Business up for electric car conversions

WALTON, KANSAS - Times are tough for big automakers trying to stay afloat in a cantankerous economy, but Wayne Alexander has his hands full keeping up with demand for his cars.

Alexander converts gas-powered vehicles to all-electric systems in his south-central Kansas garage, where business is booming and backed up.

"It's always been steady, but this is out of hand now," says Alexander, 63, of Walton. "I have them waiting in line. With all the parts in front of me, I just jump from car to car, like an assembly line."

While the economy tanks, new car sales drop and major automakers tinker with their plans to mass-produce electric cars, the market for electric vehicle conversions has shown signs of growth.

Of the 240 million vehicles on U.S. roads, about 70,000 are electric, up from about 56,000 in 2005, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association. That estimate, however, includes conversions, factory-built electric cars and low-speed roadworthy electric vehicles like forklifts, said Jennifer Watts, EDTA spokeswoman.

Several automakers have announced plans for electric cars, and although technologies have been emerging quickly, plans for the mass-marketed electric vehicles have been delayed in part by a tight credit market and the troubled economy.

General Motors' four-cylinder electric Chevy Volt has an expected roll-out date of late 2010 and an initial price of about $40,000. Tesla Motors's 2009 Roadster is on sale now for about $109,000 but has a 12-month wait period, according to its Web site.

But if Alexander's customers are any indication, some people don't want to wait around for electric cars from the big auto players — or they don't want to pay the expected price of upward of $40,000.

Alexander, who's been converting cars to electric for more than 30 years — "since the first oil embargo" — charges about $12,500 to convert any car or pickup truck to electric.

He now converts about four cars a month, up from about one or two cars a month last year, and believes he's got the busiest conversion shop in the country. He says his cars can normally reach speeds up to 70 mph and can go about 35 miles at that speed on a single charge. They plug into a 110-volt outlet and are recharged in about five hours.

Operators of some of the several U.S. conversion-related businesses also report recent sales boosts.

Ryan Bohm, owner of EV Source LLC, a Logan, Utah-based company that sells electric vehicle components, says his business has grown by about a third since summer.

"There definitely has been an upturn. A lot of people ask me if business has gone down with the downturn in the economy, but it has stayed really strong," said Bohm, who started EV Source as a part-time business in 2005.

He went full-time a year ago "because it was so crazy busy," Bohm said. "Ever since then it's just been a deluge of keeping things afloat."

Bill Lentfer, of Electro Automotive, which sells conversion kits and equipment for all-electric vehicles, also says business has grown recently. The people buying his conversion kits have also changed.

"Before we had only retired people, hobbyists, and, you know, people who wanted to stick it to the man," Lentfer said. "Now we get more professionals, surgeons and business people."

Electro Automotive, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., has been in business since 1979, and sells a base lead-acid battery do-it-yourself kit for about $10,000. Lentfer said his company is selling between eight to 10 kits a week, as opposed to two to three kits a week in 2005.

He says the company has sold about 2,000 kits overall.

"Things were really slow there for a while," he says. "But that's still more (electric) than GM has put out."

Alexander, who says "anything can be converted," prefers to work on pickups because he says they can better handle the weight of the 900-pound lead-acid battery.

"They're basically bulletproof, maintenance free," Alexander says of his conversions. His first conversion was a '59 Morris Minor that he outfitted with an electric forklift engine.

"You had to throw it in reverse" to get it to stop, he said. But after that he was hooked.

"As fast as I would make them, someone always wanted to buy one," he said.

Al Pugsley, 68, of Prairie Village, Kan., drives around in a red Chevy S-10 long bed pickup that Alexander found for him at an auction and converted in 2006.

"I try to use it every day. I go to the gym to work out. I go to the bank, the grocery store, downtown to meetings," says Pugsley, a retired commercial airline pilot. "Wherever I need to go, as long as it's not over 35 miles."

Pugsley estimates it costs him 3 cents a mile for electricity to charge his car, which he does at home. He says he's not too concerned about conversion businesses being hurt when or if major automakers start mass-producing electric cars.

"If you already have an older car, and you don't have the $45,000 or $50,000 to pay for a new electric car, a conversion will do," says Pugsley.


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