Volts Wagens: Old Bugs go from Gross Polluters to EV Stars

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 13, 2010

Brian Steel's electric bug. (New Leaf EV photo)
Brian Steel's electric bug. (New Leaf EV photo)

Brian Steel spent 34 years fixing and tuning Volkswagens at his Small Car Performance shop in Tacoma, Washington, and then had an epiphany watching the movie Who Killed the Electric Car? Cars were going to plug in, and he wanted to become part of the solution. Henceforth, he would sell battery-powered Beetles!

The humble Volkswagen Beetle was the green star of its day--a 25-mpg mini-micro-- sharing space with the be-finned and lavishly chromed highway cruisers of the 1950s. Award-winning ads made a virtue of its modesty. But, by today's standards, the Greenpeace-friendly Beetle is a gross polluter.

Auto engineer John DeCicco, once the proud owner of a '71 Karmann Ghia ("the poor man's Porsche") and now a senior lecturer at the University of Michigan, says flatly, "In terms of smog, a brand-new large SUV emits 100 times less than the old VW Beetles of a generation ago." Jim Kliesch, a senior analyst in the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, did some back-of-envelope calculations and concluded that compared to an average new car today, a mid-60s Beetle produced 141 times more hydrocarbons and 80 times more nitrogen oxides (the two together produce smog).

"You kill a lot of emissions by converting a mid-60s Beetle to an EV," Kliesch said. "Then again, compared to that car, you'd cut a lot by replacing it with anything in the showroom today."

No fancy emissions controls for the classic Beetle. "It was a carbureted vehicle with no catalytic converter," Steel said. "They were no worse than other cars of that age, and probably better than the gas hogs, but unfortunately they were often driven out of tune and would run pretty well that way. So there was no incentive to get repairs."

Back in the day, hippies used peace symbols for structural repairs, and dog-eared copies of John Muir's How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Complete Idiot for infrequent maintenance. Hey, it got you to the Dead concert. My friend drove his Bug until the six-volt battery fell through the floor and dragged on the highway by its positive and negative cables.

I never owned a Beetle, but I had a '68 Squareback with the same engine, and vividly remember the clouds of blue smoke rising from the rotten floorboards. Even in the dead of winter, I drove with all the windows open. You know how people call Car Talk and complain about the "funny noise"? These things produced symphonies of rattles and groans, and their smoke trail hung in the air long after they had "trucked" down the road.

Charging up the New Leaf Beetle. (New Leaf photo)
Charging up the New Leaf Beetle. (New Leaf photo)

For Steel, those exhaust clouds formed into a message spelling out a new destiny. He began with an intermediate step--replacing the sluggish 15-mpg power plant in the VW '83-'91 Vanagon with a modern Subaru replacement, jacking the car up to 24 mpg on the highway. "I really got into it," said Steel, "a custom aluminum bell housing, stainless exhaust pipes, the works."

Soon he'd done 135 Vanagon conversions (there must be some kind of cult for these cars on the West Coast) and the road was paved for the electric Beetle and New Leaf EVs. Steel has converted exactly one car, but he's already offering his services to the public on the web and has two other donors waiting for heart transplants.

The prototype is a very clean two-owner 1963 Beetle procured from an elderly woman owner in eastern Washington. Neatly slotted in the engine compartment and taking over from the gas tank are a bank of AGM lead-acid batteries, which couple to a brush-less AC induction electric motor. A regenerative braking system captures energy that would otherwise be lost as waste heat.

The Beetle weighs 1,600 pounds and the batteries add another 300, so it's still a very light platform for an electric car. The second car will get an upgrade to vastly more efficient lithium-ion batteries--for 100 miles of range instead of 40 in the prototype. The basic conversion is $9,975 plus the donor car, but batteries are extra (lead-acid packs are $1,975; lithium-ion adds $8,575). I haven't driven the electric Beetle, but a reporter for Ruralite Magazine did.


"Put the key in the ignition and turn it on. There's nothing but a faint ticking sound. Press the accelerator. Silent forward motion, seems eerie at first. Steer into traffic and keep pace. Stop at a light. There's that eerie silence again. No VW roar. No gassy smell."

Steel is enough of a classic car guy that he insists on installing the electric hardware into his electric Beetles without drilling any new holes or cutting panels--they could be converted back to gas, should history reverse itself. A hybrid conversion is next.

New Leaf EVs are not alone. Rebirth Autos makes a conversion kit that in one $9,000 version includes AGM batteries and a NetGain Warp 9 motor. But buy some overalls, because you install it yourself. Richard from Olympia, Washington, created the "Volts Wagon"--a '75 convertible and plans to charge the batteries with rooftop solar.

The Wired Autopia blog has also been chronicling the transformation of Matthew Redd's typically rusty Bug into an electric paragon. "Wow, it runs!" he wrote in March. Mark Clifford is doing a Porsche 911 Targa. There's something about these funky (remember "funky"?) little cars that begs for a green rebirth. Far out, man, my Beetle plugs in.


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