Isaac Mion
March 5, 2013

Normally, an explosion and two fires at its unveiling would have most builders running from the electric vehicle game with their tails between their legs. But it only made the staff at Dukes Garage dig their heels in.

By now, many have heard their share of electric vehicle hype. If you are reading this magazine, one might guess that you probably arent a fan of it. Electric cars are arguably impractical for most of us at this point, they often sacrifice styling for low wind resistance, and being seen driving one pigeonholes you into a certain category of automobile enthusiast.

Until now, that is. Duke's Garage has taken the prancing pony and put a powerful package of alternative energy into a stunningly clean example of a '65 drop-top. More on how the system functions later.

Duke Altschuler started collecting cars in the mid to late 80s. By 2009, it was high time to turn his hobby of collecting and restoring classic cars into a business. His wife, Melissa, had a few requirements.

"I felt, as a business owner, that it was our responsibility to carry a line of cars that used an alternative energy source. Especially since most older cars are gas guzzlers that get fewer than 20 mpg and aren't governed by the emission standards of today," said Melissa Perré, Duke's wife.

Photo Gallery

View Photo Gallery

Duke's son and shop manager, Dave Altschuler, told us that the original goal was to make a muscle car that was classic and fuel-efficient.

"Thirty miles per gallon was the goal," he said. While Dave and crew were researching powerplants for the project, they came across a local company in Denver making lithium ion modules for use in electric vehicles. That company referred them to a company that converted gasoline vehicles to electric power. With Duke doing a ground-up restoration on a clapped-out Mustang, the three entities approached the project from three different directions.

Duke's Garage purchased the vehicle as part of a large collection of vehicles that needed to be restored. It had been in a minor accident and like a good garden gnome, it had sat outside for more than 20 years. On top of the damage from that, there was a lot of rust.

We dropped the battery pack in a 55-gallon drum of water. It boiled for 12 hours before it finally stopped.

"All of the metal work was a real challenge," Dave said. "We had to rebuild the subframe and radiator support. We also replaced the right inner front fender well, right front cowling, both outer wheelwells, both quarters, the tail panel, and all of the floors." Despite the restoration, the body is primarily stock with the exception of the transmission tunnel, which had to be widened to fit both motors under the car.

Here's where it gets twisted. The fuel, essentially, the battery pack, is where the engine usually goes, while the motors are located where you'll normally find the tranny.

So how does it all work? Well, power is sent from the lithium iron phosphate battery pack back to the trunk. See that amalgam of foreign items in the back there? Well the main odd-looking element in the middle of the trunk is the Café Electric Zilla Z1K water-cooled motor controller. Depending on throttle modulation, this unit sends power to the Dual Netgain Transwarp 9-inch DC motors that are connected directly to the stock Ford 3.50-geared differential via the driveshaft.

Photo Gallery

View Photo Gallery

Electricians and those of you into RC cars may want a more in-depth description. So let's look at the process sequentially from the very beginning: When you turn the key on, this wakes up the motor controller and battery management system. The battery is then connected electrically to the motor controller. This also activates the DC/DC converter that keeps the 12-volt accessory battery charged using the battery pack (similar to an alternator in a gas vehicle. Signal from the Hall Effect throttle pedal is sent to the motor controller wiring interface, otherwise known as the hairball. This jumble of wires provides a signal for the motor controller to deliver power. At this point, the previously mentioned Dual Netgain Transwarp motors are connected in series electronically, allowing for maximum acceleration.

"This car could be an absolute beast if we wanted it to be," said Dave. "The motor controller is capable of 1,000 amps but we tuned it down to 400 amps for longer battery life and safer operation."

With the motors connected in series, the vehicle can accelerate to speeds of 35- to 40-mph. After that, the motor controller switches the wiring of the motors to parallel, allowing the vehicle to accelerate to higher speeds. In other words, at low speeds, each motor gets full current, but divides the voltage to attain higher speeds (a theoretical top speed of 108).

Sound complicated? Well, it is sort of. Especially when you delve into the relays and the various capabilities of the hairball. But take a look at the internal spinning magnets of an electric motor and that part seems wonderfully simple.

The motor controller has a cooling system consisting of a cooling plate within the controller, a water pump, an oil-cooler with a fan, and a coolant reservoir. This is running anytime the key is on.

"If we could build the car over again, I might have taken a different approach," Dave noted. "A similar goal could be accomplished with one motor and a four-speed transmission."

Actually, if Dave and company could have done something differently, he might have had a different guy to do the original electric conversion. When Duke's Garage originally unveiled the car, they had a party at the shop and it didn't end well.

"We spent the 24 hours before the party wiring the car, installing the battery pack, and putting the finishing touches on the restoration," Dave recalled." We finished about an hour into the party and gave the car a final wash. As we took it on its maiden voyage to the front of the shop for its unveiling, the car caught on fire in two places."

The motor controller in the rear had blown up and fried most of the wiring to the motors; at the same time, one of the battery modules went into whats called thermal runaway and started billowing smoke from the front of the vehicle.

The crew at Duke's attempted to cool the battery pack with water to no avail. It was time to call the fire department. But it gets even more farcical. When the fire department arrived, there was a port-o-potty in front of the gate and they had to move itwhile someone was in it.

"The fire hose wasn't enough to put the fire out, so we dropped the battery pack in a 55-gallon drum of water. It boiled for about 12 hours before it finally stopped."

But the crew at Duke's did not get discouraged. They fired the guy who did the conversion, hired a special electric vehicle consultant, and through considerably more cautious trial and error, put the vehicle back together the right way.

"The complete failure didn't slow us down," said Dave. "But it made us realize how dangerous this could be if not done properly."

After a couple of months and several different motor controllers, they got the vehicle on the road with no issues. At that point, the performance wasn't quite what they wanted. Duke's took a hiatus from the Mustang for a few years while they completed a number of other successful conversions.

Eventually, they revisited the Mustang, buying a more powerful motor controller and better batteries, thus bringing the green machine to its current state. And when we say green, the theme pervades to the interior. The upholstery is hemp with recycled foam padding. Finally there's a Mustang that Phish fans can be seen in.

Duke's Garage, along with the help of Boundless Corporation (batteries) and Norm Smith (EV Consultant), have come together to build what no one else has, a fully electric vintage Mustang. And with a top speed of around 85 mph, the performance may not be as electric as the car itself, but its quick enough to be enjoyable and more importantly, reliable. And while reliability is nice, we can't help but wonder what it would be like if they turned up the wick, er amperage, a little.

The Details
Duke Altschuler's 1965 Ford Mustang convertible

MOTOR
Dual Netgain Transwarp 9-inch DC motors (80 hp peak)
Café Electric Zilla Z1K Water-Cooled DC Motor Controller
28.8 kWh lithium-ion phosphate battery, 144volts, 200ah Capacity

Battery management system
PFC-30 charger, 5.6kW, 110 or 220 VAC input, six-hour charge time
RM4 Fluid Heater

Transmission
Direct Drive

Rearend
Ford 8-inch
3.50 gears

Suspension
Front: Stock Ford upper/lower control arms, coil springs and shock absorbers
Rear: Stock Ford leaf spring with shock absorbers

Brakes
Front: Factory disc
Rear: Factory drum

Wheels
Front: Foose Nitrous 5, 16x7
Rear: Foose Nitrous 5, 16x7

Tires
Front: Nexen CP641, P205/50R16
Rear: Nexen CP641, P225/50R16

Interior
Hemp upholstery with recycled foam padding, black carpet, woodgrain steering wheel

Exterior
Matrix Systems custom blended Hunter Green paint, black convertible top