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Driver's Seat: Electifying developments with an old Saab

Brandon Hollinger took a 1968 Saab 96 and a 1970 Saab 96 and built a Saab 96. Ninety-six volts, that is.

Brandon Hollinger took a 1968 Saab 96 and a 1970 Saab 96 and built a Saab 96.

Ninety-six volts, that is.

With a passion for the environment, some Internet research, and an uncanny ability to apply what he's learned, Hollinger turned the garage behind his central Lancaster rowhouse into the launching pad for the fledgling electric-vehicle-conversion business BH Electrics.

"It's fun for me to meet people, connect, and pick the brains of willing people," Hollinger said. "Through contact with these regular people, I decided I can do this, too."

While the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf electric vehicles are just debuting, dedicated environmentalists have already been taking cars and turning them into electric vehicles. Hollinger is going a step further by starting to do it for other people.

The 37-year-old musician with the American Music Theatre just east of Lancaster was changed after seeing the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? The movie follows major automakers' first unsuccessful foray into electric vehicles.

Hollinger got serious and in 2008 bought the 1970 Saab on eBay and combined it with some parts from a 1968. Then he used a regular three-month winter break from the theater in 2009 to go electric.

Hollinger had to fashion mounts for the motor, the controller, and the batteries.

Now BH Electrics has gotten the endorsement of the electric vehicle supply and engineering company Electric Vehicles of America. Bob Batson, owner of the Wolfeboro, N.H., company, said he and his handful of employees put together the engineering calculations plus a manual and DVD specific to the vehicle.

"And if they have a question, they just call up or e-mail us," Batson said.

He said BH Electrics is one of 30 U.S. shops the company has endorsed, though most auto mechanics would have no problem with the conversion.

"It's really not that complicated," Batson said.

But it does get pricey. He said the average conversion totals roughly $10,000, with $6,000 going to the components, $3,000 for lead-acid batteries, and the rest miscellaneous expenses. Switching to lighter lithium batteries would add an additional $9,000 or so to the price. And that's DIY, with no labor costs.

Hollinger also has the endorsement of someone who's big in electric conversions locally: Jenny Isaacs, who runs the nonprofit Bucks County Renewables out of her home.

Isaacs puts on workshops for people interested in learning the basics of conversions (the next is March 26) and this summer will have a six-day hands-on training program for 20 mechanics, teachers, and environmentalists to learn the entire conversion process. Hollinger will teach at the March event, and prepare a Mazda Miata for conversion in the summer.

She met Hollinger during the Pennsylvania Alternative Energy Festival in Kempton in September 2008.

"I had a workshop there, and it cost $15, and this guy shows up and says 'I don't have any cash,' " Isaacs said. She let him attend anyway.

Not only did Hollinger send her the $15 payment in the mail, but he also paid back dividends. He brought his just-completed Saab to the first all-electric vehicle show cosponsored by Bucks County Renewables in Macungie just eight months later.

"His work, if you saw it, is very meticulous," Isaacs said. "He's a very talented guy."

I saw it, and it is meticulous. Inside the unwashed stucco garage behind his house, past tarp-covered engines, sits the working Saab. Next to it is a mid-conversion 1992 Mazda Miata on the automotive equivalent of a roasting spit, which allows Hollinger to turn the car at all angles for easy access.

When Hollinger started the Saab to go for a ride, I braced for the usual noise and smells. Instead, all I heard was a low whine from the controller and the vacuum pump for the power brakes.

Because the electric motor provides torque all the way through the power range, the quirky Saab four-speed gearshift on the steering column is rendered all but useless. Hollinger used second gear in town, and said he uses third from about 35 up to 55 m.p.h. (the top speed).

But the best part for Hollinger: independence from oil and all its baggage.

"If you just pay attention, all the recent wars have been fought in and around countries with large oil reserves," Hollinger said. "I come from a pacifist background, so that doesn't sit well with me."

Driver's Seat: To Learn More

BH Electrics



Bucks Co. Renewables

Saturday Mini Workshop

When: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 26

Where: Green Jobs Academy,

310 George Patterson Blvd., Suite 108,

Bristol, Pa. 19007

Info: info@buckscounty