Rich Benoit Converts an Old Skool Rat Rod to Electric

January 13, 2020
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Rich Benoit lives in Massachusetts, and he came to fame on the internet from his youtube series, where he bought a Tesla car at a salvage auction, and repaired it. His latest project really caught my eye, so let’s take a look at it.

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Rich Repairs a Tesla

Massachusetts is one of the few states that allow people to legally repair and register a salvage car for street use, rather than only being able to buy a salvage car for parts.

Rich owned a Corvette that he was very happy with, and that he still owns today. However, a friend gave him a ride in a Tesla when they were fairly new, and Rich loved it. He also works in the tech industry, and he had already been feeling that electric vehicles were a trend that was definitely going to grow.

One day, Rich saw a complete Tesla Model-S at a salvage auction for a surprisingly low price, and the reason that the original owners’ insurance company had “totaled” the car was that it had been submerged during a flood. Other than that, it was complete and not “wrecked”, so the body looked to be in good shape. How hard could it possibly be to fix it?

Rich, after his Model-S had been brought home and stripped down to the bones.

Rich knew he was going to have to completely strip every part out of the inside of the car, down to the bare shell. This is because the microscopic sediments in the flood-waters left a film that shorts-out electronic components (not to mention the obvious corrosion from the moisture). Then, the plan was to slowly re-install each part after it had been cleaned and tested for functionality. Rich is a smart guy, and he was confident that he could research and learn anything that he needed, in order to get the whole mess back together and running.

Rich Benoit, in front of his repaired Tesla

Now that he’s done, he is the first to admit that if he could go back in time, he would warn himself to just buy a new Tesla. Before it was all over, Rich would have to buy two more wrecked Tesla’s to complete the project.

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The Rat Rod

My father was a teenager in the 1950’s, so I was able to get the inside story on the hot rod scene from back then. After WWII (1939-45), the cars from the 1930’s were considered “old fashioned”, and a teenager could buy a complete running ’32 Ford out of a junkyard for a dirt cheap price, since they were being crushed and melted down for the steel.

The hot rod that Rich found on Craigslist for a cheap price

In 1949, Oldsmobile and Cadillac started using one of the first modern light-weight and powerful V8 over-head-valve engines (Chevy started in 1955). Due to improved fuels, the new engines also used a higher compression ratio, compared to the low-compression flathead engines from before the war. By the mid-1950’s you could occasionally find a wrecked car in a salvage yard with one of these engines, so the formula was to grab the engine and transmission, and squeeze it into a cheap 1930’s Ford.

The next step was to chop off the roof and remove the fenders which reduced weight. Then, you could notch some parts of the under-body, so the cab would sit lower on the frame-rails. Doing all that reduced the frontal air-resistance, and the resulting hot rod could reach over 100-MPH, which was quite a badge of honor for a poor teenager from that time.

Here, Rich bought a Zero SR at an auction, with bent forks.

In the pic above, Rich saw a Zero SR electric motorcycle at an insurance auction that looked to be in fairly good shape, so he bought it. It turns out that the forks were bent, but that normally ‘might be’ good news. If the damage was isolated to just the forks, he could simply swap another fork-set onto the frame. Unfortunately, there were other issues (I’m starting to see a pattern here).

He put the Zero in the back of his shop, and it collected dust for a while. The motor, controller, and battery seemed to be in perfect condition, so…he had a feeling he would eventually find some fun project where he could use those components.

Hot rods are nothing new, and a “Rat Rod” just means that very little money is spent on the appearance. Such builders are actually proud of the performance that they have achieved for a very low price, and they seem to take pride in how affordable their car looks. This rat rod is covered with dark gray primer…no shiny paint.

When Rich saw the complete Rat Rod on Craigslist at a very low price, he immediately wondered what it would take to convert it to an electric drive-train. He could buy another electric car at an auction, and then swap-out the EV drive-train, but…he wondered if the Zero that he already had would work. It absolutely does work, and you can see the “bronze-colored” motor at the rear of the engine compartment in the pic above.

The smoke is not from any engine exhaust, its from an electric burnout! I can almost smell the rubber…

The first question that comes up whenever anyone hears that Rich used an electric motorcycle motor is that…will it be powerful enough?

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Using a Transmission, or Direct-Drive?

Rich used a manual 3-speed transmission for several reasons. First of all, the hot rod already had one, and the original owner chose it because it was very cheap. The salvage yards are full of 5-speed manual transmissions, so… almost nobody wants the 3-speeds.

Rich could have swapped to a transmission with five speeds, or he could have also connected the motor directly to the differential in the rear of the rod. Lets look at those two options. The Tesla’s, Zero motorcycles, and Nissan Leafs all have a reduction between the motor and driveshafts, which allows the motor to spin many more times than the wheels. However, after the reduction, they are all still a “single speed”.

If your motor is big enough, and the vehicle is light enough, you can get exceptional performance from a single-speed drive-train, which is the simplest way to go. The original prototypes for the Tesla Roadster did had a two-speed transmission, but a breakthrough in the amount of amps the IGBT’s could handle allowed them to use a larger motor and a single-speed.

In order to save money, Rich was constrained by the 102V Zero battery and controller that he already had, and also how “medium” the size of the motor was. If he upgraded to a controller that could flow more amps, then the motor might occasionally overheat under frequent hard acceleration. But…he had the option of using two or more speeds from the stock 3-speed.

Jack Knopf’s 1964 Chevelle is a record-holding EV conversion. This car held several NEDRA drag race records at 24V, 48V, and 72V. How does a 3600-lb car do that? Massive amps, and a 2-speed transmission. A Tesla does not need a transmission, but…it also uses about 400V

If you are designing a new EV from scratch, using a transmission is a significant cost. However, if you are swapping drive-trains, you can buy a cheap donor vehicle that already has a usable transmission. The EV swaps that have successfully used a manual transmission have typically only used two or three of the gears, because electric motors provide very high torque at low RPM’s. The fact that Rich’s Rat Rod already came with a 3-speed was worth trying out before he spent even more money to try something else. As you can see in the video below, this combo works fantastic!

The transmission question is something that affects electric bikers, too. I personally have two ebikes, one with a large hot rod single-speed hubmotor, and my light mid-drive, which has 7-speeds to help the small motor climb well on steep hills. I typically use only three of the seven gears, and if I had more power, I would likely use only two gears.

In fact, the new Porsche Taycan (AWD-EV) uses a 2-speed transaxle on the rear to reduce the amount of amps needed to pull some awesome acceleration. The Taycan is one of the cars I wrote about here.

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Zero Motorcycles Drivetrains

In the pic below, you can see the “easily fittable” Zero controller in the center, the large square battery at the front of the engine bay, and at the right side is the Zero SR motor with the bronze-colored aluminum fins, bolted to the bell-housing. The orange bell-housing holds the manual clutch and the ancient 3-speed transmission, which drives the stock drive-shaft and differential in the rear.

A Zero battery, controller, and motor.

If the pics of this conversion convey to you how easy this was, you are not alone. Wrecked Tesla’s, Nissan Leafs, and Zero motorcycles are providing garage-builders with the parts they need to turn a classic car from a gas-burner into quiet and clean EV.

If you are starting to wonder what else a Zero motorcycle motor can be used for, this ultralight is also powered by a Zero drivetrain.
This cruiser is from Sine Cycles, and they source the battery, controller and motor directly from Zero.
The Free Form Factory Gratis X1. This jetski uses a new Zero drivetrain direct from the factory.

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Here is a link to EV West. They are located in Southern California, and they convert cars from gasoline to electric, if this kind of thing interests you…Here is a link to the EV West youtube channel, so you can see videos of the many conversions they have done.

Here is a link to Rich Benoit’s youtube channel, called “Rich Rebuilds”.

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Written by Ron/spinningmagnets, January 2020

Grew up in Los Angeles California, US Navy submarine mechanic from 1977-81/SanDiego. Hydraulic mechanic in the 1980's/Los Angeles. Heavy equipment operator in the 1990's/traveled to various locations. Dump truck driver in the 2000's/SW Utah. Currently a water plant operator since 2010/NW Kansas


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