Jeff Huneycutt
April 25, 2012

"Working on the Electric Fox taught me a lot of things, but mostly how to figure things out and solve problems on my own"-Lab 306 student

It's rare that we feature a Mustang with road rash, faded paint, missing side moldings, and an estimated top speed of around 80 mph. As a performance-first magazine, we'll let a lot of things slide when it comes to bringing you the most innovative, finely built race and street machines, but this is a combination that may have never been considered for a feature in these pages before. Until now.

This particular Fox Mustang is much more than it appears at first glance. In fact, what you're looking at-in all of its 1992 glory-is the future. You see, this Mustang is the product of a group of very determined high schoolers in North Carolina that converted this car to an electric propulsion system of their own design.

Hopefully, the internal combustion engine will always have at least a small place in the performance car world, but it's obvious that electric cars are destined to take a prominent spot on our roads. This Mustang proves that it can be done in a performance-oriented chassis to produce a vehicle that's still fun to drive.

McMichael High is a school of approximately 1,000 students, located just a few miles south of the Virginia border in tiny Mayodan, North Carolina. The area of the state was a hub for textiles and high-end furniture manufacturing, but those industries have mostly gone offshore, and many towns haven't fully recovered. To help students develop marketable skills, McMichael started a special Technology, Engineering & Design curriculum. Students in this course are allowed to choose from a series of subjects according to their own strengths. The offerings include mechanical engineering, graphic design, and programming. All are goal-oriented.

But students working on individual projects can only get so far, so instructor John Butler began a project to allow the students an opportunity to work together toward a common cause. John encouraged the higher level students in the course (known as Lab 306 after the facility's room number) to build an electric car and compete in the EV Challenge, a competition for high school students who design, construct, and drive their own electric vehicles. The Lab 306 students first competed in the challenge in 2009 with a Mustang hatchback now known only as The Prototype.

"We learned so much from that first competition," John explains. "Doing the challenge gave the students a good idea of just how much they were capable of achieving, which was the goal. But being our first shot at it, the car really wasn't competitive. So we decided to start over with a new car and do it right."

For the second go round, John-who has owned multiple Mustangs and is the driving force behind the group's Mustang focus-actually donated his own '92 notchback Mustang to the students and the school.

"It's not like it was a big donation though," John says with a laugh. "That was the car I drove when I was in college, but it was totaled with some pretty significant burn damage. It was parked beside a barn on my farm when the barn caught fire and burned to the ground.

"The car was a loss. In fact, when we went to get the car and bring it back to the school, we had to drag it back out of the woods where it had been sitting for five years.But the chassis was sound, and we had planned all along for the students to completely strip the car so that they could not only design and build the electric drivetrain exactly how they wanted, but also so that they could get a better understanding of how these cars go together," John added.

He broke the students into various teams depending on their interests and technical strengths, and set them to work on the car. The car was completely stripped down to a metal shell as the Lab 306 teams determined what was salvageable and what was no longer necessary for the car's new electric configuration.

Like almost all public schools, the budget for anything beyond textbooks and teachers is quite limited, so students had to choose carefully how money was spent. That's why the original Calypso Green paint remains. But an ugly car simply wouldn't do, so one member of the team achieved hero status by spending three weeks laboriously polishing and massaging the abused paint job to bring it back to its (nearly) like-new shine. Latemodel Restoration Supply (www.50resto.com) also played a large role by donating many parts that couldn't be refurbished on the original.

The finished Ford has been affectionately named the Electric Fox. It features a 9-inch DC electric motor that was purchased used. The motor is mated through an adapter plate to the stock T5 manual transmission, although shifting requires great care because the stock clutch was discarded to reduce rotating weight. An array of 12 lead-acid batteries provides the power to the motor through an Evnetics Soliton 1 Controller. Another smaller battery is used to power the car's lights, power windows and locks, and even the interior lights. Concessions to performance did, however, have to be made by eliminating the radio and air conditioning to reduce both overall weight and drain on the power supply.

The students also had to overcome other obstacles that aren't as obvious. For example, an electric motor doesn't produce vacuum, so the brakes had to be converted to full manual. Likewise, a power-steering pump pulls energy-plus there is no easy way to spin it in this setup-so the steering system is manual as well. And instead of being connected directly to the engine, the gas pedal now tells the Evnetics controller what the driver wants, and the controller translates that into how much electricity to feed the motor.

Of course, there were a few upgrades to make the car more fun. Bilstein shocks and coilovers help maintain a stable ride, and subframe connectors bear the load of the batteries. The brakes were also upgraded to units off of a '99 GT up front and a Cobra in the rear. In back, the students installed a new four-link suspension and Panhard bar on the stock 8.8-inch rear. A rear-seat-delete cuts even more weight, and the wheelhubs were converted to five-lugs to provide greater wheel selection.

In its current configuration, the car can travel approximately 35 miles at speeds around 45 to 50 miles per hour. Top speed is close to 80 mph, but that quickly drains the batteries, and high-speed blasts are limited to the track anyway. The batteries also require between 8 to 10 hours to fully recharge. So while this electric Fox isn't quite suitable for go-anywhere, do-anything daily driver service, it's still impressive given the fact that some of the students that played a part in this project didn't even have driver's licenses.

If you are wondering, John says his students have done the research and determined that 35 miles worth of electricity-essentially an eight-hour fill up-costs only two dollars. Assuming gasoline costs $3.50 a gallon and the fuel engine gets 20 miles per gallon, that comes out to 17.5 cents per mile for gasoline compared to only 5.7 cents per mile using electricity.

In 2011 the Lab 306 crew took its new entry to the EV Challenge and put it to the test. Going against lighter and smaller cars, they took second place in several categories, including Range, Autocross, Design, and Troubleshooting. Their results were good enough to place them second overall. It was an unqualified success, according to everyone involved.

John says that Lab 306 has plans to completely rework and upgrade the car's drivetrain and compete again soon. But the lack of money requires students to spend more time fundraising than turning wrenches. Still, he says there is learning to be done, even now.

"Even though we aren't working on the car right now, there are still learning opportunities for our students," he explained. "Many have other projects that they are working on while helping out with the Mustang. Some are learning web programming and building a new website (www.lab306.com); others are making plans on how we will upgrade the car, and others are gaining presentation and business skills by taking the car to local shows and meeting with business leaders to talk about what we are doing. It is all still beneficial to the students, even if actual work on the car is stopped for right now."

For the next go-round, John and his Lab 306 students are eyeing a larger 11-inch motor capable of greater torque and speed, a high-capacity array of lithium ion batteries, and a Powerglide two-speed automatic transmission to reduce rotating mass (and eliminate the troublesome clutchless shifts); maybe also a new motor controller and new heavy-gauge electrical cables, but the paint will doubtlessly stay the same, and the various odds and ends that make a show car shine will be left off. This is a functioning test platform and every dollar counts.

John estimates that Lab 306 needs to raise $14,000 to upfit the car--less if they can find what they are looking for used--and he hopes his kids will be able to get to turning wrenches again in the 2012-2013 school year.

The Electric Fox will probably never stay the same for long. It's too valuable as a learning tool. The original 5.0-liter engine was long ago sacrificed to make way for electric power, but the Fox still retains its original cool, and the students say they are much more eager to work on a modern (if electric) musclecar than some four-door grocery-getter or economy crackerbox.

In the long run, the odds are slim that any of the students from Lab 306 will ever wind up designing cars for Ford or any other major manufacturer. But that's OK, because the goal of the McMichael High School Technology, Engineering & Design program isn't simply to produce a single automotive engineer, but rather dozens and dozens of extremely qualified young men and women in a variety of different careers. So far, the Electric Fox is helping to do exactly that.

Horse Sense: For reference, Ford is making its own move into electric vehicles. Thanks to a sizable engineering push, the '12 Focus Electric offers an equivalent of 100 mpg and a range of 100 miles.

Meet the Team

Working on the Electric Fox project involves much more than turning wrenches. The Lab 306 project is designed to teach students a wide variety of useful skills. As an example, here is a list of just part of the Lab 306 team that built the Electric Fox. By the way, "School Initiative" means teaching other students what they themselves have learned.

  • Hunter Foulks Mechanic
  • Quintin Dickerson Mechanic, Driver
  • Dylan Garner PR, Lab 306 Blog
  • Clinton Blankenship Website, Mechanic
  • Tyler Haney Paint, Poster, Graphic Design
  • Lucas White School Initiative, PR
  • Ryan Price School Initiative, PR
  • Graham Beasley Website, Video Production
  • Nathan Connor Graphic Design
  • Spencer Griffin Electrical
  • Eli Strickland Electrical

"Not everybody gets to work on the electric Mustang. You have to earn your way onto the team, so it makes you want to work harder"--Lab 306 student