Electric-car conversions: can I build my own electric car?

The idea of doing your own electric-car conversion seems tempting, but you’ll need specialist knowledge

The benefits of electric cars are numerous: low running costs, zero tailpipe emissions, strong acceleration – the list is very long indeed.

However, there’s no escaping the fact that – for the next couple of years at least – electric cars will be a little bit more expensive to buy than their petrol and diesel equivalents.

If you can’t wait until then, the idea that you could get a normal car and convert it into an electric vehicle yourself seems very tempting. People must do it all the time, right?

Er, no. While it has been done before, an electric-car conversion is the kind of project you should only take on if you have an in-depth understanding of car engineering and electric powertrains.

In other words, if you’re reading this article in order to find out how electric-car conversions work, then they aren’t the kind of thing you should consider doing yourself.

Nonetheless, the process of taking an internal-combustion-engined vehicle and turning it into a green, electric vehicle is an interesting one. Read on to find out exactly how it’s done.

Electric-car conversions: how do they work?

First, you need to find a car to start with. Something light is ideal, as extra weight will make your electric car slower while reducing its range. Ideally, you also need something that doesn’t have power steering or power-assisted brakes, as these are powered by the engine.

Then you need to strip out anything fuel-related: that means getting rid of the fuel tank, the exhaust, the engine, the starter motor, the radiator, the coolant tank, the fuel lines and several other components besides.

Keep hold of the transmission, though: you’ll need this to direct the power from an electric motor (these can be bought fairly cheaply on the secondhand market) to the wheels. You’ll also need to make an ‘adaptor plate’ to line up the motor and the transmission, and source a ‘coupler’ to connect the motor’s rotary power to the transmission.

Then you’ll need to get hold of some battery cells. A handful of 12V batteries will do, or you could investigate taking a ready-made battery from a cheap used electric car, such as a Nissan Leaf or Renault ZOE. Bear in mind that – like all of the other components – these need to be anchored securely into your vehicle.

Another key component is a controller: this controls the power running between the batteries and the electric motor. The higher the amperage, the faster and more efficient your converted electric car will be, so purchase the best one that you can afford.

Those are the main considerations. If you’re likely to drive when it’s cold, you may want to consider how to make up for the lack of a heater, which in a normal car uses excess engine heat to keep the interior warm when required. Without an engine, you’ll need to find another solution for this.

If you need to source parts, there are companies that provide a full set of everything that you’ll need. For example, everything-ev.com has a range of electric-car conversion kits suited for different-sized cars: these start from around £6,000, and rise in value depending on how heavy your vehicle will eventually be.

Do I need to fill out some paperwork?

Oh yes. The DVLA has a long and convoluted process for registering ‘radically altered vehicles’, which you must complete before your converted electric car is allowed on a public road.

First you must follow the DVLA’s instructions for registering a new vehicle, providing a ‘built up vehicle inspection report’ (known as a V627/1 form), evidence of type approval if needed, the original vehicle’s registration certificate, receipts for any parts used in the conversion, plus photographs of the vehicle.

A points system is used to determine what registration number your car will receive. You must qualify for at least eight of them on the DVLA’s parts list in order to keep the original registration number, and five of these must be awarded for having an unmodified chassis, monocoque or frame.

Further points are awarded for having the original suspension at the front and back (two points), axles (two points), transmission (axles), steering assembly (two points) and engine (one point).

If you fail to meet these criteria – or if you’ve welded two vehicles together as part of your conversion – you must gain type approval in order to earn a registration number prefixed with a ‘Q’.

For this you’ll need to go through the Individual Vehicle Approval (IVA) scheme, which involves having your vehicle inspected thoroughly at a DVSA-approved provider of ‘designated technical services’. You’ll also need to provide documents as evidence.

On top of all that, you’ll need to get a model report costing hundreds of pounds, and ensure that you fill in the correct application form.

In short, an electric-car conversion is a tall order if you’re not already familiar with UK regulations and procedures.

Can someone convert an electric car for me?

In theory, yes. There are a number of companies that offer electric-car conversions, although these tend to be focused on classic and high-performance cars.

The reason for this is that the process tends to be very expensive. Take the DB6 MkII Volante conversion that Aston Martin is in the process of developing: the price of converting its 4.0-litre, six-cylinder petrol powertrain to an all-electric one looks set to be in the region of £200,000.

Then there’s the original MINI conversion being offered by engineering company Swind: that’ll cost you a still-very-hefty £79,000.

For that money, you could get a brand-new Tesla Model S Long Range and save yourself the hassle. If you’ve got your heart set on an electric car, this is the path we’d recommend.