Fueled by passion for electric vehicles
By Karen Brainard
What do a 1933 Rolls Royce, a 1969 Cony truck and a 1990 Mazda Miata have in common?
They were all gas-powered vehicles that were converted to electric here in Ramona.
Bob Van Gorder of Ramona owns a business that offers the physical conversions from gas to electric. He converted the Rolls Royce, the Cony and the Miata, along with many other vehicles.
Wistar Rhoads, also of Ramona, owns KTA Services Inc., a home-based business that sells the electrical vehicle components and systems.
The two are enthusiastic about their electric vehicle (EV) businesses.
On Van Gorder’s website, bobsevconversions.com, he says: “Converting gas cars to electric is not my job…it’s my passion.”
Indeed, people who want to convert their vehicles do so because they are passionate about turning to electricity, said Rhoads. The conversion, he noted, comes with a price.
“It’s a big chunk to bite off,” Rhoads said.
He has divided those who have completed the electrical conversions into three categories: the “I’m never going to send another dollar to the Middle East” people, “tree-huggers—save the plant” and “geeks—this is so cool.”
“Some people get into it because they think they’ll save money…but it’s expensive enough to do the initial conversion,” said Rhoads.
Conversion kits can run the gamut from $1,000 for a go-cart to $150,000 for a large truck, he said.
Van Gorder said an average “city conversion,” meaning a vehicle driven around a metropolitan area, would cost about $15,000.
While a benefit of the electric conversion is saving on gasoline, Rhoads said the switch can also extend the life of the car.
“There’s usually less wear and tear when you go with the electric than with gas,” said Van Gorder.
Ramonan Christian Schweizer converted his 1973 yellow Volkswagen Bug to electric for his teenage daughters.
“They just love not having to stop at the gas station,” he said.
Schweizer noted that, besides no gas bill for the car, he also doesn’t incur electricity charges because he has solar.
“My family drives it all over town,” Schweizer said of the yellow Bug.
He installed a low-end battery with a 25-mile range for just local use.
The better the battery, the more range and miles the vehicle will be able to travel before being re-charged, explained Van Gorder. Batteries will be spread throughout the vehicle to distribute weight, he said.
On the low end, lead-acid batteries cost about $900; batteries for an average conversion can cost $2,000 to $3,000, said Van Gorder. Lithium batteries, he pointed out, are lighter than lead and less weight leads to better performance.
“You can accelerate faster and still use less energy,” explained Rhoads.
He said lithium batteries are more costly, ranging from $10,000 to $17,000.
The EV enthusiasts noted that owners of converted vehicles may experience a change in driving style but Van Gorder said after three or four times behind the wheel, drivers adjust and then the “EV grin” never goes away.
Rhoads, a mechanical engineer, bought KTA Services after his former employer, Hewlett Packard, offered an enhanced early retirement program in 2007.
“It was a really nice offer. I couldn’t refuse,” he said.
Rhoads spent the next six months deciding “career No. 2.”
When he learned that KTA was for sale by the owner who lived in Upland, Rhoads said he instantly knew he would buy the business. He employs two full-time employees—Susan Reyes takes orders, handles shipments and estimates, and Fernando Castillo handles accounting and marketing.
“It’s almost all phone, email and Web,” said Rhoads. “We try to keep everything in stock.”
Rhoads noted that Castillo speaks six different languages, a skill that is helpful with international orders. The majority of business comes from the United States, said Rhoads, but about a third comes from Japan, in addition to customers from Canada, Russia, England and Germany.
A middle school in Hawaii once bought six electric go-cart kits, at about $1,000 each, for students to work on, Rhoads said.
“It’s a tremendous teaching opportunity from the science standpoint,” he noted.
Van Gorder once completed a conversion for a customer who drove his Volkswagen all the way from Argentina. “Hugo” drove 16,000 miles and stayed at Van Gorder’s house for four months while the Ramona man completed the conversion. The car was then shipped to France.
Van Gorder said he has been converting vehicles for about seven years and each vehicle takes two to four months to complete, depending on the parts availability and details. Sometimes clients, who attempt the conversions themselves, give up and ask him to finish their projects.
Information about Rhoads’ company is at kta-ev.com.
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