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Pimp My Eco-Ride

Toyota had prepared for the Green Drive Expo held last July at the Dane County Fair, in Madison, Wisconsin, by erecting two giant booths festooned with multicolored banners and fronted by gleaming models of its 2012 Prius. Nearby, Ben Nelson, a bespectacled 35-year-old from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, sat behind a folding table with a fake wood-grain top and a taped-on, handwritten sign reading "Freedom From Foreign Oil" and "Home-Built Electric Car." A black Geo Metro, sporting vanity license plates exhorting "REVOLT," was parked at his side.

A few minutes earlier, wandering the floor of the Expo, I'd been checking out some of the vintage vehicles on display. There was a Carter-era electric car called the Electrek, whose passenger compartment was a squat, four-sided chamber of beige fiberglass that looked like a lopped-off Egyptian pyramid with a sunroof. Had the builder of the thing done so in response to the oil shortage at the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979? All I can say is that the Ayatollah would have had a good laugh over it. Next to the Electrek sat the corroded and dented body of a three-wheeled vehicle with a robin's egg-blue paint job and bug-eye headlights. It looked more like an animated Disney character than anything that would actually take you somewhere.

The quirky old vehicles had me thinking about how completely unserious have been the attempts in this country to address our addiction to oil. Ben Nelson had obviously gotten to that conclusion earlier. (For more on electric cars and the people who love them, see Adam Aston's review of High Voltage.) He and others like him are part of an emerging subculture known as eco-modders, guys (there appear to be few women involved) united around the idea that we can beat that dependence -- by starting in our own backyards. Rather than souping-up their vehicles to go faster, eco-modders pimp their rides with a nod toward preserving the planet. And representatives of this new twist on the hot-rodder had descended on Madison, eager to flaunt their cars, talk shop, and compete in the MPG Challenge -- an 18-mile race through the city streets to determine whose ride gets the best mileage.

Though his license plates might lead you to believe otherwise, Nelson said he hadn't come to eco-modding by way of politics. "I got sick of cars," he explained. "I've had some crappy beater cars that just didn't run well." Also, he added, "I can't afford a brand-new Prius." So one day in 2008 he decided to get serious. Creating the "Electro Metro" in the driveway of his suburban home involved buying a mostly rust-free 1996 Metro for $500 and replacing its nonfunctional engine with an electric forklift motor he'd stumbled across in a junkyard. He took out the old fuel tank, installed a set of lead-acid batteries, and rigged up a computer "controller" -- basing it on an open-source design that some friends had put together -- to regulate power flow between the batteries and the motor. When it's fully charged, the car can travel at 45 miles an hour for 20 miles. Nelson charges the batteries from a standard three-prong household outlet, and he pays an extra $3 a month to get electricity from renewable resources. Taken together, these measures render the vehicle practically carbon-neutral.

Increase Your MPG

Eco-modders will tell you that the first step to increasing your fuel economy is "to adjust the nut behind the wheel." DriveSmart America, an organization founded by Wisconsin native Bradlee Fons and his family, offers training and tips for motorists looking to increase their fuel efficiency.

Drive the speed limit. "Every five miles per hour above 55 is like paying 14 cents a gallon more for gas," Fons says.

Play it cool. You use more fuel when you accelerate hard and slam on the brakes.

Inflate your tires to their maximum rated pressure. Fully inflated tires create less friction with the surface of the road, reducing the amount of work the engine has to do.

Get the junk out of the trunk. Carrying extra weight makes the engine work harder, and that can add up to a lot of wasted gas.

Tune your engine and clean your air filter. Good maintenance means better burning.

Get more tips at: 
milwaukeehybridgroup.com

In addition to the Metro, Nelson had brought along the Kawasaki motorcycle he'd converted from gas to electric power, a project that had helped prepare him for the more labor-intensive car conversion. Guileless and mustachioed -- think Ned Flanders from The Simpsons -- Nelson supports his wife and infant daughter by working as a freelance video producer. It's a background that has come in handy in his transition from backyard tinkerer to eco-modding evangelist: log on to YouTube and you'll see that the guy has made (and stars in!) no fewer than 200 videos touting the joys of pimping a sustainable ride.

His entire electrical and mechanical training having extended no further than high school shop, Nelson said he learned much of what he needed to know from books checked out of the local library. But the best sources of information, he said, have been friends of friends and the folks he has met online. "I just started telling everybody, ‘I'm going to build an electric car,' and that's when it took off."

Here at the Expo, car geeks betraying various degrees of technical savvy stopped by Nelson's booth to chat up the guy from the videos. Some were friends he'd made through message boards like EcoModder.com but had never met in person. Nelson greeted them with a gleeful "Heyyyy" and digressed into all manner of eco-modding minutiae with an excited physicality. A middle-aged guy in a cowboy hat told him about the car he'd been running on ethanol that he distilled himself. A younger fellow listed the many creative driving techniques he'd come up with for extending a car's gas mileage beyond its EPA rating. Still others went on about the vehicles they were working on -- or thinking about working on. The enthusiasm was heartwarming, even if most of the visitors betrayed the borderline mania of people whose hobbies have gotten the better of them. (Let's just say you could feel for the spouses back home.)

Thomas Ngo and Chris Sherwin, electrical engineers and fellow Wisconsinites, had arranged to share Nelson's exhibition space with him. The pair had eco-modded a 1980s-model Renault Le Car with the words "Lectric Leopard" printed on the doors. The Leopard had been manufactured as an electric car, but Sherwin and Ngo added a bank of lead-acid batteries to extend its range, and Sherwin designed a new controller. "I didn't start off as a green person," Ngo said. "If you're an engineer, you just like to build crap."

"Plus he works for the power company," added Sherwin, "so it's a way to sell more electricity."

Toward the end of the day, as the fairgrounds began to empty, Nelson took me for a spin, driving the Electro Metro to an isolated corner of the parking lot where the Lectric Leopard crew awaited. Once we were away from traffic, he whipped the car in a tight circle, accelerating quickly enough to press me against the passenger door. He came right up to the Leopard. "Hey, guys," he teased, "I lost some rubber. Is that it on the pavement back there?"

Ngo climbed into the Leopard and strapped on his seat belt. He pulled up next to us, and Sherwin strode out to stand before the two cars. "Okay, don't hit me," he said, calmly raising his arms. "Hey," protested Nelson as he jerked his thumb in my direction, "I'm carrying 200 pounds of ballast!" (I'm actually only 160, but Sherwin dropped his arms before I could set the record straight.)

We took off. The ride was surprisingly fast, utterly smooth, and silent except for the loose gravel beneath our tires. Compared with internal-combustion engines, electric motors produce a huge amount of torque, which translates into super-quick acceleration. By the time we had to brake for the line of cars leaving the lot, the Metro had pulled a few feet ahead of the Leopard. "I shifted gears and it slowed me down," protested Ngo as he ground to a stop alongside us. Nelson had stayed in second gear the whole race, reaching a top speed of maybe 40 miles an hour. "I love electric vehicles," Nelson declared. "They're like ninjas, silent until you need them, and then HWAAA!" He punched his fist at an invisible assailant somewhere near the windshield.

Nelson stopped the car so we could switch positions while Sherwin drove the Leopard over to a pile of sand at the edge of the lot and proceeded to skid into a series of burnouts. It took me a minute to figure out how to get the Metro started, and then I accelerated tentatively, causing the car to jerk. Once I got the feel of it, though, I stomped on the accelerator and took off. It was a blast to drive -- agile even without the benefit of power steering -- and I wondered why electric cars had gotten such a wimpy reputation. "Freedom of the road" had always struck me as nothing but a cheesy marketing slogan, but I have to admit I was feeling pretty free out there on that plain of asphalt.

The Electro Metro won't solve this country's dependence on oil, of course, but it has gone a long way toward reducing Nelson's. "The car itself isn't that impressive," Nelson admitted. "But it moves under its own power without gasoline." Also, he said with a grin, "I built it."

image of Zach Zorich
Zach Zorich lives and works in Queens, New York where he is lucky enough to be able to live without a car, electric or otherwise. His writing has appeared in Discover and the North American Review. He is now a senior editor at Archaeology magazine.
Really interesting subject matter, but did not like the article itself one bit. The author seems more interested in making fun of these people rather than telling their story. Alright, I get it, they're eccentric, enough already. And who cares that the 70s-80s era cars look a weird by today's standards. He spends the entire time talking about what they resemble than their historical significance. Simply put, the author was more interested in getting a cheap laugh than he was in telling a compelling story - and he failed at both.
Awesome article! Very fun read!!!