Teen builds own electric car

October 14, 2008 9:19:24 AM PDT
The sky-high cost of gasoline has major auto manufacturers racing to build battery-powered cars that can be charged from household outlets. Then there's 17-year-old Lucas Laborde, who plans to drive to high school this fall in an electric car he built in his father's shop in San Antonio.

Laborde, known as "Luke" to most of his family and friends, spent about 150 hours over the summer converting a gas-powered car to battery power. When it's finished, the car can be certified as street-legal with a state inspection.

"I've test-driven it around the block," says Laborde, a senior at the International School of the Americas. "But there's a couple of things to fix, like the windshield wipers. Then we'll get it inspected."

Laborde's father, Ralph, bankrolled the project and provided some technical training and assistance.

"I showed him how to use a grinder, a SawzAll and a drill and stuff like that," says the father, who owns River City Hydraulics Inc., a hydraulics maintenance and repair company near downtown San Antonio. "He just went to town on it."

Companies such as GM and Ford have spent several years and millions of dollars in an attempt to develop mass-produced battery-powered cars and hybrids, such as the recently announced Chevy Volt and an experimental, plug-in version of the Ford Escape.

Luke Laborde's electric car is based on a kit car known as a Bradley GT II. The Bradley conversions, built in the 1970s with chassis, engines and transmissions from VW Beetles, have Fiberglas bodies and futuristic styling, including gull-wing doors.

Ralph Laborde bought his son's Bradley on eBay for $5,000. The car only had a few thousand miles on it and its gas-burning, air-cooled and rear-mounted engine got between 32 and 35 miles per gallon. But the goal was to switch completely to electricity, so the father spent another $4,700 for electric conversion parts and $1,000 for batteries.

After that, creation of the car depended on Luke Laborde and his ingenuity. For instance, he found space for eight 80-pound batteries in several creative locations in the small vehicle, including the void left after removal of the fuel tank in the nose of the car.

But the batteries' collective weight caused another, unexpected problem: They have caused the car body to twist slightly, so the gull-wing doors don't completely close.

"I'm still working on that one," the teenager says with a grin.

The car's deep-cycle, 12-volt, lead-acid batteries are hooked up in series. They provide a total of 96 volts of current to an electric motor mounted in the reconstituted Beetle's trunk, where its gasoline engine used to reside. Gauges mounted on the car's instrument panel now include one for amperage to show how much current the electric motor is drawing and another one for voltage to let Laborde know when his batteries are running low.

The car uses the Bradley's original transmission, a manual four-speed, but the clutch is no longer needed to change gears. The car has a top speed of about 45 mph -- plenty fast for in-town commuting and lots of low-end torque.

The motor doesn't make any sound, but Laborde inadvertently makes the rear tires chirp when he steps on the accelerator a little too hard while backing the car out of his father's shop.

"It has a lot of power," he says sheepishly.

Laborde and his family live about a mile from his high school. He estimates that his car will be able to make about 20 round trips between charges.

A member of the golf team at ISA, Laborde is considering a career in sports business.

"But," he says wistfully, sitting behind the steering wheel of his electric car, "if this could take me somewhere, that would be nice, too."

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