mikenielsenhmb
mikenielsenhmb
6/28/20 3:28 p.m.

For 20 years, I've been dreaming of building a Porsche 356 Speedster clone.  After much searching (both literal and soul), I just couldn't justify the cost outlay for the build, and shelved the project idea around when my son was born, in 2012.

Then, about 3 years ago, I decided to start the search again, only this time, it would be an EV build, either using an EV West conversion kit or a frankensteined adaptation from a VW eGolf donor.  I was coming around to justifying the cost - barely - and started the initial EV component planning. 

This was kicked into higher gear and a minor change in direction when, with a friend, we decided to both get Fiat 500e's as donors for our respective projects, in the hopes that two brains are better than one.  He's got his in his shop, and I'm still shopping. We're both engineers, but he has almost infinitely more knowledge and skill in retrofits and modifications, along with custom builds, than I do.  I don't think he knows how bad a deal he got on the partnership, but I'm stoked for the support.

Like all projects, this was going along swimmingly ... in my mind.  I hadn't spent a nickel and was still searching for donors on both the EV (Fiat) and, ideally, a Beck Speedster build that someone needed to unload.  Still, the search turned up little on the latter for under $30k.  Then Covid happened, and I decided it's best not to add a 6th car to my never-shrinking fleet, and wait until the economy returns to semi-normal before taking on the expense of a build.

Then ... magic.  Entirely by coincidence, I came across the stuff of fever dreams and meth-fueled fantasies - a $3500 Austin Healey 3000 clone by Classic Roadsters Ltd - the Sebring (not the MX - unfortunately - more on that later).  Something that I literally didn't know existed prior to last week, and even had I known, it probably wouldn't have been in the running, because other examples are >>$20k in my limited Googling since last Wednesday and dollar for dollar, I would have gone Beck.  The seller is a wonderful guy named Jim <redacted>, and as he was moving to the east coast, in 3 days, so this car had to go away - fast.

A note on taking someone else's vehicle and murdering it, with the intention of it rising like Phoenix from the ashes: I asked permission.  He told me the story of how his dad acquired it from the original fabricator with the intention of building it himself, but gave up early and had a builder do most of the work, only to eventually give it to his son maybe 8 years ago to be his own project.  I told him about my half-witted plans of converting to EV, and gave him the option of telling me to go away.  He did not.  In fact, he said (paraphrasing) that this was "the perfect idea for this car."  With that blessing, I arrived at his house on Friday afternoon - less than 24 hours prior to his departing flight to <redacted>, and bought the car.

Here it is, and it is genuinely pretty in person.

 

It's nowhere near perfect, but it's solid, the paint is good (needs a bit of freshening), and the undercarriage rust is what you'd expect when you know a little about the frankenstein-inspired heterogeneous compilation under the fiberglass.

Soooo - a little about the car.

  1. The chassis is custom, as is the bodywork.  Classic Roadsters Ltd (RIP) in North Dakota was the fab, and apparently they were Quite a Thing in the 80s.
  2. The donor for more parts than I care to admit is probably a Pinto, or a Mustang II - as I've learned in the past few days, those chassis were kissing cousins if not twins.  Front and rear suspension for sure.  Big chunks of the running gear
  3. Motor is a 302ci small block Ford (out last Lincoln Versailles?) and considering the weight of the car, it's an absurd choice in the best way.  It has a new carb, which is a Holley and I'm assuming 4bbl because who the hell would replace it new with another 2bbl?  It also weighs 460lbs without considering the carb, headers, intake, and other bits.  This is good because the batteries will be similar weight, and I can get them a little lower (I think).  There's more space down there than I had originally thought, though it is narrow, and will likely necessitate a multi-level battery compartment, which adds considerable complications in terms of cooling ... (breathe ... just breathe ...)
  4. Transmission is (probably?) a C4 3-sp Ford unit out of god-knows-what.  It weighs approx 160lbs.  The PO just put an astonishing $1400 into it, and it shifts wonderfully.  He paid for this 2 days before I found him.  Such a waste, and he seems like such a genuinely wonderful person.  If you need a C4 3-sp recently refreshed transmission, let me know.  This one is perfect.
  5. I said "unfortunately not an MX" above, because the MX has coil springs in the rear, and this has a leaf setup along with a live axle 8" Ford (maybe?).  I also think it's an LSD unit because the burnouts this thing does now are nothing short of hilarious.  But it will also be dismissed when I (somehow? dear god I don't know how yet) get the Fiat drive unit in its place, suspended by an as-yet-to-be-designed subframe, which will connect to the (oh no this part scares me a lot) new independent rear suspension and discs.
  6. The gas tank is out of a Chevette.  This doesn't matter except as a way to taunt me that I will soon have Chevette parts in my garage, like a goddamned 17 year old in 1989.
  7. The hood latch is out of a VW Rabbit. This isn't super useful information, but come on, it's pretty funny.
  8. It does not have AC - which is fine, because it certainly wouldn't after the mods I plan to make.  Also, I live in a place where it rarely gets above 70 degrees.
  9. It does not have power steering, which is not fine and will be rectified in the build, because while my arms have not yet atrophied completely, I'm too big to really move around in the cabin without banging my elbows on fiberglass and people.  This is not a large car.
  10. It does not have power assist brakes, which also not fine and will be rectified in the build, because I want to survive this experience.
  11. It has discs in the front!  Joy of joys, something mechanical that I will hopefully upgrade vs. throw out.
  12. Last - and this is mind-blowing - it had 311 miles on it from build (post 1988) to when I bought it, in Year of our Covid 2020.  THREE HUNDRED AND ELEVEN.  It has 60 more miles on it now between getting home and showing my son how ridiculous it was, but that's about it before it goes on a diet and enters the 21st century and probably bankrupts me and causes a divorce.

Like I said earlier - the plan is to cannibalize a Fiat 500e for the:

  • Batteries
  • Battery controllers
  • Charging system
  • Drive unit (motor + transmission)
  • Front suspension (to be transplanted, in part, to the rear)
  • Gauges - and maybe the stereo, for the heck of it
  • Steering linkage, rack, and power unit
  • Brakes - because they're power and I have a feeling the entire traction control system in the Fiat would behave better if I maintain as much of it as possible
  • Hope and optimism - the Fiats are adorable, and that will absolutely make this project go smoothly and without problems.  Right?

So there it is.  Lots more information to come, and I'll happily share every detail of the build along the way.  If anyone out there in the interwebs has dealt with something similar - and I suspect the Venn diagram of people that love Austin replicas AND EV conversions is closer to how a 12 year old would draw boobs on a note they share in class than have any intersection whatsoever - you will be my friend whether you like it or not.

Wish me luck!

Mike

 

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
6/28/20 4:24 p.m.

Cool! I am looking forward to this.

If you're planning to basically just move the compleat Fiat drivetrain and suspension to the rear, I don't think your IRS concerns are too bad. I think that's the best way to do it. And Mustang IIs are the basis for many, many kit cars with a lot of aftermarket support so that's not such a terrible thing.

I'll bet that VW Rabbit hood release cross-references to a Porsche 944 or something like that, maybe that'll sound better :)

 

stuart in mn
stuart in mn MegaDork
6/28/20 4:39 p.m.

Those were pretty good looking replicars, much better than most of them that were on the market back then.  Should be a fun project.

Stampie (FS)
Stampie (FS) UltimaDork
6/28/20 4:51 p.m.

I'm going to blame this question on my need for social interaction on a cool build and not pure laziness to Google it myself.  What's the range and HP on the Fiat 500e?

kellym
kellym New Reader
6/28/20 5:34 p.m.

Where are you located? I'm interested in the C4, I'm in Northern CA 

This is a sweet concept. I think retro futuristic is the only way to go on an EV. I'll be following.

PS, I'm a huge Austin Healey fan, and very interested in our electric future.

OHSCrifle
OHSCrifle SuperDork
6/28/20 6:14 p.m.

Hell of a first post! Commenting so I can find this post in the future. This car has been driven more than my dad’s 67 AH3000 BJ8... and I bet you get yours on the road first.

mikenielsenhmb
mikenielsenhmb New Reader
6/28/20 6:59 p.m.

In reply to Keith Tanner :

Thanks Keith.  Mustang IIs were much maligned but I agree that they're a pretty good platform choice.  Despite my affection/affliction for the Porsche, the Pinto is arguably superior in pretty much every way.  

Besides, my 2019 truck has leaf springs and a solid axle.  I shouldn't be throwing stones.

The hood release just cracks me up.  There are, however, two other VW components on the car - the windshield wipers.

mikenielsenhmb
mikenielsenhmb New Reader
6/28/20 7:00 p.m.

In reply to kellym :

Hi Kellym - I'm in Half Moon Bay.  If you're interested, shoot me an email to (same username) @gmail.com.  We can work something out.  

I'm unloading the 302 as well - if you happen to know anyone else in the market.

mikenielsenhmb
mikenielsenhmb New Reader
6/28/20 7:01 p.m.

In reply to Stampie (FS) :

The Fiats have a modest energy density battery (64 amp-hr) and the total pack is, I think, around 24khw.  That's good for almost 100 miles.  The motor is, IIRC, 85KW (actually I know I have that wrong, but it's close).  

mikenielsenhmb
mikenielsenhmb New Reader
6/28/20 7:03 p.m.

In reply to OHSCrifle :

Thanks!  I hope to keep the momentum going now that I'm committed.  Also, my wife is completely thrilled (THRILLED!) that I bought another car, so I need to show progress or risk Other Dangers.

californiamilleghia
californiamilleghia Dork
6/28/20 7:11 p.m.

Can you drive a stock running 500e to see how you like it ?

and has anyone hacked the electronics  yet , I heard thats was a problem 

and how wide is a Fiat 500e ? The 1959 fiat sitting outside my front door is pretty narrow !

AxeHealey
AxeHealey HalfDork
6/28/20 7:28 p.m.

Big Healey guy here. If I don't get the big 6 noise, electrification works in my book. 

mikenielsenhmb
mikenielsenhmb New Reader
6/28/20 7:32 p.m.

In reply to AxeHealey :

I'm with you on the noise.  I wouldn't do this to an actual Healey, but a replica with a 302 just kind of screams "DO IT"

bonylad
bonylad Reader
6/28/20 8:26 p.m.

Outstanding! I can't wait to see more!

mikenielsenhmb
mikenielsenhmb New Reader
7/10/20 4:29 p.m.

Tomorrow is the beginning of a new era.

An era in which I endeavor to turn a fully functioning, smallblock-powered death machine into an environmentally friendly death machine.

Also, I am essentially giving away its naughty bits to a fine gentlemen from Monterey who will also be removing them (motor, trans) it in my garage.  Covid be damned!  Social Distancing is for hippies that drive electric cars.  Wait...

I held off the donor purchase until I knew I'd have the motor and transmission gone.  That time is nigh.

So - good people of GRM - I set off in search of the donor.  The donor, in this case, will (as mentioned) be a Fiat 500e.  What I want is one that's physically rough (accidents good!) but mechanically solid.  I will be murdering this poor thing in the name of SCIENCE, but it's generally best to do that to something that isn't currently aesthetic perfect.  Salvage titles welcome!  

If you know anyone that has a 500e, ideally in California and in the shape outlined above, I'd be most grateful. 

 

preach
preach Reader
7/10/20 4:36 p.m.

No wrecked ones in San Diego but there are a couple in the $5000 range.

mikenielsenhmb
mikenielsenhmb New Reader
7/10/20 4:38 p.m.

In reply to preach :

Good idea - I should expand my Craigslist search beyond SF Bay Area.

californiamilleghia
californiamilleghia Dork
7/10/20 5:34 p.m.

include Reno , not that far from you.....

ihayes (Forum Supporter)
ihayes (Forum Supporter) New Reader
7/11/20 9:30 a.m.

Have you looked at copart? There seems to be a ton available with no damage (off lease?). No idea what they sell for, but with the quantity available it can't be too much.

mikenielsenhmb
mikenielsenhmb New Reader
7/12/20 3:57 p.m.

UPDATES!  

Rejoice, internet friends.  I have made a modicum of progress.  Through the magic of the Craigslist and my extraordinary degree of laziness, I found someone to not only buy the motor, but to pull it with me (really "for me") and take it away in their own trailer.  This was the biggest win-win I've had in a long time.  Wonderful guy gets the motor and transmission for a modest sum, and I can start the project in earnest.

Even better, he gave me the most excellent present.  More on that in a minute.

At the crack of 9:15am, I moved the i3 out of the garage, pushed El Stinky into position in the middle of the garage (with my 8yo steering it for me), and then proceeded to stare at it for the better part of an hour wondering how much destruction I was about to be party to.

First step: remove hood.  Simple enough, except that I discovered - too late, of course - that the backing bolts were not affixed to the fiberglass, and instead used a threaded plate, presumably for adjustability.  Had I known this going in, I wouldn't have LOST THE GODDAMED THINGS IN THE FIBERGLASS CHANNEL FOREVER AHHHHHHHH.  Instead, in a few months when literally the last piece goes back on the car, I'll get crazy with magnets and fish them out.  Stupid stupid stupid.

With the hood removed, and the wonderful gentlemen from Monterey (Hal and Mark) arrived, it was time to actually start real work.  Hal, I should mention, owns a tool and equipment rental yard in Monterey, and is a wonderful guy.  He's also owned more cars than I've owned socks in my lifetime (over 100 - he lost count), and has probably restored more cars than I've actually owned.  It was delightful assisting a pro since I learned just how smooth the process could go, if you actually know what you're doing.

Driveshaft first.  That went without too much drama.  Radiator next.  That was modestly dramatic since the custom fiberglass shroud had two hidden screws mounted at the bottom, so after it was (mostly) drained, I angled it up, found the offending screws, removed them, cursed at them in my head for approximately 45 seconds, and removed the radiator and bottom half of the shroud.  

Screw you, screws.

Next, the motions (such as they were for a pro like Hal) were gone through: wiring harness disconnected at the engine, wiring harness cut at the transmission, bell housing bolts removed, bottom transmission support bracket removed, more fluid spillage, and modest blood loss.  We spent a good amount of time trying, and failing, to avoid getting the distributor out of the way since the timing was actually pretty good and it ran well, but the magic of the Sharpie and an acceptance of the reality later, it was turned, we found solid mount points for the hoist, and we set to remove the transmission.

Note that the engine bay is so tiny that the pics don't do it justice.  Ford small blocks are not enormous, yet it completely filled the bay.  So the motor and trans had to come out separately.

The transmission came out without tremendous drama, and was only mildly problematic in that it didn't want to separate from the motor at one specific point, but after some persuasion, it finally separated and we lowered it to the ground.  This is when I noticed that there just wasn't enough room to pull the transmission out from under the car, and since all jack stands + 2 jacks already had the car up in the air, the realization that we needed to rejigger the entire setup set in.  But, through the magic of geometry, I worked out that I could pivot the transmission out from under the car, and while Hal and Mark were busy prepping to remove jacks, I slid it out in a jiffy.  Thankfully, he already has another transmission pan (with a drain plug!) so a few scratches hurt no one's feelings.

And yes, of course I let the torque converter spill transmission fluid all over my garage floor.  

Now finally, the moment of truth.  Out comes the strong and stinky heart of this ridiculous vehicle.  Picker attached, we hoisted a little to test.  

You know that moment when you hit total denial and desperation all at the same time?  Well, it's That Time.

The entire project, aside from modest blood loss, had gone so smoothly - exhaust bolts loosened without an impact driver for goodness sake! - that we figured we'd sail to the finish line.

I should note here that the deal I made with Hal - a modest sum of money in exchange for him pit-crewing the project - assumed that I wouldn't need to buy an engine hoist, which would likely have set me back $400-$500 and used exactly one time.  Renting would be good, sure, but it would have taken me 2 weekends to do this alone, so I'd have the thing for 10 days, and at $50/day ... well, same issue, except without a hoist to sell at the end of it.

Hal, being the owner of a tool and equipment rental shop, brought his own hoist.  That hoist had been used the previous weekend swapping in a 350 into a resto truck, so we knew it worked.

Key here is past-tense: workED.

Upon testing the hoist, we noticed it sloooooowly creep lower, and we needed to keep pumping to maintain elevation.  This, as you can imagine, was absolutely  Terrifying and we scrambled to find a new hoist.  Nearest one: 25 miles away, on a busy weekend day on the coast.  Round-trip would easily be 4 hours due to all the asshats invading our little beach town.  Note: if you were one of them, you get a free pass for being on GRM and are not an asshat.  If you know someone who is not on GRM and went to the coast this weekend, please call them an asshat and flick a booger into their chest for me, assuming you've tested negative for Covid-19.

I'm not sure what the exact moment was, but the three of us collectively - and simultaneously - decided we could get the motor high enough if we dropped the car as low as possible, and continued pumping to maintain elevation.  So without the wheels, we lowered it on the jack where the front clip had about 4" of clearance, unbolted the completely thrashed motor mounts, and started pumping.   A few terrifying moments later, we had it nearly high enough to get it out of the car, so a little higher it went (then a little lower - this dance was not a fun one) and a good shove backwards, and it was clear of the front end and welcome to slooooooowly continue its journey to the ground.  We intercepted it onto a cart with an old tire for cushion, rolled it up to his trailer, and all sighed collectively that the journey had not resulted in failure or disaster.

Mike, Mark, and Hal (L to R)

Last - the gift!  Hal, the wonderful person he is, has an idea of the nightmare I signed myself up for, and brought me this magical cart to hold the car up so I can safely work on it AND wheel it around the garage.  I can spin it in circles (yes, of course I did), push it side to side, and get underneath without fear of being crushed by my stupid jack stand placement.

Today, my son helped remove the fuel tank, fuel line, and a few other random bits under the car, so if you happen to be in need for a Chevette gas tank, you're welcome to this one.

That's it for this weekend.  Next up is grinding some of the surface corrosion, treating those areas with rust mort (or something similar) and black paint.  I'll be sourcing the 500e at some point in the next few weeks so things will be a little slow, but once that happens, this beastie will be moved into the driveway, and I'll cannibalize the Fiat for it's movey-bits, then haul the carcass to a wrecker.  That's when the fun will begin for sure.

A few notes:

  • The front suspension is fine, but I'll be swapping the discs to something with more bite and, importantly, a modern lug pattern.  Anyone who has done this on a Ford (Mustang II, Pinto, etc) front end, your advice is welcome.
  • While the engine bay looks enormous without a motor in it, it's definitely not large enough to house the Fiat's battery tray, so I'm definitely fabricating one as previously planned/dreaded
  • There isn't enough room in the rear for a direct swap of the Fiat drive unit, and I'm not sure I can cut away enough material to make this work.  Can you mount a Bosch/Fiat drivetrain in reverse and somehow tell the computer to reverse polarity to the drive and regen?  Sweet baby jesus this has me concerned
  • I'll soon have a Ford 9" for sale if any crazy builders need one.  More to come when I decide it can actually come out.

californiamilleghia
californiamilleghia Dork
7/12/20 5:52 p.m.

you got a lot done ,

is the white plastic bag full of blood !!!!!!   or  ATF.....

mikenielsenhmb
mikenielsenhmb New Reader
7/12/20 6:23 p.m.

In reply to californiamilleghia :

Ha!  Thankfully, just ATF.  Only a teeny amount of blood.

GIRTHQUAKE
GIRTHQUAKE Dork
7/12/20 7:47 p.m.

Here's a link to all the wrecked Fiat 500e's on IAA, there's tons!

https://www.iaai.com/VehicleSearch/SearchDetails?Keyword=fiat+500+electric

OkayThen
OkayThen
7/23/20 2:48 p.m.

In reply to mikenielsenhmb :

I am *delighted* to see this project here, and really enjoy MikeNielsenHMB's writing.

Truth be told, I have the good fortune to know Mike personally. He is both brilliant and insane enough to maybe actually pull this whole crazy thing off.

Congratulations on all the progress, and thanks for posting with the great pics!

 

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