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Back in late 2000s, Jehu Garcia of Rancho Cucamonga, California was ready to make a change. A carpenter by trade, Garcia was getting burnt out by all of the time he was spending in LA’s notorious traffic, so he decided to set out on his own and develop camera equipment for aspiring filmmakers. As the new business started to come together, Garcia – who then worked out of his home – decided to ditch automobile ownership entirely.
“I just didn’t want to drive anymore, and that was fine for a few years,” he explains. “But after a while it started to become kind of a nuisance to have to ask people for rides – I certainly didn’t have a chauffeur or anything like that. So I realized it was time to get another car. When I started doing more research into what my options were, I was initially kind of set on a BMW of some sort. But then the Tesla Model S was announced, and it looked like the car of the future. Suddenly the BMWs seemed kind of old fashioned to me. But at that point the Model S wasn’t available yet, so I couldn’t purchase it. And I thought to myself, ‘Well, if I can’t buy one, I guess I’m going to have to make one.”
As Garcia started considering potential platforms for an EV swap, his thoughts soon turned to the humble-yet-timeless Volkswagen Bus. “It was a vehicle that I grew up with,” he tells us. “My brother is a VW enthusiast, and I remembered back to when I was teenager thinking, ‘Man, these things are so cool, but they also kind of suck.’ They’re just so underpowered, they leak oil, and they’re not very reliable. I thought that if we could just put a modern engine in there, it would be the greatest car in the world.”
He started doing some research and discovered that, even back in 2010, there was already a pretty robust DIY community of people who were doing EV conversions on a variety of different vehicle platforms. “At that point they were mostly using lead-acid batteries – kind of primitive stuff by today’s standards,” he notes. “But the motors, inverters, and all of the other components that I needed to make it work were readily available. And I figured if these guys could do it, so could I.”
After a bit of hunting he zeroed in on a ’57 Volkswagen that fit the bill, but he knew right away that there was plenty of work ahead of him. “When I got it, it was a panel van,” he recalls. “So it was one of those Buses that doesn’t have any windows, but it was cool because it’s got doors on both sides. But it was in pretty rough shape – it hadn’t been running in a long time and I think it had spent most of its life on a farm. It wasn’t exactly the Bus that I wanted, but it was the Bus that I could afford. And then I got the crazy idea of grafting the windows from another Bus into this one to make it a 23-window Bus.”
Garcia says his carpentry experience helped him get started on the metalwork. “It’s not too different from working with wood. And that’s when I started documenting the project to share with other folks who might be interested in taking on similar project.” Today his YouTube channel, which covers topics ranging from battery pack teardowns to EV road trip experiences, boasts more than 400,000 subscribers and millions of views.
He says that as the game plan for the original EV conversion started to take shape, he came to a crossroads early on. “Back then the community was basically split into two different types of builds: one was using DC motors from forklifts and things like that, and the others were using newer AC systems, which is what Tesla was using at that time. I figured that Tesla knew what they were doing, so I decided to go the AC route. And as it happened HPEVS, the only company that offered affordable AC systems at the time, was just a few miles away from where I lived.”
At that point HPEVS already had a kit on offer that included a motor rated at 100 horsepower and 196 pound-feet of torque as well as controller for it, which was more than enough for a Volkswagen that originally came packing roughly 45 ponies. “For the most part it was already worked out for you, so all you needed to do was put your own battery in there and do the gauges, wiring, etc.,” he says. “So that was perfect for someone like me. And folks in the community had already worked out all the little parts I needed for the project like adapter plates and so on, so I was able to literally just bolt on the motor to one side of the engine bay and adapt it to the VW’s original four-speed transmission.”
And as it remains today, sourcing the battery pack was one of the trickier parts of the project. “Back then, aftermarket lithium iron phosphate batteries were really heavy, expensive, and quality control problems were common,” he points out. “In a battery pack like that, all of the cells need to have similar capacities or you start running into problems, and out of every hundred-cell brick that you got in those days, as many as half a dozen cells would be so far out of spec that they weren’t usable. So I started looking for an easier way to do this.”
After discovering that Tesla was using laptop batteries in their battery packs, Garcia began purchasing laptop batteries, taking them apart, separating the good cells from the bad ones, and building them into bricks to create his own DIY battery pack. But just as his first prototype packs started coming together, a different opportunity arose. “There was this fleet of Smart FourTwo EV prototypes that Tesla had developed battery packs for back in the Roadster era, and because they weren’t production vehicles, they were going to scrap 2500 of those cars here in California,” he says. “The guy that got the contact to scrap those cars knew us and reached out to ask if we could do anything with those batteries. So we ended up getting the battery packs from about 500 of those little cars, and I’m still using some of those modules in my Bus today, ten years later.”
In the years since, Garcia has brought several other VW Buses into his fleet, and the ‘57’s EV powertrain was eventually swapped over to the ’67 that you see here. Outfitted with the original motor and controller as well as 12 modules from the Smart battery packs, the he says the current Bus is good for about 110 miles on a charge. “The goal was to build something I could drive every day, so these days I take it all over the place – I’ve been going on road trips, out to VW shows, and to events like Holley High Voltage. I loved High Voltage because it was all builders and DIY folks – my kind of people. And just seeing the new builds that people are coming up with is really exciting.”
These days Garcia’s efforts are focused on this latest EV endeavor, which he hopes will help address a potential issue coming down the road: EV battery recycling. “Over time what I noticed was that folks in the U.S. are consuming a huge number of lithium batteries – almost all of our gadgets have lithium batteries in them now. And what’s been happening is that most of those batteries have ended up going back to China to be recycled. And China was paying big bucks because these are valuable raw materials that they needed in order to make new batteries. They have been, in essence, selling our own trash back to us. And it didn’t make sense to me that these batteries were going back and forth across the world to do this.”
He’s since created prototype battery packs not only for automobiles but also to provide backup power for buildings. “Everybody needs some kind of power storage,” he points out. “As time goes on, the grid has become less and less reliable. And as energy rates have gone up, people are also looking for ways to save money, and these batteries are great for that. You can put some solar panels on the roof, charge them during the day, and use that stored energy when you’d normally be pulling from the grid during peak hours.”
He says that when he originally embarked on the VW Bus conversion, he never dreamt that it would lead to him becoming an advocate and activist for the adoption of EV technology. “But even early on with the project, everyone I would talk to about it just lit up. The idea of bringing old cars back to life in a way that’s better than new while doing something good for the environment has really fueled me.”