Electric Avenue

Teens combine education and environment with car conversion project

CAR TALK Solomon Ewing, left, works on a transmission with Raul Rivera and Felipe Flores. The teens will put the transmission into a vintage Karmann Ghia that will emerge as an electric vehicle.

CAR TALK Solomon Ewing, left, works on a transmission with Raul Rivera and Felipe Flores. The teens will put the transmission into a vintage Karmann Ghia that will emerge as an electric vehicle.

Photo by Tom Angel

Back to the future: In the year 1900, 40 percent of the vehicles on the road were electric.

The skeleton of a 1965 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia sits in a shop on the corner of Park Avenue and 13th Street. The car has pretty much been gutted. Gone are the doors, engine and gas tank. In about an hour, the transmission will be gone too.

On the other side of the shop, separated only by a yellow piece of tape running along the floor, is a “classroom,” where a table and chairs are set up in front of a grease board littered with calculations and a long list of tasks.

Three teenage boys study a television screen, jotting down notes on white legal pads. They whisper and nod to one another and then, with the adeptness of a Jeff Gordon pit crew, throw on their safety glasses, clamber under the car and begin loosening bolts to its rear wheels.

Over the course of two weeks, the midnight-blue convertible will be converted from an antiquated gas-guzzler to a clean-running electric vehicle that runs off battery power. Under the supervision of Eric Ryan, a former high-school teacher from North Carolina, six students ranging in age from 13 to 18 years old are getting their hands dirty in what Ryan calls a “tremendous educational opportunity.”

“It’s kind of two-fold,” Ryan said. “It’s a great educational project. The other is the environmental aspect.”

This is the first year for The Butte County Advanced Transportation Education Program, and Ryan hopes it will grow larger in scale while getting more students and teachers involved. He said it’s far more beneficial than sitting in a classroom filling out bubbles on a ScanTron.

“It gives teachers an opportunity to get students involved in a hands-on, real-world project,” Ryan said.

Ryan isn’t new to this teaching style. In fact, the idea of building an electric vehicle isn’t new to him either.

In 1993, Ryan was in his second year of teaching biology, physics and chemistry at Northampton East High School in the small town of George, N.C., when Harold Miller, the school’s auto shop teacher, told him that he had the idea of building an electric car. Ryan became intrigued and decided to join the endeavor.

After acquiring a twice-totaled 1985 Ford Escort, the teachers recruited students from different classes and successfully converted it into an EV, short for a zero-emissions electric vehicle. Ryan and Miller then took it a step further by creating ECRV (Electric Cars of Roanoke Valley), a competition that involved two other schools in the area. Northampton East ended up winning the championship, and the seed was planted.

BATTERY POWERED Chris Martin, left, gets some tips from Eric Ryan, the coordinator of the Butte County Advanced Transportation Education Project. All of these batteries will be put into the 1965armann Ghia to make it go.

Photo by Tom Angel

“Once we won, it kind of developed a life of its own,” Ryan said.

The ECRV soon became the EV Challenge, of which Ryan is still the director, and now more than 50 schools from about nine states participate each year.

Ryan has the same idea for Chico and surrounding areas. After receiving a grant from the Butte County Air Quality Management District last summer, Ryan bought the Karmann Ghia and rented some shop space. Now he just needed some enthusiastic kids to help him convert the car. Through word-of-mouth and fliers, Ryan assembled a crew of six students from local high schools and junior highs.

Solomon Ewing and Raul Rivera, who attend Chico High, learned about the program after Ewing’s mom read one of the fliers. Ewing had no real mechanical experience. And, although Rivera had helped his father work on cars before, he hadn’t gotten his hands really dirty. Now the 17-year-olds, along with Felipe Flores and newcomer Chris Martin, find themselves crawling under the car to rip out the old transmission. Flores is having a difficult time loosening the last bolts on the left-rear shock.

“Raul, we need your expertise on these bolts here,” Flores yells.

“Use WD-40,” Rivera answers back.

Flores instead decides to use the technique that Rivera used on the right shock. He lies flat on his back and uses his foot to nudge the wrench. Flores gives it a good kick, sending it sliding across the shop floor. After another try, the stubborn bolt finally gives way.

Meanwhile, Oya Ross-Walcott, the only girl in the group, is assembling a grinder at a workbench. At the same time, Ryan and Allen Oster are labeling wires in the ignition. The operation is a well-oiled machine—and the car will be an electric vehicle in about a week and a half.

Despite what some might think, EVs possess quite a bit of power. General Motors put out a two-seater sports car called the EV-1 that can reach speeds up to 183 mph. The Karmann Ghia will be able to get up around 90 mph and will most likely have 13 batteries, which will take the car about 30 miles before it needs a charge. But the goal for this car isn’t speed, but rather an efficient, reliable means off putting around town.

“This is a grocery-getter,” Ryan said. “It will be perfectly appropriate in Chico.”

While the car will be running after two weeks, Ryan has larger aspirations of making the car show-worthy and possibly flying the students out to North Carolina in April for next year’s EV Challenge.

Flores likes the sound of that. "What excited me most was hearing other people’s reactions. Now I want to make it look nicer."