No blueprint. Lots of ideas.

From petrol to electric, here's how we did it.

kombi getting charged

The Electric Kombi project in stages

The Electric Kombi took several months to convert from a combustion engine to a sharp new electric motor. We didn't have a blueprint but that didn't phase contractor and graduate Andy Naughton, or the students like Max den Exter who helped him out along the way.

Stage 1 

We’re on a mission: to preserve our promotional vehicle – one of the world’s coolest vintage vans -  with a tech upgrade for this century. Our contractor Andy Naughton is converting the Southern Cross University Kombi right here on campus in Lismore with help from engineering student Max den Exter and the support of our engineering department.

Andy’s business is EV Machina and he was awarded the contract to convert the Kombi. Coincidentally, Andy is a Southern Cross graduate himself having studied Environmental Science, as well as winning a renewable energy project competition run through the Enterprise Lab at Southern Cross.

Stage 1 was all about the setup. The workshop was a shed that had been used as a storage facility for many years but looked nothing like a mechanical workshop. Once all those years of stuff had been cleared out, it was down to work, building custom work benches and getting the Kombi ready for the first major phase of the project – removing an engine that had been in place for 40+ years.

There was a lot of dust that came out when the old engine was unbolted and lowered onto a trolley, not to mention some casing from the engine bay. The plan over the next few months is to replace the petrol motor with an A/C motor, inverter and batteries while still retaining the vintage look and feel of the Kombi. Any modifications need to be done as custom jobs because we do not have a full blueprint – but nothing fun ever happened by doing the same old thing, right?­­

Stage 2

Now we’re cooking with gas, or should that be renewable energy?? The transmission is out, all 40 kilos of it on a hoist. It was not in good shape and needs a major restoration. That will mean a scrape to get rid of 43 years of road grime, a sand and a paint with aluminium enamel and a whole bunch of clear enamel top coat.

The other big thing to think about is the dash and charge point. When it’s been converted we want to Kombi to have a range of 220 kilometres so it can comfortably get between the campuses. The charge point will sit where the petrol cap was, but the whole point is to preserve the look of the old cap so that will need a bit of fabrication to integrate the new charge socket cap to look original from the outside.

Engineering students Alex and Jacob dropped in this week to see how it was going and talk over a few of the fabrication issues – this is such a custom project it will need some custom refits – the petrol cap to name just one. Creative engineering at its best!

Stage 3

The transmission was totally overhauled this week and then fitted to the spanking new motor that arrived all the way from California.

Motorhead trigger alert – this post contains all the details you want to know about what is actually going into the electric Kombi. The petrol-guzzling engine is being replaced by an AC Synchronous Reluctance Internal Permanent Magnet (SRIPM) electric motor, commercially known as the Netgain Hyper9. It’s got a nice shiny billet adapter plate and coupler which will link to the restored transmission, a super light flywheel, only about 4.5 kg (which is about a third of the original one) and a high-performance clutch kit which will able to take all that torque. Add that to the charger, cooling plates and cooling fluid chamber which will be lit by a LED-light – some disco vibes for the engine bay.

It also has a nice new stick shift – no comparison to the old manual gear shift that you needed 2-metre long arms to operate.

And to top it all off, the throttle uses regen braking which basically means when you slow the car down it will produce energy that is fed back into the battery.

Even if you’re not a motorhead… that is all pretty cool.

Stage 4

The engine and transmission are now in place and the cooling plates are ready for their custom-made engine bay side vents and skirting to be cut and fitted. Just about all the custom fabrication is being done with aluminium which is lightweight and easy to work with.

Bolts as opposed to welding will mean it is easy to access and maintain. Max gets to do a whole bunch of custom fabrication and playing in the engineering labs which is basically his happy place.

This week was all about the finishing touches – housing for cooling plates and engine bay, battery boxes and new seatbelt system to cater for the battery placement as well as the dashboard restoration and modification to accommodate the Joying display. This is where the driver will get all their vital statistics like the state of charge, battery low and high temperature. The high tech display will be positioned inside the vintage dash where the radio cassette once was – a beautiful blend of the old and the new.

Stage 5

Finally – the batteries are here! Sourcing good quality electric batteries in Australia is no mean feat and we were lucky to finally get delivery of 10 lithium Tesla batteries this week.

Max and Andy have been hard at work, designing and fabricating the battery boxes that will sit between the two front seats. At the time, there was a total fire ban in place, so the boys couldn’t do any welding on site.

It’s not only the space that’s the issue, these batteries weigh 25 kilos each – so that’s a lot of weight to take into consideration, especially where it’s going to sit in the Kombi. The net weight is actually less than the old vehicle but not much when you consider the batteries will weigh about 250 kilos.  A front and rear battery box distributes weight in proportion to the original weight balance.

It’s not only the stuff you can see that gets a mention this week though – the underbelly of the Kombi has also had the finishing touches done, with two custom made plates to protect the two radiators of the cooling system from any stray road debris.

The dash is also nearly ready to go, totally restored to keep as much of the vintage cool of the Kombi as possible. The metal dashboard was removed, sanded back, holes welded up, new holes cut and professionally sandblasted and sprayed in satin black. The steering wheel was coated in a metallic fleck epoxy.

Now – dare we say it – we’re almost ready for a test drive???