As electric cars become more mainstream, we talk to an electro-modifier about his 1981 Datsun 1200 EV and his thoughts on how the industry is shifting.
Talking to mechanics young and old these past few years, a topic that always comes up is the auto industry’s move to electrification. Electric cars aren’t just the future. They’re here. Sales are surging globally and starting to make headway in Australia, and some major car manufacturers have announced they’ll be electric only in the near future.
That basically means a commitment to no more new internal combustion cars in many brands’ showrooms. Jaguar by 2025; Mercedes-Benz and Fiat by 2030 just some examples.
Younger mechanics specifically need to accept and embrace they’ll probably be increasingly working on hybrid, plug-in hybrid (PHEV), battery-electric (BEV) and even hydrogen fuel cell (FCEV) vehicles over coming decades.
It may seem daunting, but there’s plenty to celebrate. Not least the rise of electromodding.That is, converting classic cars to run on electric motors powered by batteries. This is the really fun stuff, and there’s a growing scene popping up with some fascinating results.
Meet Ken Macken. He’s just created what he’s named the Dasla – a 1981 Datsun 1200 ute with electric motor fed by re-purposed Tesla batteries. Based in Queensland, Ken sees himself as a modern day MacGyver. Not the explosions bit, but that rare ability to seemingly be locked in a shed of machinery for all of 30 minutes then emerge with something bespoke and brilliant.
He’s a multi-award winning inventor who holds a number of patents, and his background includes being a machinist, toolmaker, mechanical engineer and software engineer.
He grew up in Dubbo where “nothing worked,” and Ken said his first repair win was on a 50cc Suzuki trike when he was only nine. “I clearly remember that being a turning point,” he said. “Something that was going to be thrown in the trash, I got it working again.”
His first car, when he was only 14, was a Mini 850 Super Deluxe. He stripped that down for a full rebuild, taking his prior learnings from doing likewise on motorbikes, before progressing to a 1972 Toyota Celica and numerous Datsuns. “I did everything on them, mainly mechanical, to keep them running,” he said.
For those readers who find mechanics come naturally (the rest of us envy you by the way), you’ll recognise Ken’s rare gift.
“I don’t even think about it,” he said when asked about his ease with fixing things.
“I can take any car apart and know how it goes back together. It’s the same with electronics, there’s the same structure I see in my head. As long as you know the flow of how things work, to me it’s intuitive and quite simple.”
Maybe that’s why his first stab at building an electric car took him just 11 weeks, including stripping back and restoring the Datsun ute’s bodywork. He bought it from the dry town of Chinchilla in rural Queensland, but even so it needed plenty of body repair. He had it painted its beautiful teal colour and then set about adding an electric heart where the previous four-cylinder resided.
He sourced a 54kg NetGain HyPer 9HV electric motor from the USA, which sits low in the engine bay and is good for around 90kW and 233Nm. As the little Datto ute weighs only 730kg (only 15kg more than when it had its 1171cc petrol engine), this means astonishing performance. Ken said he’s timed the ute to under 1.5-seconds from 0-50kmh, and it’ll surge on to 100km/h in under six seconds.
He got hold of five 5.6kWh battery modules from a wrecked Tesla Model X and mounted one low in the front and four in the underside rear where the fuel tank was. An Orion 2 battery management system is the brain of the whole car, while charging is done via a 2.5kW on-board charger.
There’s an AC charge port located in the front grille, and if you plug it in to a domestic socket, in ten hours the battery is full and gives range of roughly 180km – ample for daily jaunts around town.
Ken works quickly and smartly due to his obvious talents, learnings and experience. He’s a huge champion of classic car electric conversions, but insists it can’t be done on the cheap.
“It’s great people want to do this and are inspired to do this, but a lot of people are penny pinching and are putting not just their lives at risk, but others’ too,” he said. “There are many online groups and forums, many people building EVs, who are hacking things together, and that’s a bit scary in terms of safety. It’s not regulated either, which is also scary.”
Ken said if you’re planning a classic EV conversion, speak to an engineer before you even buy the donor car. “See an engineer first. Get high voltage training. Understand what you can’t do and find the people that can do it.
“If you’re considering doing such a thing, don’t do it cheaply. Don’t buy a cheap BMS. Don’t buy a cheap cable of cheap connectors. Buy real things. They cost hundreds of dollars for a reason.”
There’s a decent living in such things. Ken’s listed his Datto for sale at $85,000, and it looks like it’s already been sold to a customer in Tokyo. He’s planning to perform EV conversions for other customers in future, and is positive the electromod future is going to be huge. “The new era of resto EVs will allow classic cars to exist, thrive and increase in value globally. But most importantly, be driven on the roads.”
Ken suggested those interested in a delving deeper into the electronics side of things should try Arduino (www.arduino.cc) – an open-source electronics platform.
“That cross between mechanical, electrical and software, that’s where the future is,” he explained. “But the basics of mechanics will always be needed.”
As for those sceptical about electric cars? “Just try one,” Ken said. “There’s a misconception that EVs are slow and don’t have enough power. Go drive a Hyundai Kona. They’re quick enough, and that’s just a Hyundai. You don’t even need to try a Tesla. I’ve had some true revheads sit in the Datto and when they experience the acceleration they’ve said they now just want to build an electric car.”
For more information visit www.futurepastev.com