One thing that I’ve been curious about is how homebrew electric car builds compare to OEM efforts at EVs, especially as we’re still in the early days of widespread manufacturer adoption. Jalopnik reader Allan has both: a 1983 E21 he converted himself and 2014 BMW i3 that doesn’t even want to see a wrench.
Welcome to EV Ownership Stories! Every week, we’ll be posting an interview with an owner of an electric vehicle. We’re here to show that people have been living with EVs for longer than you’d think, in stranger places than you’d imagine. If you’d like to be featured, instructions are at the bottom of the article.
As you can probably tell by this point in the series, I adore featuring stories about classic cars converted to electric vehicles. It’s so satisfying to look through my inbox and find the cars I grew up adoring given a new lease on life as modern hot rods.
And that brings us to this week’s pair of EVs owned by Allan, both bearing the roundel of the Bavarian Motor Works, but with vastly different execution. The first is his ’14 BMW i3 with a range extender, which of course comes chock full of creature comforts like adaptive cruise, one-pedal driving and smartphone connectivity, as well as the usual BMW fit and finish (albeit packaged in a much more quirky package than, say, an X3). The 650cc engine works as a gas generator that kicks on when the batteries are getting low, to eliminate range anxiety without needing to add a full ICE drivetrain like in a traditional parallel hybrid. Allan says quite simply, “the i3 does everything well, but I probably can’t fix it. I can’t even buy a manual to read about fixing it.” Basically, it makes a good daily driver, but it doesn’t satisfy his urge to wrench.
Now we get to the second BMW in his EV collection, and this one can be wrenched on. Allan’s other electric BMW is a 1983 320is coupe with a DC motor, a five-speed manual transmission, and a 21 kWh battery system that provides over 60 miles of range “while driving any way [Allan] feels like.” He enjoys the E21 BMWs a lot (as he put it, to the point of mild addiction) and he’d had this specific one sitting around for a while. It was too nice to part out, but too rough to restore, and he immediately gravitated towards a budget EV build. It was a good way to do it justice and enjoy it. He’s been converting EVs on and off as part of his repair business for nearly 30 years, so he had the skills to build it. All he needed was a refresher on some of the more modern solutions available.
The 320is is, as a result, an entirely homebrew conversion, built with fresh LFP batteries for juice and an Orion BMS2 from Shift EVs for power management. The rest of the system is cobbled entirely together out of other old, broken conversions Allan would find on EVFinder.com and purchase for parts. A BMW 2002 that had been converted to a DC motor helped him get his power plant, engine mount, and transmission adapter situation set up, and a converted ’90s Toyota Pickup donated its DC/DC converter, battery charger, and many other parts to the build.
Because he used other used builds for parts and sold off the non-EV components like the BMW 2002 shell, the conversion without the batteries was actually in the black. With the batteries and management system he bought new, the overall cost of the project came out to roughly $7,500. That’s the most cost-efficient homemade EV I’ve seen thus far, and it’s giving me really bad ideas about what I’d like my next project to be. I could maybe swing that cost.
The E21, as Allan puts it, drives great:
“its entertainment value as an EV is just limitless. I can shift and hot rod if I want or just leave it in third gear and be lazy. And it’s a beast for pulling a trailer!”
The conversion actually allowed the car to lose 200 pounds, move the center of gravity backwards and downwards, and improve the weight balance of the car. Because it’s a DC motor powering it, the manual transmission is actually needed and the car has the fun of shifting with the linear response and quiet ride of a modern EV. Allan actually uses the E21 to test out differentials and transmissions he sells or puts into other cars. As he explains, “It is perfect for this job. No exhaust, heat shields, or fuel pump in the way, and it’s utterly silent. You can really hear any drivetrain noise!”
His verdict on the two cars is that they are a perfect pair: the i3 for a reasonable daily, capable of puttering around town in comfort, with a warranty, and no worries about range, and the E21 for pure fun and towing. He does admit he finds himself in his E21 more often than the i3 (or any of the other ICE cars he owns and works on, for that matter) and I really can’t say I’d blame him at all!
Thank you so much for sharing, Allan! We’d love to hear from more readers about their EVs, modern or classic, factory or otherwise.
What car do you own? (If you owned a car in the past, let us know what years!)
Where do you live with it?
How and where do you charge it?
How was buying it?
How long have you had it?
How has it lived up to your expectations?
A photo of your car
If you want to be interviewed, please let us know an email with an re: EV Ownership Stories to tscott at jalopnik dot com!