The Fiat "500," manufactured from 1957 to 1975 was a true prodigy of engineering and it left a deep impression on popular culture in many countries. Above, driven by "Lupin Sansei" (ルパン三世), a Japanese Manga character created by Monkey Punch. In this post, I describe how we transformed one of these old cars to run on electric power.
Some ten years ago, myself and my friend Pietro Cambi had the weird idea of "retrofitting" Pietro's old Fiat 500, turning it into an electric car. To understand why we embarked in such a task, you have to consider that we were (and are) both "peak oilers"; but also we were (and are) both Italian and the Fiat 500 is a car that has a peculiar fascination for Italians. Nobody in Italy can forget how the 500 motorized Italians in the 1950s, at the time of the "Economic Miracle". For Italians, the Fiat 500 carries the same fascination that the French have for their "R4", the Germans for their VW "Beetle" and the Russian for their "T34" (this last one not exactly a car, though).
So, we put this idea into practice in 2007 and it worked. It was, actually, rather easy. An electric car is so much simpler than a car powered by a combustion engine. Just look at the difference:
You see? The internal combustion engine is a mess of pipes, cables, valves, and all sort of strange things. The electric motor is just what you see: a cylinder with a small fan on top. That's it. To make things even simpler for us, we took a motor of the same rated power (12kW) as the old engine and we connected it to the gearbox. In reality, a smaller motor would have been more than enough. Then, if we had been able to create something more sophisticated, we wouldn't have needed a gearbox, we could have connected the motor (better still, two motors) directly to the wheels. More efficient and even simpler.
For more technical detail, you can see a post of mine on "The Oil Drum". We added lithium-polymer batteries and a control system. The result was a wonderful little car that ran very nicely with a range of nearly 100 km. It aroused a lot of interest, as you can see in this picture (h/t Chantal, professional model who kindly accepted to pose with the 500)
It also aroused some interest with politicians and we tried to have the government approve a law that favored the electric retrofitting of old cars. It didn't work; the law was rejected, also because the Communists (yes, there were Communists in the Italian parliament, at that time) voted against it. Apparently, they thought that the working class should only take the bus.
Apart from the diehard Communists in parliament, our attempt to create a retrofitting industry was probably doomed from the beginning. We expected some resistance to the idea, but we were not fully prepared to the howls of disgust we received, directed at the concept of retrofitting and reusing old cars. Apparently, a rule of life is that prosperity comes from building as many toys as possible and discarding them as fast as possible (and he who dies with the most toys, wins). Repairing or refitting old toys is not contemplated by the rules, even though that would save energy and resources. Only subversives, madmen, and peak oilers could ever think of such a thing.
Ten years have passed. From then, some more retrofitting attempts have been made, some again with the Fiat 500. And the lower cost of batteries has made the task much less expensive than it was in 2007. Still, retrofitting remains a very marginal industry where only a minuscule number of enthusiasts are engaged.
You may call this result a failure but, rethinking about this story, I think we still did something good. One good result was to demonstrate how simple and practical an electric vehicle could be in an age when there were very few electric cars available. Of course, we were not the only ones who proposed electric prototypes; there were many others. But we added our little bit to a movement of ideas that was leading to something. Then, there came Elon Musk and his Tesla; the electric car is not anymore a toy for hippies, it is a serious commercial and industrial product, moving onward to conquer the market.
More than all, I think that what we did was a step in a direction which we ourselves couldn't fully perceive at the time. We had this idea that a car needed not to be a huge, smelly, inefficient, destructive monster but it could be something simple, small, friendly, and unprepossessing (see below, Pietro Cambi driving the 500 in the Cathedral Square, in Florence)
Taken to its extreme consequences, the idea of a small and friendly car becomes something that has little to do with the concept of "car" as it was intended up to now. Add to it a GPS positioning system, make full use of the intelligent electronic systems we have nowadays, and we have a completely new paradigm. The car is not anymore a car, but just an element of a "TAAS" (transportation as a service) system, where we don't own cars, we share them. That's the direction in which we are going. And we are going there using electric cars.