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Backyard mechanics refit their vehicles with batteries

Cornelius Cronin bought a $900 Chevy S-10 pickup and spent several weeks removing things he didn't like — mainly its dirty, gas-guzzling engine. He fitted an electric motor and batteries under the hood, and now purrs around Oldsmar in a red truck that uses no gas and emits no air pollution. A documentary film asked: Who killed the electric car? Maybe a better question is: Who built the electric car?

At a time when the federal government is investing in hydrogen fuel cell research, and big automakers are working on more sophisticated hybrids, a growing number of creative tinkerers and small businesses around the Tampa Bay area are taking a different tack.

They're fashioning their own electric cars, one battery at a time, without waiting for Detroit or Japan to catch up.

Some of their friends say it's crazy to pour their dreams and sweat into cars that go only 25 to 50 miles before they need to be plugged in for several hours to recharge.

But Cronin, 47, says he loves saving money on gas and helping to preserve the environment. "It's so simple, it's so clean," he said. He's proud of what he put together with his own hands. "I'm looking forward to building another one."

Car buyers seem increasingly willing to try new technologies like the hybrid Toyota Prius. But hybrids rely on gasoline, even though they use electric power as well.

Some people are looking beyond the gasoline era.

Like Sebastien Bourgeois. As president of a St. Petersburg manufacturer of solar pool heaters, Techno-Solis, he had access to a full machine shop and some clever colleagues, and an itch to try something new.

So he bought two 1965 Volkswagen Beetles for $2,000 each and spent some time poking inside them and taking measurements. After the engines came out, he and his colleagues custom-built a special mount and installed an electric motor and batteries. The entire process, from design to driving, took about three months.

Now Bourgeois drives an all-electric Beetle to work each day and said he doesn't mind that it needs recharging every 25 or 30 miles or so. That's less than his daily commute. He also doesn't mind the cost of recharging his batteries: He figures he's paying about 2.5 cents per mile, or 75 cents per recharge.

He also has started selling the conversion kits through a new company, RebirthAuto. The $7,000 kits include the motor mount which they designed, and soon will include a specially designed controller that regulates the electric power.

Parts like these are scarce, which might explain why there are so few homemade electric cars. "This business has sort of been stuck in its infancy for years," said Jeffrey Jenkins. He's a partner in a business with Bourgeois to develop and sell electric conversion components.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that about 56,000 electric cars were on the road in 2004 — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of total U.S. cars, not counting hybrid vehicles.

RebirthAuto says it has sold 10 of the $7,000 conversion kits. To Bourgeois, electric cars make so much sense that he said he wonders why they aren't common.

"It blows me away," Bourgeois said. "Why don't we have more cars that are electrified?"

Electric cars date to the late 1800s, and once were more common than gasoline-powered cars.

To the average driver, they are still an oddity, but some believe that will change. Surely, gas prices will go up again. And advocates say electric cars cause far less air pollution, even when powered by electricity from coal-fired plants.

So besides the hobbyists converting old cars in their garages, some big manufacturers are rolling out electric vehicles as well. But some sound like works in progress.

There's a "neighborhood electric vehicle" on the market called the Zenn (zero emissions, no noise), but its top speed is only 25 mph. It is sold at the Transportation Station in Clearwater.

There's a high-performance electric sports car called the Tesla, which can be yours for $109,000. Chevrolet is preparing to roll out an electric car called the Volt, but it's not available yet.

A Tarpon Springs shop, Black Bay Technologies, hopes creative designs will set it apart.

Company president George Keramas proudly points to an elegant black, three-wheeled chopper with a distinctive look: no motorcycle engine mounted on its frame. This is the "electric trike," powered by an electric motor and batteries that sit in a cube-shaped case between the rear wheels.

"The main thing is the look," Keramas said. "We've tried to come out with something that's very sleek looking."

The electric trikes retail for $19,900, and Keramas said a dealer bought the first two.

He also is trying to develop a sports car and an off-road stealth vehicle for the military. After all, electric motors run quietly, and it's hard to sneak up on anyone in a gasoline-powered Humvee,

None is your average car.

But Keramas has three reasons he hopes his vehicles will sell: "People are looking for ways to save money, help save the environment and reduce our dependence on foreign oil."

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

>>ON THE WEB

Find out more

• Suncoast Electric Vehicle Association: suneva.org

• Electric Auto Association: www.eaaev.org

• RebirthAuto: rebirthauto.com

• Black Bay Technologies: www.blackbayev.com

• Transportation Station: www.zennfl.com

• Tesla: www.teslamotors.com

• Chevrolet Volt: www.

chevrolet.com/electriccar

Backyard mechanics refit their vehicles with batteries 11/11/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 14, 2008 9:27pm]
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