Goodbye gasoline

Kensington retiree retrofits his own electric car

Colin MacLean
Published on January 19, 2013

It is an exceedingly cold Friday afternoon as Russell Cole enters his Kensington home’s shed.

Inside, there’s a bright red 1994 Ford Festiva – and not much room for anything else.

Cole spent several hours a day all last winter transforming the car into a purely electric vehicle.

He’s pretty low key about his accomplishment.

When asked about the amount of work the project took, he answers in short sentences, saying simply that there was “not much too it.”  Though his explanation of the process of removing the old gasoline engine and retrofitting the vehicle to run on a lithium ion battery sure sounds complicated.

But ask him why he went through all the trouble of building himself an electric car – well – then he starts to get a little more animated.

In his opinion, electric cars are the only truly ethical way to travel.

“Look at every car going by here,” he said, gesturing towards the highway.

“They have an exhaust pipe, they’re blowing exhaust into the air – every one of them. So why shouldn’t it be an ethical thing for everybody? That’s what I’m thinking,” he said.

Cole, an electronic technician by trade, retired several years ago and settled on P.E.I.

About a year ago, he got it into his head to retrofit an old car with an electric motor.

He can’t afford a mass produced electric car, he reasoned, because even the cheapest models can cost more than $35,000.

So he’d build his own.

He’d done it once before. He retrofitted a Volkswagen back in the 1970s.

So he purchased an old Festiva for $100, fixed it up, and sent away for the electric battery and engine combo. The whole vehicle cost him about $10,000, and he had to manufacture some of the components himself.

He doesn’t drive the electric car in the winter (he has a backup gasoline powered car), because he doesn’t want to risk damaging it.

“It would just hurt to just take it out in that slushy salt,” he said.

But in the summer, he and his wife make regular trips to Summerside for groceries.

He’s gone about 80-km on a full battery, he said, which didn’t bring the charge to zero.

He estimates that he uses about five-kilowatt hours to drive to Summerside, run some errands, and drive home. That works out to be about 75 cents for the trip, he said.

He estimates that his gasoline vehicle would burn about $4 to make the same journey.

Cole also has a large solar panel in his yard that helps power his home, and charges his car – which takes about five hours to fully charge after a run to town.

The electric engine also has the added advantage of having only one or two moving parts, which can last decades if cared for properly.

The need for engine maintenance and repair is basically negligible, he said.

“Compare that to a gasoline engine, where you have hundreds of parts clanging and banging around, sliding against each other, hot – which one do you figure would last the longest,” he said.

Gasoline engines also only use a small portion of the gas you put in them to move the car, he said, while his electric car uses 80 per cent of its energy to move the vehicle, he added.

Cole knows that not everyone can just run out and buy or build an electric car, but he hopes that by talking publically about his own experiences he can show people how much of a benefit there is to letting go of gasoline.