'57 Volkswagen Type II Electric Conversion 1) Electric vehicle concept and rationalization
In the mid to late ‘90’s I was living a mile or so from my at the time business, Sunset Garage. I didn’t need a car for my commute: I would ride my bicycle, walk (occasionally) ride my motorcycle or drive my car (mostly) if I was lazy or needed to do some running around during the day. At the same time, I wanted to build something new and distinctive. Different concepts and ideas presented themselves, but the idea of an electric car, now that was something! I started digging around for info on electric cars. Production cars like the EV-1 were still prototypes or existed in the imagination of engineers. But during my internet researching I discovered the existence of a whole world of electric cars. These vehicles were made “green” by taking production vehicles and removing their combustion engines. Then an electric motor and batteries are installed. What’s more, I discovered there was an electric car club with a very active Chapter in San Diego!
2) Study of body styles and subsequent purchase
After researching the available electric conversion technologies and resources, I began to look at host vehicles. I had envisioned creating something that would be fun to drive around the neighborhood, loaded with my buddies and our surf gear. I had always admired the Volkswagen Bus, (known as a “Type II) with the safari windows and “cool” surf culture status. There was a particular variant that I thought looked most excellent, called the “Double-cab”. That’s a crew-cab 3 door bus with a second bench seat behind the driver, with a little pick-up bed behind the cabin. My chosen source for the motor package, Electro-Automotive, had a really nice set of adaptations to convert a VW to electric. So I started searching for a “host” VW Type II Double-cab, but there was only a few, and the selection seemed to be either rusted out husks or pricey show pieces with nothing to choose from in between. At the opportunity to attend a gathering of Vintage Volkswagens, I made a key realization. The Strictly Vintage Type II’s San Diego chapter had convened at Deer Park in Escondido, Ca. Strictly Vintage Type II’s is a club dedicated to the first rendition of Volkswagen busses from about 1952 to 1967. While I was admiring and inspecting the various versions of the earlier busses, I learned that the pick-up model, with the single bench had a HUGE storage “chest” under the bed. This was where the batteries would go! With that discovery, I knew that I could have an electric Type II that would look very stylish with a lowered stance, fat rims with wide skinny tires, chrome, safari windows and a big killer stereo!Not too many weeks later I spotted the perfect bus. It was an incomplete project left by a young man who was tragically killed in a driving accident. The 1957 truck was in pieces and was missing its engine. His parents were selling the truck for a fair price to get it out of their sight and out of their garage. It was a somber day when I came to collect the truck.The 1957 Type II bus was nearly perfect for my needs. I was going to forever alter a classic car, and I didn’t want to take a good representative of the breed for my purpose! It had rust everywhere: Around the wheel openings, battery tray, floor boards and a long deep scrape along the driver side that was covered by 40 pounds of plastic filler. The impact had actually pierced the side of the truck. The side gates of the bed were Swiss cheese from rust through and the rear gate was MIA. The rear engine cover looked like it had been run over. On the positive side, the truck also came with lowered suspension, bigger brakes and a ton of extra stuff. In my opinion the truck was fairly priced: I got all the modified suspension goodies and a rusty truck attached!
This photo above was given to me by the parents of the young man who had started the Volkswagen restoration project. Behind the subject of the photo (the aircraft) you can see the Volkswagen when it was in an operating condition. Note the incorrect era bumpers and taillights. Part of my restoration project was to correct these non-conforming modifications. Approximate year of photo would be early-mid-'70's. 3) Build up of drive trainHaving selected my host vehicle and figured a general configuration of the layout of the batteries, I started by restoring the brakes, suspension and steering. I was fortunate to be the shop owner of Sunset Garage. I used all the resources available: tools, shop equipment, information systems, parts resources and most important, Herbert English and Walter Gates, my employees and friends. Without these two good friends/employees, this project would never have happened. As it was the project moved at a slow pace. I worked after hours and on weekends. In addition, the parts sources I used for our ordinary business were not able to assist me. I had to find and use numerous mail order companies that specialized in old Volkswagens. In about 4 months time I had assembled a “rolling chassis”, or in other words I had a rebuilt chassis with a nasty looking truck on top! I had the lowering kits correctly installed on the front and rear suspension, had the transaxle rebuilt, replaced the brake hydraulics in total, including half the steel lines and all of the hoses. I installed the largest brakes I could fit on the ’57 front and rear axles. Everywhere I worked, I cleaned, sandblasted and repainted parts and sub-assemblies to put the beauty back into the beast! 4) Fabrication of wiring harness As I decided how and where to route wiring and battery cables, I cut as few holes in the truck body as necessary. By this time in the build, I had taken delivery on the motor kit I had ordered from Electro Automotive. The kit consisted of the 9” brushed DC motor, adaptors to fit the motor to the transaxle, controller, a charger, gauges and throttle potentiometer. Both the kit and the instructions were complete. The electric motor mounted to the transaxle quickly. I mounted the throttle potentiometer and fabricated linkage to operate from the stock gas pedal. I then ran wiring from under the dash to the potentiometer and on back to the motor controller. After mounting the charger and controller, I completed the wiring for the entire control and monitor circuits. At this time I also cleaned up the wiring in the engine compartment where the unused wiring to the gas engine was no longer needed. 5) Construction of battery boxes, battery inter-connects and cablingWith the guidance and advice of my friend George Gall, I decided on making the battery containment system in a cassette fashion. Our goal was to create a 120v supply system installed in “cassettes” to feed the motor. To shorten the cable leads and interconnections between batteries, we made the battery boxes out of wood and fiberglass such that there were 4 cassettes containing 5 individual 6v batteries connected in series. George laid the fiberglass over the plywood boxes to strengthen and protect the wood from battery juices. Each battery had its own screw down containment clamp and I must say, the result turned out very sexy! I fabricated the battery inter-connections using 1’ by 1/8’ copper strap. I put reverse curves into the strap design to give flex to the connections. The batteries were supplied with a vertical lug for accepting the strap with a 5/16’ bolt through the center. After installing the battery pack. I made and installed the cables between the motor and batteries using welders’ cable and cable eyelets that were both crimped and soldered. 6) Road test power train. The moment had come. The batteries were charged, all the connections were tight and all systems were go. Remember this was still a very rusty and incomplete truck. I had the doors, bed sides and all the window glass out of the truck. It was a stripped hulk! I threw some wood into the cab, to replace the missing seat I had stored at home. I started with short trips, first around the block, then increasing in duration and throttle application. It was so cool I decided to drive it home that afternoon. I almost made it too but I stopped at George’s house to show him my progress. While it was parked out front a tire went flat. I had no spare. Thus her maiden voyage ended. She was broken and had to be temporarily left abandoned, a good walking distance from my house.
7) Disassembly and body prep
Once the operational status was confirmed, I could move on to the body restoration. We stripped the newly installed battery power system, gauges, lights and electrical system. We left the axles and wheels on the stripped chassis in order to move it around. I did some early grunt work on the body metal, including sand blasting the body and some major structural metal replacement in the front wheel wells. During this period I purchased all three used bed sides and the engine apron across the engine compartment.
8) Body work and painting
When the rough work was done, I called for an expert to bring the truck body back to its former beauty. Gene Sheppard, a client, former city firefighter and friend agreed to do the body and paint. All I can say is WOW! He had the most amazing skills. He could use heat and quenching to shrink the metal in a damaged area. His hands found minute waves that the eye could not detect. Gene worked long and hard to put as little plastic filler on the body as possible. The work he did to remove the huge gash down the side was incredible! Gene, more than all the other people who assisted in this project, made the largest contribution to the truck’s beauty and value. After many weeks, the day finally came to where Gene began painting the truck. First spraying the entire tough-to-reach areas, then the inside of the cab, and finally, finishing with the outside. The doors and bed gates were sprayed with the same strategy, but separately on a spray bench. Although I picked Volkswagen paint codes from the early 60’s, the 2 tone red and off-white paint scheme was not an original color option. I always liked the red/white combo and I picked the colors carefully to create both a vintage look and a modern touch.
9) Reassembly and fine tuning
It’s a monumental amount of work assembling a car. Even though this Volkswagen Bus was vintage and therefore very simple, there were a gazillion details to sweat. Finding replacement parts like window gaskets and floor mats were easy, since there are a few mail order companies who make their entire business selling Volkswagen parts. For hard or nearly impossible to find stuff I would go to the semi annual swap meets. Here I was able to source obsolete and rare used parts. In addition, I learned that there are collectors and enthusiasts all over the state and the country. Some individuals were practically walking, talking parts catalogs. My truck had a few particular characteristics that when described to these few people, would indicate to them that my truck was built exactly mid year in 1957! These guys were tuned in to the subtle changes in manufacturing over the entire 15 year production run! My progress reassembling the truck went by advances and pauses: my method was to order everything I could need, work on a given task until I was either done or needed something additional. Then that task was put aside while re-ordering and waiting for more materials. It wasn’t too long of an assembly because it had been built up and tested before. So while it wasn’t exactly “Fit tab A into slot B”, it wasn’t all that laborious either.
10) Stereo system
As the truck became drivable, my buddy Jim Hull came and measured the cab total volume and space available for a stereo installation. Jim worked for a major car stereo company doing production work. His involvement for my project was done after business hours at his job. What Jimmy created for me was absolutely exceptional. The system he assembled was a radio head and 6 disc CD changer with remote infra-red access. These played through twin 12” woofers mounted in a tuned, ported enclosure, a pair of 6” directional mid speakers and a pair of 2” tweeters, also directional. These were driven by a 600 watt amp through active and passive crossovers. Jim did the whole thing, computer designing and building the custom enclosures, install, wiring, tuning the amp, the works. I loved the sound, and I’d say I’ve never had such a beautiful sound system. Mettalica never sounded so good or so loud!
11) Conclusions and suggestions
I almost completed this project. I had a fully functioning battery powered low riding red and white chariot! What was missing was the front and rear bumpers. I had located the bumpers, but I was satisfied with the way it looked without them. Installing bumpers would have been a step backward in my opinion. Not to mention that the correct bumpers were very rare. In addition they were WAY expensive! The truck worked really great within the design and the intended use. I was completely satisfied with the function. I enjoyed driving it for a while. But my life was changing. I found a buyer for my business. I started the new millennium with time for extended travel. There was no more 1 mile commute to work! There was no more commute at all! I no longer had keys to a shop with a hoist, compressor and all types of tools. I was ready to move on. Within months the electric Pickup no longer served as my main vehicle. I advertised the truck and sold the truck to a teacher up in Los Angeles. Eight months after selling my business, I delivered the truck to the school teacher in L.A. He e-mailed me once or twice after taking ownership with questions, but I don’t know if he’s still driving it or not. In conclusion, the project matured me in a few different ways. I now realize how extremely important it is to be surrounded by people who have skills and are generous in spirit and with their abilities. Relationships are important for the completion of a project, but they are also important for giving and to receiving contributions of specific skills from good friends. I was surrounded by very generous people during this period of my life, and the experience is a treasured memory. The second point of maturity is more pragmatic. Given the monumental amount of hours and cubic dollars spent on the restoration and conversion, it was surprising to find out that expenses were fractionally valued when it was time to sell! I am now completely clear that projects are to be appreciated for the enjoyment of the process more than anything else. Given these two points of wisdom, my future projects will be for the fun and enjoyment of the contribution of accumulated skills of those around me. This and the process of group creation will be my rewards.
The VW in a corner tucked next to my business at the time, Sunset Garage, Ocean Beach, San Diego. Down the street at the end of the block is the Pacific Ocean!
This was my first documented conversion process. On reflection, I notice and have made the corrections, so that my subsequent conversions will all be better documented. I did not take many technical photos of this project. That is my only regret.