Building the Future in Your Garage With the Right Tools, Any Car Can Go Electric

I am at a Garden Expo in the suburban outpost of Fairfield, Connecticut, sitting in James Boncek’s freshly retrofitted DC-power electric car, a humble little red Toyota Tercel with a trunk full of batteries. The 144-volt DC system he designed runs off 12 large lead-acid batteries and cost between $10,000 and $20,000, paid for in part with help from sponsor MX Energy. Boncek can travel 30 miles per charge, enough for his short in-town commute.

James Boncek didn’t wait for the electric version of his Toyota Tercel—he built his own.

He says that taking his Tercel from gas to electric has hardly changed the way the car runs, but it has left him with a new reverence for the “80s blockbuster Back to the Future. Boncek says he plans to coil some wire around those cords and rig up a custom flux capacitor—the signature light-flashing box on the car-turned-time-travel-machine in the movie—for his own transformed car.

Besides fulfilling his own geeky aspirations, Boncek hopes to use his experience building an electric vehicle (EV) to educate anyone willing to listen. He’s guest-taught a few local high school classes, and is in talks to develop a course with the Fairfield University Engineering Department based on his EV. He says, “Part of this project was not only to have a car to drive, but to get out and talk to people about it.”

Building an EV

From May to October 2009, Boncek virtually taught himself how to turn a gas car into an electric one. “I”m not an engineer,” he says, though he did study automotive technologies at New England Institute of Technology. “I just asked a few questions, and I picked up Seth Leitman’s book Build Your Own Electric Vehicle. And there’s the Internet. Google it! People have referred to me as an engineer, and I’m not. I’m just another dude.”

Once he understood the basics, Boncek says the transition was fairly straightforward. First, he removed the unnecessary components—namely, any part associated with the cooling systems, exhaust systems or fuel delivery such as the radiator, spark plugs, air intake and coolant. All he needed to keep were thesteel, tires, suspension, transmission, the wiper motor and the brakes.Then Boncek found a place for the batteries (10 in the trunk, two under the hood) and a way to power both the low-voltage components and the high-voltage vehicle itself.

Boncek installed a DC-to-DC converter behind the dash to step down the power from the batteries in the trunk to a simple 12-volt system that can run all the original components without frying them. He ran the wires and cables through the inside of the car in a long tube below the passenger door. The wires reach the homemade dashboard panel, where Boncek flips a couple switches so the motor doesn’t receive too much power at once. Once the power reaches the motor, the car is on—and silent.

Some reference tools are still required. In this case, there’s Leitman’s veritable EV cookbook, Build Your Own Electric Vehicle (McGraw-Hill), written with Bob Brant, an engineer who has worked on NASA spaceships and lunar modules. The book outlines the many components of an EV, along with a few history lessons. Leitman, known to the e-world as the Green Living Guy, once worked on hybrid and electric transportation technology with the New York State Power Authority. He’s also the president of the ETS Energy Store, providing products and services in the areas of energy efficiency and electric transportation.

“The book is there to empower people to do it themselves and to help people realize the promise of electric cars,” Leitman says. “They are faster, stronger and more powerful than an internal combustion engine can ever be.”

Freedom from Oil

Leitman said there is no time to waste in a national shift to clean energy and electric vehicles, particularly in light of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig explosion in April 2010 that resulted in a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “I hope people look at this oil spill and think we have to do this for our national security,” Leitman says, “for our country and for the survival of our world. We have to build more electric cars.”

Boncek added that nothing about the technology itself is new. Even at the turn of the century, electric cars were being built, sold and used by families and businesses.

“At that time, they had electric cars,” he says. “But their range was poor. The battery technology wasn’t what it is today.” Options like nickel cadmium and lithium polymer batteries now offer lighter and more powerful alternatives to lead-acid batteries, and they’re continually being improved.

Most of the people who approached Boncek at the Expo talked about the range limitations. One couple expressed disappointment that they wouldn’t be able to get to one of Connecticut’s casinos 60 miles from their home with the converted Tercel’s 30-mile limit.

But Boncek says the only thing standing in the way of more range is cost. “If you need to drive 100 miles, you can drive 100 miles,” he says. “If you need 200, you could do that, too. A lot of it is just an upfront cost, which you will recoup after the lifetime of your battery pack.” Boncek has been monitoring his kilowatt usage and says he spends a third less money by charging the EV in his garage.

“It occurred to me the other day that I don’t think I”ll be buying a new car any time soon,” says Boncek. “But that doesn’t mean I won’t be building one.”