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For car builder Terry Orr, EV conversions are about hot rodding, pure and simple. At his home in Calgary, Alberta, Orr has taught himself through two conversions so far – a Ford Ranger and a Volkswagen Super Beetle.
“Much as I like old cars, even old cars with gas motors in them, for me personally, it’s all about electric now,” says the Canadian. “You’re trying to make your own cool, unique car, and make it better and faster than it was. That’s the essence of hot rodding. On top of that, there’s a lot of creativity. It's new, it's challenging and it hasn’t gotten standardized yet. When people are doing EV conversions, everyone does it a little bit different.”
Orr started fixing up cars in high school in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He had classic muscle cars like a 1973 Chevrolet Nova and a 1967 Chevrolet Camaro, and by his own admission, “I got hooked. I loved cars and I loved working on them. I loved the mechanical part of it, the engineering and planning, and I wanted a car that went fast.”
University, work and family commitments meant a couple decade hiatus from car building until Orr returned to his native Calgary eight years ago, when he bought a 1960 Ford Falcon. However, it was EVs that soon caught his imagination.
“I wanted to know whether or not they were viable,” he says, “so we bought a Nissan Leaf. I discovered it was an excellent car with a good drivetrain. At the time, the whole EV conversion scene was taking off; I needed a truck and nobody made an electric one.”
Orr was attracted to the compact, 1984 Ford Ranger so he bought one, pulled the motor and started on the conversion. After a ton of research, he accomplished the whole process in his backyard and small garage in a “very intense” three weeks.
The Ranger is now at what he terms version 3.0 of development. It runs Tesla Model S battery modules, sourced locally in Calgary, split between the engine compartment and under the tilting bed, which provides easy maintenance access. This arrangement also preserves the utility of the truck bed, giving the truck a stealth look and around 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) of range. Other parts came from eBay or specialist suppliers.
An AC-51 motor from HPEVS bolts via an adaptor plate to the standard clutch, four-speed transmission, driveshaft and rear end. The absence of power brakes or steering means these components are unchanged, too. The traction-pack battery charger is from Thunderstruck Motors and uses a standard J1772 port to plug in.
“I probably sketched it out 20 times,” says Orr of the Ranger’s custom engine bay, which boasts a clean, uncluttered layout and hand-fabricated touches. “I started by approximating the whole engineering puzzle with pieces of wood as I figured out where everything would go. I can’t tell you how many times I cursed being out by an eighth of an inch somewhere. You also have to keep in mind how to run your high-voltage cables. They don’t always bend the way you want them to! The planning is very involved, which is why some people standardize on one vehicle. Once you’ve done one, you know exactly where everything goes, every single time.”
Orr credits his hot rod apprenticeship with helping to solve the many engineering challenges of an EV conversion.
“I think it’s immensely important because it provides you with the understanding of how the car works. Whether it’s the brakes, the suspension or the drivetrain, you still have to understand how the whole car works as a package. Getting used to working on cars, and knowing what to tighten and when, is really important and definitely gives you a leg up if you are wanting to do an EV conversion. But if you’ve never worked on a car before, you could do it. You can do anything. It’s just going to be harder.”
For each of his conversions so far, Orr has spent hundreds of hours online, figuring out the detail. “I’m one of very few people in Canada that has an EV conversion running on the road,” he says. “I was pretty much on my own, except for the internet. It’s a very steep learning curve. I spent hours on blogs and forums, and checking out YouTube videos and photos, zooming in to try and figure out exactly where a component went. A lot of times you have to read 20 different blogs to find that one thing, that one person mentioned that makes sense, or that one piece you need information for.
“Part of it is understanding what all the parts are and where they go,” he continues. “The other part is, how do people do it in their particular car? You’ve got a high-voltage fuse between your battery packs, but does it go closer to the rear pack, closer to the front pack, or in the middle? These are the details you’ve got to spend a lot of time finding out. I got into it at a good time, because pioneers had paved the way. Now it’s evolving and there’s more information and more people doing it. Components and suppliers are coming together, too.”
Orr went with a rat-rod look for the Ranger, but for his second project wanted something fast and fun, with an eye on autocross use. A spell living in Mexico had familiarized him with Volkswagens, so he opted for a 1974 Super Beetle as easy to work on and for its sleeper potential. The originally chosen DC motor was undersized and after his hot rod instincts got the better of him and he put too many amps through it from an upgraded inverter, it blew. Now the Bug has a reliable, HPEVS three-phase AC unit.
With performance in mind, he invested more time in the Beetle build – and continues to refine it. Aside from the new powertrain, the car has a two-inch suspension drop front and rear, disc brakes, new paint and a new interior. The conventional clutch and shifter take some getting used to, but having gotten behind the wheel, we can confirm that it goes, rides, handles and stops far better than most gas-powered Beetles. Like the Ranger, it’s a work in progress; next on the list is to beef up the original transmission to handle the torque.
“It’s a joy to drive,” says Orr. “Beetles are cool, but they can be gutless and unreliable. They smell and they’re noisy, but going electric solves all these problems and gives you a rocket of a car.”
The Beetle’s already on its second battery pack, too, albeit for very different reasons. Orr started out with a 20kWh pack from a wrecked e-Golf, although he notes that it’s becoming harder to find second-hand packs as more people step into EV conversions. A few months ago, he spied CATL modules for sale online, direct from the manufacturer in China, whose cells delivered twice the energy density in the same module size. The original configuration of six modules in front, four under the rear seat and six in the rear parcel shelf was switched for just four modules under the hood and four under the rear seat. The results are slightly more range and better performance thanks to a 160 pound weight saving, not to mention simplified wiring.
The battery swap is a great example of how hotrodders like Orr are leveraging the rapid progress in EV technology. Naturally safety is a major consideration when working with high-voltage packs, so both the Ranger and the Beetle have kill-switches onboard.
“The number one thing is to educate yourself,” he offers. “Know what you’re dealing with. Batteries are just like humans. So long as you treat them well, they’ll treat you well. They like to be at a certain temperature. They don’t like to be overcharged or undercharged. It’s not that complicated.”
Orr also identifies math as essential to mastering an EV conversion.
“You have to know your electrical formulae,” he stresses. “Watts = volts x amps, that comes up all the time. It can affect the gauge of wire you’re using, how many amps you’re pulling, how big of a fuse you’re going to use. And you need to know how many kilowatts your motor is versus how many kilowatt hours your battery is. There’s a bunch of new terminology and there’s a lot of math, and if you don’t do it right, there will be consequences. Everyone’s familiar with working with gasoline engines, fuel lines, fuel pump pressure and all that. It’s been around for so long that most people have an innate sense of what’s going to happen. But this is the new frontier.”
Tesla-owning Orr’s love affair with EVs shows no sign of slowing down. As well as the Ranger and Beetle, and he recently embarked on his third conversion, a Porsche 914. Updates are published on his Instagram feed, @high.voltage.garage.canada.
“I just really like working on cars!” he sums up. “I like classic cars, but I like the challenge and the new idea of using electric propulsion. When I pop the hood at a car show, seeing people’s expressions is one of the best feelings ever. Their minds get blown. Plus, I learn something new about the cars every time I drive them and with the Beetle, I can put it in first gear and beat pretty much beat anyone off the lights. That never gets old, because people are like, what? My Camaro just got beat by a Beetle! That’s hot rodding, right there.”