Workshop Profile

Gaining Traction

Meet one of Australia’s leading lights in the emerging world of classic car electric conversions.

As the bright blue 1968 VW Beetle pulls away, the ghostly silence is almost deafening. Where’s that distinctive air-cooled beat? Why can’t I hear that familiar rattle I’ve associated with Volksies since I was in nappies?

The answer is electric. James Pauly, founder of Queensland’s Traction EV, has gone to work converting this air-cooled classic into a battery-powered street-legal racer. The USA’s NetGain Motors has provided an 88kW HyPer 9 electric motor; a 28kWh Tesla battery pack brings the juice, and this curvaceous VW now goes far quicker than it ever did in its petrol-powered life. All-electric range? Over 150-kilometres.

It’s all very different to a traditional mechanic’s work, but be in no doubt, the electric revolution is here – from new road cars to classic conversions – and it’s only going to get bigger.

“We’re future-proofing vehicles,” James explained. “The number one thing is don’t hurt the car. I go to a lot of classic car shows with the Beetle and I hear murmurs in the crowd: ‘how could you do that?’ but there’s no cut, no weld. It’s all totally reversible, which is a lot less than many engine swaps.”

During my visit to James’ workshop north of Brisbane he received a delivery from the US containing eight electric motors. “They’re the newest HyPer 9 motor NetGain makes,” he said. “They’re compact, nine-inches in diameter, relatively light and ideal for a small car weighing around a tonne. They make 90kW and 240Nm torque, so are a lot of fun in a light car.” Six motors are destined for customers around Australia, the other two for forthcoming builds at Traction EV.

A hoist at James’ workshop holds a Land Rover Defender ready for its new electric heart; there’s a pair of electrified VW Kombis, a Beetle with battery pack housed under its bonnet, and a second-generation Mazda MX-5 with the same 88kW HyPer 9 motor found in James’ company demonstrator Beetle.

He spent his formative years in a more traditional manner: hotting up a Holden Gemini panel van and then a Hemi-powered Chrysler Centura, cutting his mechanical teeth along the way. “I watched the documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? in about 2007 and thought what the hell’s going on here?” he said. “I got into electric radio-controlled car racing for about four years and that taught me a lot about lithium battery technology, safe charging procedures and electric motor theory. RC cars are just in a scaled-down package, so I thought I could apply my mechanical knowledge and start building EVs.”

James discovered hero EVs through the internet, including the White Zombie 1972 Datsun 1200 which was once the world’s fastest street-legal electric car and, in California, EV West’s Tesla-motored 800hp BMW M3 Pikes Peak racer. Inspired, he began his first conversion on a 1987 Nissan R31 Skyline using two 300kW NetGain’s Warp11 DC motors. Then, after a chance Facebook post, he lucked into interning at EV West for two months.

“I was offered a job there, but I had the dream to start a business in Australia as nobody was really pushing ahead in a big way.”

“I Learned How To Design Motor Adapter Plates And Battery Boxes, Which Are The Two Most Critical And Difficult Things To Build For A Car.”

The business established, his first client needed help finishing a 1964 VW Beetle being converted with electric parts from EV West. James soon saw the potential for converting VWs. “They’re so popular in Australia for engine swaps, are lightweight, mechanically very simple and very easy to pass mechanical inspection. I thought I’d better build my own to have as a demonstrator here at all times.”

So what cars are best suited to electric swaps? Nothing running CAN bus, James said. “They’re just too complex software-wise to bother with, but it’d be great to have someone onboard who was a CAN bus aficionado who wants to hack, then we could convert more modern stuff.” Classics, for now, are ideal.

“People bring me ideas of all different types of vehicle, but unfortunately some aren’t suitable,” James said. “Certain body shapes are better than others.” Classic Minis are a bit too small, while station wagons and panel vans are difficult due to the battery box needing to be in the back, eating into rear space. Sedans are better as batteries go under the parcel shelf, while utes are good as there’s spare space under the tray to hide batteries.

“I Got Into Electric Radio-Controlled Car Racing For About Four Years And That Taught Me A Lot About Lithium Battery Technology.”

Air-cooled VWs are James’ preference as his kits are now off-the-shelf. “I don’t have to put any extra design hours in,” he said. As for price, depending on different charging options, you’re looking at around $30,000. “Not counting any restoration,” James stipulated. “I don’t do bodywork, just the conversion.” Your money buys about 90kW of power, 160km electric range and an overnight charger. A DC fast charger option (the CHAdeMO charge port used by Nissan Leaf) adds a few thousand more.

Sitting forlornly outside the workshop is a Tesla Model X’s stripped shell. While the NetGain motors serve their purpose, Tesla motors and batteries are hot property, but Tesla won’t sell you them direct. The wrecked Model X cost over $30,000 at auction, counting on the motor and batteries being sound. “The battery packs are pretty tough; there’s lots of structure around them,” he said. “The Kombi I’m working on has only the small drive unit from Tesla, but that’ll give about 225kW, while 14 of the 16 modules from Tesla’s battery pack will give about 350km range.” That’s going to be one rapid old bus.

Right now there are no official qualifications required for the work James is doing, though he’s keen for that to change in future. “I don’t install suspension or brakes, I’m not touching the safety side of things,” he said. “Industrial electricians are probably most suited to the work I do with hazardous voltage that traditional auto electricians. For those interested, I’d suggest getting qualified in electrical or mechanical engineering, or CAD design. Those are the subjects that best apply.”

As for those doubting the electric future, James compels people to just try one. “Test drive a Tesla. A Nissan Leaf even. They have a lot of get up and go compared to bog standard petrol commuter cars. You have to have a go.” As he tears away in his impossibly rapid Beetle, it’s hard to disagree.

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