Did you hear the one about the man who made an electric vehicle out of a 1966 Mini?

Michael Laba with his pure-electric '66 Mini. It's been a labour of love for nearly two decades.
DAMIEN O'CARROLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Michael Laba with his pure-electric '66 Mini. It's been a labour of love for nearly two decades.

When you hear "electric vehicle" what do think of: a Nissan Leaf, or perhaps a Tesla Model S?

Well, we'd like to introduce you to an absolutely immaculate first-generation original Mini, built by Dunedin man Michael Laba and powered purely by electricity..That's right, it's a pure electric vehicle. The 850cc four-cylinder petrol engine is long gone, replaced by a DC electric motor and some 100 amp-hour lithium-ion batteries.

Laba first converted the Mini to electric power back in 1998, putting him somewhat ahead of the curve for adoption of electric vehicles as a daily driver.

Latest electric drivetrain for classic Mini now produces as much power as the original 850cc petrol engine (not much).
DAMIEN O'CARROLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Latest electric drivetrain for classic Mini now produces as much power as the original 850cc petrol engine (not much).

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Of course, the reason there weren't more electric cars around back then was the battery problem. More specifically, lead acid batteries were your only choice, which was a horribly inefficient way to power your electric car.

Just because you're driving a classic, doesn't mean you can't have some bling.
DAMIEN O'CARROLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Just because you're driving a classic, doesn't mean you can't have some bling.

However, that's exactly what Laba did with the Mini.

"I can't remember what the original range was, but it wasn't a lot with the lead acid batteries.

"Back then, I lived up a steep hill and that really took a lot out of the batteries."

The rule with EVs is you never tamper with the orange bits. And maybe the black bits and the yellow bits.
DAMIEN O'CARROLL/FAIRFAX NZ

The rule with EVs is you never tamper with the orange bits. And maybe the black bits and the yellow bits.

Laba has since upgraded the batteries twice, with the move to lithium-ion bringing massive performance and efficiency gains; the Mini now boasts similar power to the original 850cc petrol engine.

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That's not a lot, but then the Mini is not exactly a heavy car, which is exactly what attracted Laba to it in the first place.

"I bought the car from a specialist/enthusiast mechanic for $800.

"The Mini was attractive, because we had a loaner one once and I liked it; it was a cute little icon. But I thought 'it's a lightweight car' and that was the main thing I was looking for.

"A lightweight body and monocoque construction. I did a bit of strengthening in the back for the battery pack and I also added some bars in the doors for safety, but it only weighs 840kg. I certainly don't hold anybody up on the road!"

While a hallmark of modern electric motoring is smooth, seamless power uninterrupted by gear shifts, Laba's Mini is a bit different, as it still has the four-speed manual transmission in the drivetrain.

"The gearbox is standard with the flywheel and clutch removed.

"Normally we take off in third gear and drop it into fourth on the open road. We've got a wee bit of a hill going up to our place that I drop it down into second.

"You just lift off the throttle, put it into neutral and wait for it to slow down, then pop it back into gear and away you go. If you go a bit fast you can hear a graunch, but if you take your time it's fine. I have a bit of a technique now," he laughs.

With a background in electronics and "a smattering of engineering" Laba was always keen on the idea of building his own electric car.

"I felt I had the skills to do it and at the time I was the only one around, so couldn't ask anyone else.

"It was just something I wanted to do. I got my wife on board, because it's not cheap, but if it's your hobby you don't look at the bottom line!"

As well as upgrading the batteries, he has continued to tweak the whole car over the past (almost) two decades, upgrading the suspension from the original's rubber cones to a more modern set up and, most recently, adding LED headlights.

"I've got LED lights all inside the car, but I could never get any drop in LED replacement bulbs for the headlights. I've just found some,

"They are three times as bright and use three times less power! I can drive at night now. I didn't like to before, because of the power use of the headlights."

On the list of possible future upgrades is a move to an AC motor, but mainly for its regenerative braking properties.

"I won't get much better performance, but I do like the regenerative braking because the Mini brakes were never really up to much! I keep the brakes really in good order."

With a maximum range of around 70-80km, Laba says the Mini takes around three hours to recharge after a "normal trip to town and back with a boot full of groceries", but the best part is that it costs him literally nothing.

That is because Laba's house is completely off the grid, with batteries charged by solar panels.

"Motoring now for me is free, but I had to buy all the infrastructure," he laughs.

"After the house batteries are charged - which is normally by lunchtime - I can charge the car up for free. I made up an interface that charges the car and switches itself off automatically. I have a mains charger as well.

"I don't charge it at a high current because I have found it is better to charge it at a consistent amount and let it taper off at the end, much like the smart fast chargers do."

While a range of 80km is fine for an around town car, it does limit your ability to travel further afield, which is why Michael and his wife do actually own another car.

"We have a Toyota Prius, but it is a short-term car. I bought it late last year, but I want a plug-in hybrid. I have heard a rumour about the new BMWs, so I might be interested in that."

Appropriate really, particularly given which company owns Mini now.

 - Stuff

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