Back to the Future: When a Classic Car Goes Electric!

by Felice Gasperoni, journalist at RTBF Belgium
Nov 30, 2012 9:00 AM ET
Campaign: FedEx | Archives

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I am the happy owner of a classic car: a 1973 Fiat 500, the car that most represents the Italian economic and social boom of the 1950s. The Fiat 500 is actually the first car I’ve ever driven, back when I was only 12 years old, on private roads of course!

The problem with my Fiat 500 was that in the last years it spent more time taking dust and rust in the darkness of my cold and wet garage than happily driving on the road. Being someone particularly mindful when it comes to squandering resources, I thought that my little car deserved to have a new usefulness.

Being also a science journalist and technology enthusiast, I had the idea of converting my little Fiat 500 to electricity and, thanks to my profession, of using it as a communication tool to raise awareness of the broad public on sustainable mobility issues.

The thing is, I may be a science and technology enthusiast, but I’m far from being an expert in electric motors, batteries and automotive electronics! That’s the reason why I proposed my idea to the University of Brussels, more specifically to the electro-mechanical department of the Polytechnic School. And luckily enough, my proposal was accepted and two students were eventually chosen to carry out this work for their master thesis!

Let’s face the truth: technically speaking, the conversion of a petrol car to electric propulsion is not very difficult, and you can find many DIY examples on the web. Nevertheless, our approach is, let’s say, more scientific: the students are applying a very strict methodology and they need to take into consideration all the possible issues before starting the actual conversion. For example, they need to make a theoretical model of the car: its original performance, its aerodynamics, its weight distribution, its handling, etc. Then, they have to calculate the necessary power to accelerate and cruise at different speeds and on different slopes, in order to have a good driving experience in urban traffic. This step will allow them to determine the characteristics of the electric motor. Then, in order to make this motor work properly and have a range of approximately 100km, they need to calculate the size and power of the battery pack: big enough to reach the pre-established performance and range, but small enough to fit in the small Fiat 500, both in terms of weight and volume of course! What a challenge…

The many DIY conversion that can be found on the web look more like MacGyverisms than research projects: some take motors from dismantled elevators or fork-lifts, others get their lead acid batteries from golf karts. For our Fiat 500, we aim at using high-end technological components, such as switched reluctance motors, lithium iron phosphate batteries, high-tech electronic controllers, and so on. Don’t ask me how all these work, I just know they’re very energy efficient and reliable!

You are now maybe asking yourselves: who will pay for all this? As you know, universities aren’t very rich. So I made a commitment with the students: I promised I would find enough sponsors to finance the acquisition of the various components, or to find technical partners willing to provide them for free. Just for the sake of science and sustainability!

I had the idea of asking an international carrier company to help us with the various shipments of the components coming from abroad, and I selected the one that had the most extensive policy in terms of sustainable development. That’s when I discovered that FedEx was the leader in this field, far ahead of all the other carriers. And that’s when I met great people that immediately accepted to help us!

The project is currently at the end of its first, theoretical phase, and we look forward to choosing the components, buying or receiving them and then testing them in the labs before integrating them in the car. Our adventure has just begun!