convert my mint condition 1992 Allante to electric vehicle. Where can I get this done? How much would it cost?

  16. Bob February 25, 2019 at 12:51 am - Reply

    i’m going to convert a 1975 Rolls-Royce silver shadow.

  17. Caral L Smith March 6, 2019 at 2:16 pm - Reply

    Looking for a performance after market shop in the San Fran bay area, to convert my 1978 jeep wide trac Cherokee chief.. I would like to go select trac, or all wheel drive. Not the current 4 wheel drive. With current and future high output batteries, great speed and good range is what I am looking for. Any shops up for the task? I have a HIGH DOLLAR budget and want to keep it

  18. Stefan Trajani March 11, 2019 at 1:18 pm - Reply

    95 legend coupe in like new shape.like to convert. Can You recommend a shop.car is in Miami FL.
    Stefan

  19. Alvin Harris July 17, 2019 at 5:44 pm - Reply

    Thanks for publishing this article on auto conversion from gas to electric. I found it very enlightening nd very informative. 😊 I found it fascinating that electric vehicles have been around for atleast 50 years and longer. But the power brokers / oil sheiks of the auto industries around the world are realizing that their choke hold on the human race in loosing control ! And the fossil fuels in the planet EARTH — are beginning to dry up !! It’s a good time for folks to begin rethinking about the air quality of the planet. And taking next bold steps to purchase/ convert to a electric car/ van / truck — will help immensely to improve the air quality around us and help save our planet from certain doom ! — PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE — continue to post more great articles like this and you too, might win a Pulitzer Prize !! You never know. You certainly have my vote ! ☺😄🏝🏞🌈

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