Steve Azzoli put together his first electric car at age 9. A miniature auto made of wood and rubber bands with a D-cell flashlight battery, it sparked an idea in the child's mind.
"Back in 1955 I asked my dad, 'Why are there no electric cars?' " he said.
Now a 63-year-old retiree, Azzoli is still asking that question, only now he is supplying his own answer by restoring and converting his own fully functional electric car.
Taking the canvas of a '97 Saturn salvaged from a junk yard, Azzoli has organized a community effort to craft a battery-operated automobile that will run 200 miles to the charge, with no pricey stops at the gas station to keep the car on the road.
"The price of gas has gone through the roof," he said. "Oil prices are skyrocketing. It's time that people woke up and smelled the coffee, and found an alternative."
Azzoli started his project in February and plans to have a completed car sometime in December. He expects to invest $23,000 in the project, including $14,000 to buy the multifaceted battery system needed to make the car run, and $2,200 for an electrically adapted motor.
Sure, that costs more than many fuel-driven cars. But Azzoli thinks the investment in a gas-free car will be worth it — not only for him, but for anyone affected by the financial strain caused by gas prices.
"The car — and the idea behind the car — will be around long after I'm gone," Azzoli said. "We are all put on Earth to contribute something."
The project came naturally to Azzoli: He studied engineering in high school and the Navy and is known as "Mr. Fix It" to many friends. He often fixes electrical shorts and other minor malfunctions for his neighbors.
Before tackling the electric car project, Azzoli did a great deal of online research, including watching a YouTube video of a guy who built an electric car in a garden shed. Then he turned to his network of friends and acquaintances, including several parts suppliers and repair shops that were willing to donate their labor and provide parts at cost.
Azzoli started with the $400 Saturn he salvaged from International Auto Parts in Spring Hill.
"I got exactly the car I needed and stripped it down, taking out the gas motor and the heating and air conditioning units that run on gas power," he said. "I cleaned up the interior and replaced everything I could replace."
The body is shiny and black, though Azzoli plans to paint it blue. The inside is neat and clean. In time he plans to add electric-friendly air conditioning and heating systems, plus power steering, power windows and power door locks. A big tray in the back will support the battery.
Other friends and businesses have offered help along the way. Rebirth Auto of St. Petersburg helped Azzoli get the right battery system, motor controller and other parts to "electrify" an auto.
"We've been doing these conversions for four years now," said Steve Messerschmidt, sales and engineering representative for Rebirth Auto, who provided parts to Azzoli at cost. "What Steve is doing represents a melding of old school with cutting edge . . . And it will help the environment."
Diamond Auto Works Inc. in Lutz donated its labor on much of the body work, including the placement of fenders, bumpers and supporters. Precision Complete Car Care in Land O'Lakes provided restoration parts, including shocks and struts.
"I have a background as an electrical engineer, and this is something I always wanted to do myself," said Mike Cogan, the proprietor of Precision.
Other companies that have chipped in include the Tampa companies Eisele's Automotive Machine Service, All Star Standard Transmission, Hutcherson Alternators & Starters, Rinker Machinery and Tampa Spring; and Advance Auto Parts and Ferman Buick GMC, both in Lutz.
Tana Brackins, owner of Beck Gallery in Lutz, has designed an electric vehicle logo with a long orange electric cord coming out of the letters "EV." It will be placed on the car with help from Accurate Signs on Time in Land O'Lakes. Brackins also is taking photos of each stage of the car's assembly, creating a pictorial record that Azzoli hopes to post online to show others how to tackle such a project.
Azzoli considers his effort the grand culmination of a lifetime of work, study and dedication. And though he calls this project "my last hurrah," he has other items awaiting his attention in his workshop.
His next project involves developing solar-powered air-conditioning for his home.