Ben Nelson is not an engineer. Not even close. He's a self-employed video producer in Oconomowoc. Nelson is simply a guy who likes to see what happens when he follows his ideas to their logical conclusions. And the idea he had was to build himself an electric car.
"Part of it was just frustration," says Nelson. "The Prius is nice, but it's really a gas car with better-than-average fuel mileage." Nelson - a self-described driver of "clunkers" - says he's "an average guy [who] can't shell out $24,000 for a car." (And the new all-electric Chevy Volt, which isn't even available in the Midwest yet, would cost around $40,000.)
Instead, in 2008, Nelson bought a simple economy car, a '96 Geo Metro, for $500 - "manual steering and windows, no radio antenna that goes up and down" - and set out to turn it into an electric car.
Nelson, who prefers to learn by doing, first went to the library and checked out some books. He also began asking for advice, and through word of mouth found people who told him what to do, and in some cases helped him do it.
Electric motors are frequently used to power warehouse forklifts, and Nelson found one at a garage sale. He paid $50 for the motor and another $50 for new brushes (the part that conducts current between stationary wires and moving parts).
He ripped out his car's existing gas tank (he says the gas in it fueled his lawn mower for two summers) and the transmission. He was able to sell car parts he no longer needed (gas tank, engine, radiator, exhaust system) for $550. The most expensive element for many electric cars would be the batteries, but he found these used locally for $12 each. He uses six of them to power the car.
Later, Nelson added a propane generator that can charge the battery pack while he's driving. He figures the whole conversion cost $1,300 total.
The car is perfect for local errand driving, says Nelson. "It's a great little car for zipping around." It can go about 45 mph and can be driven for a little more than 20 miles before it needs recharging.
Drawbacks? The car is cold in winter and, because it originally had power brakes, didn't brake very well until Nelson adapted a vacuum system for better stopping power.
Nelson also added an electric motor to a regular bicycle - the only drawback to this being that drivers "kept turning in front of me because they weren't expecting a bike to be going 20 miles an hour" - and converted a gas motorcycle to electric. And he's also rigged up a system that recycles the used water from his washing machine to flush his toilets.
"I think engineers are overrated," says Nelson. "In today's society, we all have our specialties, and we're not allowed to go outside our roles. People are afraid to try things. A lot of things might take some special knowledge, but the big thing is to be okay with trying and failing."
He's recently made an instructional video of his car conversion called "How to Make Your Own Electric Car Cheap."
"I'm just a guy who did something he thought was right," Nelson says. "People want to be eco-friendly. People are trying to save money. People want to do things for themselves. They want to get around responsibly."