Turning Trixie from a VDub into an e-Dub

Carl Penwarden who has converted his 1965 VW Beetle into an electric vehicle.
JOHN NICHOLSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Carl Penwarden who has converted his 1965 VW Beetle into an electric vehicle.

Volkswagen Beetles have long been part of Carl Penwarden's family so when he was looking for a way to make his 1965 Beetle "Trixie" relevant to his eight-year-old daughter Abby he hit upon the idea of electrifying the vintage VDub.

"I thought when she learns to drive I'll pass the Beetle on to her, and then I was thinking, will a petrol Beetle be relevant in another 10 or 15 years time?"

Penwarden's father and grandfather before him both owned VWs and when Carl sat his driver's licence it was in his father John's 1963 Beetle. Naturally enough his first car was also a VW, a 1959 Beetle.

Carl Penwarden who has converted his 1965 VW Beetle into an electric vehicle.
JOHN NICHOLSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Carl Penwarden who has converted his 1965 VW Beetle into an electric vehicle.

He's always done the mechanical work on the dubbies himself, with the aid of his Dad, and so when he decided to convert Trixie to eTrixie, he enlisted John's help.

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Penwarden senior was just as excited about the possibilities offered by an electric VDub.

"He was really into it, because it was something different and we were both learning new things."

While keeping Trixie relevant for a new generation was the driving force for the project, it really kicked into life when Penwarden heard about the work of US company, Zelectric, which converts VWs to electric power.

"They looked really cool and I was really taken by the idea of a classic car, but with a modern take on it."

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Penwarden, who is an electrical engineer by training, but has always worked on the telecommunications and software side, relished the challenge of taking on a practical project. Before he started, he contacted the Low Volume Vehicle Technical Association which certifies modified vehicles, to make sure the project was feasible. Once he was confident it could be done, he ordered a DIY electric conversion kit from Zelectric supplier EV West.

Then it was time to remove Trixie's 1600cc petrol engine, and with it, the distinctive Beetle sound.

"A cool thing about a Beetle is the noise and you do miss that," Penwarden admits. "But you can actually hold a conversation while you are driving now."

Once the engine was out, Trixie was taken to have a set of aluminium boxes made which could house the two banks of lithium iron phosphate batteries, front and back.

Penwarden then installed the three phase AC electric motor and ran thick welding cable under the car to connect up the batteries. Oversized 600 amp fuses have been mounted next to the front and rear batteries and Penwarden has put an isolation switch under the dashboard, carefully hidden from view, but within reach of the driver.

"I didn't want the car to look electric when it was finished. I wanted it to look 100 per cent Beetle," he says.

The formerly air-cooled VW is now water-cooled, with Penwarden, who heads IT company Abletech, adapting a high end PC processor cooler – essentially a radiator with a fan – to cool the motor controller which converts the DC of the battery to three phase AC.

The electric motor is bolted on to the original manual gearbox, but he rarely changes gears.

"For round town running I just leave it in third gear. If I want to take off fast I can put it in second gear and then take off and it will really go, because you have got loads of torque – it has over 100 foot pounds of torque."

Inside, the Beetle looks much the same as before. The only visible difference is the presence of a battery monitor where the petrol gauge once was.

With the heavy banks of batteries over the front and rear axles, Penwarden says Trixie now has a more even weight distribution and handles better on corners.

"It is about 200 kilograms heavier than when I started but it has actually balanced it out really nicely because the weight is a bit further forward and it feels really nice on the road."

He's also added a solenoid-driven ship's bell to warn pedestrians of the silent dubbie's approach.

"That is my little warning. I have  hidden away the button and if I am sneaking up behind a pedestrian I hit the bell. It's not as offensive as a horn."

Penwarden is reluctant to say exactly how much the conversion cost, but says it's comparable to the price of a second hand Nissan Leaf.

"But I have got a '65 Beetle that is electric, I guess that's the difference."

And daughter Abby loves it.

"She always wants to be taken to school in it. She says, 'play the bell, Dad, play the bell'."

For more information about Trixie's conversion, visit the vlog at: stories.abletech.nz

 - Stuff

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