The last several months have seen a barrage of articles, in the automotive and mainstream media alike, pointing out that electric vehicles have become way too expensive for regular folks to afford. It’s a problem not just for us regular folks but also for the many initiatives to electrify the global automotive fleet. And despite recent musings from people like Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda about widespread conversion of older vehicles to electric power as a way to future-proof the cars we enthusiasts dig, converted classics can easily run into the six-figure range these days.
On the other hand, I’m on track to build my Chenowth EV for less than what a no-frills, 10-year-old, what’s-that-smell Camry costs.
How I budgeted my EV build
Those of you following this project might have noticed a distinct lack of updates since last summer. A number of other projects have demanded much of my time since then, and money’s been tight lately, even for what I intended from the start to be a low-budget DIY project that anybody—even somebody who had a lot to learn about EVs like me—could put together. And when I say low-budget, I mean no-budget. It’s funded by couch cushion change and that five-dollar-bill I forgot in my pants pocket. I did get back to making progress on it recently—I’ll provide an update on that below—but first, let’s discuss what the project has cost me so far.
As with many of my car projects, I keep a spreadsheet of expenses, largely to keep myself honest when it comes to buying parts. It’s easy to just throw parts at a car while only looking forward to the next purchase, convincing yourself that it’s a low-budget project and that you really haven’t spent that much on it to date, but that’s also a quick path to getting in over your head on a project. So I set some ground rules with myself. One: No purchase that’s necessary to get the project on the road, down to the nuts and bolts and even registration costs, is too small or extraneous to record. Two: I don’t count tools, even ones I bought for a specific task on a specific project, but I do count supplies like shrink tubing and paint that I’ll certainly have leftovers of at the end of the project. Three: I subtract from the total any money I’ve made off the car from selling used parts to the loose change I find under the floormats.
What I’ve spent to build my EV
In spite of my advice in the paragraph above, I bought much of what I needed for the Chenowth in 2021 well before I was ready to install it all. Brake lines, tires, shifter bushings, those sorts of things. I know I have a not-insignificant number of parts to get before I’m done—I still need to rebuild the beam, get a steering wheel, and install beefier transmission gears—but I’d say I’m 85 to 90 percent there. I’ll also include the disclaimer that I have not used my position at Hemmings to cadge any free or discounted parts or services from parts suppliers. There’s no inaccessible-to-the-common-man, secret-handshake, good-ol’-boys-club privilege at work here.
Grand total, so far: $9,980.26.
The biggest chunk of that total was the 2011 Nissan Leaf that I bought as a drivetrain and battery donor. It cost me $6,000 (plus the $85 to replace its flat tire, the $469 in registration and taxes to drive it around the block a few times, and the $150 I paid a local used car dealer to evacuate the air-conditioning system), but I also made sure it was a complete and running vehicle so I wouldn’t have to purchase any additional miscellaneous parts—the computers, the pedal assembly, the drive selector—that I would need to make that electric motor turn.
The Chenowth itself, which included front and rear suspension, a transaxle good for parts only, steering column, seized drum brakes, and little else, cost $1,000. I spent a little more than $700 on a disc brake conversion and other brake components and $530 on new tires. The aluminum disc and the custom coupler I used to mate the Leaf motor to the Volkswagen transaxle cost $330. So far I’ve put roughly $560 into steel and other supplies for the battery boxes.
How I saved money on the build
Yeah, it adds up fast, and I probably didn’t need to spend the extra money for the disc brake conversion kit, but I’ve also trimmed costs in plenty of other ways to make up for that added expense. To start with, the state of Vermont offers a rebate program for the purchase of used electric vehicles; in my case, that was worth $750 (registering the Leaf, as noted above, was necessary to get the rebate). Spare VW parts are plentiful if you know who to ask, and Jim Howe, a former Hemmings columnist, gave me a good number of spare parts hanging around his shop, including a rebuildable transaxle, some wide five wheels, and a spare front beam. Instead of spending four figures on some racing seats that probably wouldn’t fit in the Chenowth’s tight cockpit anyway, I recently scored a free set of seats that fit perfect from somebody local doing a hashtag vanlife conversion on an old airport bus. And rather than skin the battery boxes in expensive new sheetmetal, I’ve stockpiled some metal filing cabinets either found free by the side of the road or bought for dirt cheap out of local classifieds.
In fact, that grand total above may shrink in the near future as I sell off the original one-year-only 1968 VW axle shafts and some parts from the donor Leaf that I thought I needed but upon further review don’t.
Also, despite those promises I made to myself that I’d be open to more help from others, this has largely been a DIY project, and I’ve neither kept track of the time I’ve spent on it nor calculated what that labor would cost.
Of course, this is not a path for everybody to follow. The Chenowth won’t be a flashy restomod EV with quilted leather seats and fancy aftermarket gauges. It’s not the best real-world example of an EV conversion, given that it’ll be a three-season runabout rather than an everyday daily driver. Range will be limited due to the fact that the batteries are more than 10 years old and not in an ideal state of health. I’ve been at it for two and a half years, and it’s nowhere near running or driving.
Some of these are compromises made for the sake of penny-pinching while others are personal privation preferences, but they at least illustrate how it’s possible to go electric without spending the sort of money that carmakers and EV conversion companies are demanding.
I’ll also point out here that I started with little more than a bare chassis. Somebody converting a vehicle that needs little to no restoration could conceivably buy a newer Leaf donor car with better batteries and spend roughly the same as what I have.
As for the progress I’ve made in the last six months or so, it’s all been relegated to trying to finish off the battery boxes. When we last left our intrepid hero, he’d finished welding together the first of three boxes and started to fabricate its top. I don’t know if my welding has improved much since then (as the hillbillies around here say, “I welded, it helded”), but I’ve at least had plenty of practice welding together the box for the 20-module stack, integrating the box for the six-module stack into the box for the 22-module stack, and fabricating lids for the two larger boxes. To each of the larger boxes I’ve added a submersible breather vent, and I’ve started to figure out how to solid mount them to the Chenowth’s chassis. In the six-module box, I’ve also made room for the contactors as well as the battery monitoring system module.
It’s slow going at the moment, and I still have a ways to go before I finish the battery boxes. I need to research a bulkhead that allows the cables connecting the two larger battery boxes to pass through safely, I need to add a lid for the six-module box, I need to find a place for the master battery disconnect, I need to finalize mounts for the boxes, and I need to skin them. Once that’s all finished, I can then begin the arduous task of connecting the BMS leads before figuring out where the other necessary components, including the inverter, should be mounted so I can wire it all up.