The eDart: My 1974 Dodge Dart Swinger electric conversion

Who does not want to relive their youth? Theoretically, driving one of the mid-70s muscle cars is a great idea: lots of leg room, big power, and of course nostalgia. In Ontario, Canada, you even have the advantage that such cars are, by necessity, exempt from the emission tests. Of course, that assumes you do not actually care about emissions. What if you do? Enter eDart or The Electric Swinger.

The project started when I finished installing an intercooler and new ECU piggy back computer in my 1991 Porsche 911. I was, of course, looking for my next project. I examined options like ripping out the whole engine from the p-car and installing a twin turbo in place of the TPC supercharger. I think I might have actually bid on a compatible engine I saw on eBay. Then I read about the Tesla Roadster and saw the White Zombie,  an electric 1972 Datsun 1200,  blowing the doors off a Corvette and a BMW online. That did it. I decided to replace the engine in my Porsche with an electric motor. It did not matter that I knew nothing about it. I found some completed examples on the web and began collecting information.

 

 

Learning Curve

All of this was in the early fall of 2008. That is when I began to research what it would take. I joined the EV Society of Canada and read their conversion manual. I read Victor Tikhonov‘s metricmind.com web site. I bought Electricity for Dummies and read it. I spoke to anyone who would talk to me. 

It became clear I did not know what I was talking about. So I bought a couple books on electric cars and read some more. I soon realized the 911 was not the ideal electric car. I talked to Randy Holmquist at Canadian Electric Vehicles and found him to be a great source of information and also probably the only source of Zilla controllers at the time. Randy took more than an hour to discuss various issues with me and helped me decide on my design parameters. For example, I decided to go with a Chevy S10 transmission. No matter what car I ended up with.  Motor/transmission adapters for S10s are plentiful so I would not have to design and build a custom adapter. Randy helped me understand that most electric car conversions have a clutch for safety. He also helped me to understand the availability of suitable parts such as motors and controllers.

I looked at the basic design parameters: fun to drive, high gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), big trunk, big engine bay, and light weight. I considered buying an early Miata. I had once co-owned and raced a 1990 Miata in SCCA, and I loved that car, but here I determined that the weight was actually too close to the GVWR. 

The basic problem was this: an electric motor requires electric power that has to come from batteries. In 2008/2009, I figured I needed to buy lead acid batteries because that was pretty much all that was in my budget. Lithium was out of the question. An older Miata had a curb weight of about 2500 lbs but a GVWR of only 3078.  That gave only 600 lbs., less the passengers, and I knew from experience that removing the aluminum engine would not help a great deal. 

The best option was a Chevy S10 pickup truck, but I had decided the vehicle would have to carry my 5 year old triplets, so I wanted a car. My first car was a 1974 Plymouth Valiant, which I bought for $500 in 1981, and back then it was too pedestrian. I needed a two-door. (The 74 Valiant was identical to the Dart except it has four doors rather than the Dart’s 2).

The Dart weighs about 3000 lbs. but has a GVWR of 4500 lbs. Perfect! So I got on eBay and began looking for a Dart in great shape but with the slant six engine no one wants. I found a Dart a few weeks later. One issue – it was an automatic, so I also needed to install new pedals, which I managed to find online.

First things first, I replaced the brakes and brake lines, and I got the car safety inspected. I drove it – 100 hp does not move the car that fast, but it certainly was a change from my other cars.

I had been researching parts and decided I had to have a Zilla controller because I surely needed 1000 amps (early misconception). I also needed a huge electric motor, so I wanted a Warp11 from Netgain Motors. CANEV was the only source of Zillas I could find, and Randy was only selling them coupled to complete conversion kit packages, so that is what I did. This was not a bad choice in the end because they came with some reasonable wiring diagrams that were mostly mistake free.

I put the Dart in my garage and began pulling stuff off it. Gas tank first. Then the motor and tranny. I bought a 2000 S10 five-speed transmission at a junk yard and began reassembling everything. Inland Empire Drive Lines shipped a light-weight aluminum drive shaft with a Chevy S10 front slip yoke and a 1974 Dodge Dart differential connection with a one week lead time – truly amazing!

 

THE BATTERY SAGA

In the middle of 2009 the EV community began to buzz with excitement. Lithium batteries from China were becoming available at very reasonable prices. I was still planning on using lead until I spoke to Robert Weekly at the EV Society of Canada. He convinced me it had to be lithium or nothing.

I took his advice and also used his review of prices to track down a company based in Washington state. They were aggregating orders and buying in bulk from the ThunderSky Battery company in China. In January, 2009 I plunked down my $10k for 50 Thundersky TS180AH cells and crossed my fingers.

Four months later, the company went out of business and kept everyone’s money. Everyone in the EV conversion community is well aware of this debacle.  I was in luck because I am a Canadian: my batteries were apparently being drop shipped. 

The company had stopped responding to email and disconnected their phones, so I contacted China. ThunderSky’s people were very helpful. My batteries had been in Toronto for over a month sitting in some warehouse. One day later, I had them. I was probably the last person to get batteries at the very low bulk prices.

 

The devil is in the details

I have basic welding skills, which came in very handy for creating motor and transmission mounts. I put everything in place – then I moved. Project on hold. Then I expanded the garage. Project still on hold. Finally, garage in. New two-post lift in. Battery saga over and everything is together and. . . nothing. Zilla puts out data over a serial cable, but I do not have a computer with a serial cable. New (used) laptop. Read the errors. No help. Talk to Randy. Talk to Otmar Ebenhoech – the designer guru from Café Electric. Return Zilla to Otmar – it works fine. Review CANEV wiring diagrams and compare to on-line. Bingo, I discovered the one mistake. Re-wire the Zilla, and off I go.

The nice thing about Darts is that people still drag race them, so lots of cool new parts are available. The car has needed significant upgrades including: a new fiberglass hood, new leaf springs (I installed split monoleaf springs from Calvert Racing), a new Flaming River manual steering box, fast ratio pitman arm, a new 18kwh power supply, LED headlights, a new dash, and numerous new gauges. Next winter I want to install a new, light-weight K member with rack and pinion steering. I also bought an AirTop diesel boat/big truck heater to improve the overall heating during the long Canadian winter.

 

 

Finally

The result is a 2800 lb. Dodge Dart Swinger daily driver that can be charged in two hours, with acceleration and top speed at least as fast as the original, and a more than adequate range in the area of 90 miles. I love the car. So what is next? Did I mention I have a 1991 Porsche 911? Did I mention that the parts and technology have significantly improved in the last couple years, so this is now an easily doable project. Perhaps that is next!

 

EVTV

I’d like to give a shout out to Jack Rickard and his EVTV Friday night show, which is broadcast on the web every week. This show is the only television show I watch now, and it does not require a TV!
My wife finds this fascinating and suggests that it is 
truly the end of network television. She may be right.

I have bought practically everything advertised on the show, from Nord-Lock® washers to EV Works electronics. In the end, the show and Jack have been a great help in getting all the details correct.

Photos courtesy of Gavin Bogle
Illustrations by Nick Sirotich
EVTV image courtesy of EVTV.me

Issue: JAN/FEB 2012