Friday, 28 January 2011 00:00
While most of us are content with a combustion engine as a source of power for our beloved Utes, there's a bloke from South Australia who has added some real spark to his MightyBoy project.
Written by Brayden Dykes, photos courtesy Bruce White.
For most car modifiers (myself included) there are default goals for building a project vehicle. These are typically a combination of bigger, faster, louder, and stronger. Bruce White on the other hand has chosen to eschew this concept, and from his back shed in Adelaide has created one of the most fastidiously crafted MightyBoy's in Australia - only it has a smaller engine, makes no noise, yet is still faster and stronger than before. As the title of this article would suggest, we're talking about a MightyBoy one step closer to the remote-controlled toys that our utes are often related to - a DC powered, pollution-free pocket rocket.
Having been turned on to the possibilities of Li-Ion battery technology, and already looking to kick-start a semi-retirement project, Bruce turned his mind to using his 40 years of experience in electronics, electrical and mechanical areas. The result came to be known as MightyBoyEV - an ambitious project to convert an original combustion engine powered Suzuki MightyBoy to an electric vehicle. However Bruce is quick to point out that having an electric vehicle was not his primary motive for the project: "...although I am interested in the use of green low emission vehicles, this is a welcome secondary benefit to the Mighty Boy EV project. I simply just like building and designing things!"
For the enthusiasts amongst us, the most obvious starting point for this story is how a Suzuki MightyBoy was chosen as a basis for the project. It turns out this decision was quite deliberate and based on the requirements for an electric vehicle:
Simple design and construction - check.
Extremely lightweight - check.
Tray for housing batteries - check.
No complicated auxiliary systems (power steering, brake booster, etc.) - check.
Can be bought cheaply - check.
With these requirements met, it was only a matter of finding a suitable donor and the project could commence. Bruce explains: "A chap I work with had a Mighty Boy for several years but unfortunately traded it on a new vehicle shortly before I had a chance to make him an offer he couldn't refuse. In lamenting my sad story at morning coffee one day, another work mate said his friend had also just sold one and offered to phone the chap to find out what price he received for the car. As it turns out, the person defaulted on paying for the Mighty Boy and the sale never went ahead. Within minutes my friend and I were kicking Mighty Boy tyres and a deal was struck!"
Before the process of electrification could commence, the MightyBoy was driven home and almost completely stripped for a ground-up body rebuild, including the replacement and/or reconditioning of seats, glass, suspension and brakes, along with a full respray in custom-mix white. Along the way Bruce came up with a solution to the not-uncommon problem of a failed wiper arm assembly. (Details are available on the MightyBoyEV website.)
Following the body rebuild, engine removal and construction of necessary battery racks, the process of installing electric propulsion began in earnest. The theory of the mechanical side was relatively straightforward: Bolt an electric motor to the standard manual MightyBoy gearbox using an adaptor plate and coupler. The electrical side is where the real challenges would lay, least of which would be how to fit the various electrical components in such a small engine bay!
The driving force of the conversion is an 8 inch Advanced DC electric motor running at 72 volts, with a peak output of 31.5 kilowatts. This is about on par with a fresh 800cc F8B combustion engine, although with the significant advantage of having almost instant access to the full amount of power and torque. (At 120v this same motor is capable of 62kw.) The electric motor weighs in at almost 50kg, which is about 10-15kg heavier than the original combustion engine with manifolds/fluids. Add the battery weight and the ute tips the scales at 650kg.
Naturally in order to control the new motor a whole host of electrical and electronic equipment was required. I won't get bogged down in detail here, as all the relevant information is provided in spades through the MightyBoyEV website. Suffice to say that the deciphering the wiring diagrams is like trying to understand the DaVinci code while suffering from a head injury! That is not to say that the ute is difficult to operate, in fact just the opposite. Bruce has taken care of potential facepalm moments by installing numerous safety devices, one of which allows the driver live out their Knight Rider fantasies as the Ute audibly says in plain English that it has been switched on!
Of course given the complexities and dangers of working with electricity (and lots of it) there are bound to be challenges, even more so when you are mostly building from scratch. Despite the technical gremlins that could have caught Bruce out during the build, his largest hurdle was related to budget, specifically being able to justify the cost of state-of-the-art batteries. “When the project was first conceived the battery frame was constructed to house Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries. When the time came to purchase these batteries from overseas, the OZ dollar crashed and so did my plans to purchase these batteries."
Unfortunately for Bruce this meant that initially he had to make do with 6 rather large and heavy sealed lead acid batteries, which only gave a range of around 35km per charge. "I used Powersonic absorbed glass mat (or AGM) batteries commonly used by Telstra in their UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supplies)... but with the good Australian dollar I have recently made the move back to the original concept of LiFePO4 (Lithium Ion) batteries." This switch gives the advantages of more power in less weight; a driving range increase to over 100km, and improved acceleration.
Speaking of acceleration, I'm sure the first question on most minds is how driving an electric MightyBoy compares to the original? Bruce's response is matter-of-fact: "Much the same as a normal MightyBoy but no noise and maybe quicker than a standard MightyBoy. Electric vehicles have max torque from zero RPM so the power curve starts like now!" For this reason Bruce only uses fourth gear for forward momentum, with third as a lower gear (that is yet to be used). First and second have been locked out completely as the gearing is unsuitable. If you want to experience the drive of an electric MightyBoy, there are several videos on YouTube to give you an insight into what MightyBoyEV is like on the road.
Despite the challenges in any project, overcoming them is one of the best feelings you can get, and typically cause for celebrations. However Bruce takes a more pragmatic view of what has given him the most satisfaction, citing the fact that finding a MightyBoy in great condition made the job much easier. "I was lucky in finding a great original MightyBoy with no rust and very few body issues. This made the restoration process straight forward compared to many of the projects I have done in the past."
With the project now more or less complete, Bruce offers practical advice to others considering tackling a similar build. "The original MightyBoy is actually a clever design with a strong, long-lived drivetrain. It has amazingly good fuel economy and in good condition has little Co2 emissions. So from a common sense point of view one is gaining very little if anything by such a conversion (to electric)."
This is sage advice, but Bruce is also very mindful of those who have the burning desire for an electric vehicle, or are perhaps inclined to take on the job regardless of how good a standard MightyBoy might be. "It is an ideal project for anyone that likes playing with technology, assuming one has the necessary electro-mechanical skills." I hasten to add that a healthy budget would also help - something not lost on Bruce. "Costs? Don't ask!"
It seems I’d be right not to ask, as the final tally for the project came in at around $7000 for the Ute restoration about the same again for the electric conversion. This is a pretty hefty price tag but not completely frightening when you consider what some of us will spend (or have spent) on petrol-based engine solutions. The real bonus of an EV is that charging costs equate to just $0.01 per kilometre using off-peak power. “I charge at night on “Off Peak” power at around 11cents per kW/h and depending on our home usage can get paid 50cents per kW/h putting power back into the grid from our solar panels. So for the most part, averaged over a year the car is virtually free to drive thanks to energy from the sun. Taking into account the complete picture and amortising the cost of the batteries and the large solar panels using the electric vehicle is more cost effective than using a conventional vehicle.”
Regardless of operating costs, it is worth noting that this kind of project can really only be considered as an owner-built proposition. "It would be totally out of the question to pay someone to carry out the conversion given the number of hours such a project takes" says Bruce.
If nothing else the MightyBoyEV project proves that as most of us continue to burn up the remaining fossil fuels on this planet there’s still a very bright future for the MightyBoy – especially as battery technology continues to improve and the price of the necessary equipment falls. Hopefully Bruce’s efforts to not only build a meticulous MightyBoy EV but chronicle the entire process will encourage many others to take on similar builds sometime in their future.
Be sure to visit MightyBoyEV.com for full details on the build.