A plug-in Corvette? You bet, St. Louis Park man says

By Leslie Brooks Suzukamo, The Pioneer Press
Article Last Updated: 08/23/2008 03:01:51 AM CDT

Minnesota - Michael Shoop tried shopping for an electric car for his wife last year, and it gave him a shock.

A Toyota Prius hybrid had a sticker price of $26,000, and he was told he'd have to pay even more because the gawky little vehicles were in such demand.

Hmph, he thought. He didn't consider the Prius a real electric car, anyway, because it still uses gas.

He wanted a 100 percent electric car, one he could plug in overnight in his garage for pennies and glide off in the next morning.

He also wanted to challenge the electric car's nerdy image.

As he put it: "I wanted a car you'd want to drive."

Like maybe an '87 Corvette convertible? In speeding-ticket red?

Aided by a band of fellow electric-car enthusiasts, Shoop, 61, spent much of the past year in his St. Louis Park garage converting a Corvette, the shark-nosed icon of muscle-bound internal combustion, into a plug-in electric vehicle.

It is on display with six other electric vehicles at the Minnesota State Fair's Eco-Experience Exhibit in the Pioneer Building. The vehicles range from hybrids to go-cart-like vehicles to a couple of electric motorcycles.

After a summer of $4-a-gallon gasoline, all kinds of electric vehicles are getting attention. They include hybrids that run on gas and electricity, cart-like Neighborhood Electric Vehicles designed for city driving under 35 mph and three-wheeled vehicles.

The converted Chevrolet Corvette would probably draw a crowd all by itself, though, said Matt Comstock, the attractions manager for the Eco-Experience.

"The other cars are economical or practical or environmental but you wouldn't call them sexy," said Comstock, an alternative-energy specialist for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which books the exhibits for the Eco-Experience.

Shoop, a soft-spoken nature photographer who is to muscle-car macho what tofu is to the American Cattleman's Association, said he wants to show that the electric car doesn't have to conform to a certain image.

"I figured if you could convert a Corvette, you could convert pretty much anything," he said.

His car, dubbed the Volt Vette, is still a work in progress, though. With a top speed of 30 or 40 mph, it will need some expensive modifications before he can turn it loose on the freeway.

"The intent was to drive this every day," Shoop's wife, Joyce Prudden, said with a sigh of long-tested patience. "It wasn't supposed to be a fancy, super-shiny car."

It wasn't supposed to take this long either, Shoop admitted. But as he put it on one entry on his blog chronicling the ordeal, "How hard is it to bolt a motor? I mean, really?"

Shoop's electric-car dreams go back at least a decade.

He fell hard in the mid-1990s when General Motors introduced its EV1, a plug-in vehicle built to comply with California's stiff emission standards.

But then California relaxed its rules, and GM decided electric cars weren't commercially viable. The carmaker retrieved its lease-only EVs and crushed them and with them, Shoop's dream.

Now GM promises to bring a better electric car the Volt to market in 2010 for about $40,000. Other carmakers also have plug-in versions in the works.

Burned once, Shoop is deeply skeptical.

"They always say 'two years it'll be ready in two years,' he said. "And then two years go by, and they say 'two more years.' "

So he decided to build one himself.

The '87 'Vette was perfect. Its fiberglass body was lightweight easier on the motor and its clamshell hood tipped forward to make the car easy to work on.

He got help from his fellow do-it-yourselfers in the Minnesota chapter of the Electric Automobile Association.

Members have converted Saturns, small pickup trucks and a Geo Metro that also will be on display at the Fair. The Volt Vette, however, may be one of a kind, said Ron Freund, chairman of the national EAA.

Shoop removed the 'Vette's 240-horsepower engine and replaced it with a specially designed electric-car motor.

The car is powered by 13 lead, 12-volt batteries. They weigh 70 pounds each and are tucked under the hood and in the trunk for balance.

The gas tank is gone, of course. But in a nice touch, Shoop hid the socket for the electric plug underneath the gas cap cover.

The '87 Corvette was designed to reach 149 mph and do zero to 60 in 6.3 seconds, according to motoring magazines of the day. When Shoop took the Volt Vette on its inaugural drive in May, top speed was 30 mph.

Electric cars, Shoop said, can be faster than conventional ones, but there's a catch. If he reprogrammed the Volt Vette, Shoop theoretically could boost the motor up to 800 horses but only if he could figure out how to cram nearly 40 more batteries into the car.

Not likely.

Before Shoop can take the Vette out on the freeway, he will need to put in an expensive carbon fiber racing drive shaft. Like many electric vehicles, his car can generate monstrous torque. If he floored the Volt Vette with even a little more juice running to the motor, he'd snap the extra-heavy drive shaft like a pretzel stick. This summer, when he tried to increase the power to hit 70 mph, the driveshaft cracked.

Doubling the speed also will drain the batteries twice as fast.

He replaced the shaft, figured how to get power back into the power steering and drove the car to the State Fairgrounds on Tuesday when the exhibits were due. Top speed was about 40 mph, but the car can whip around corners like a Tilt-A-Whirl.

Despite the problems, Shoop thinks of the electric car as superior to the internal combustion engine.

Electric motors have fewer parts to break or wear out, he says. The car industry makes money on parts, repairs and maintenance, and that's why it hates the electric car, Shoop insists.

"Basically, we should have had electric cars 40 years ago," he said.

And then there's the cost of fuel. By Shoop's calculation, the Volt Vette costs 3 cents a mile to drive. By comparison, at today's average price of $3.56 a gallon, a Prius that gets 48 miles per gallon costs about 7 cents a mile.

GM, Toyota and a growing group of other carmakers promise subcompact-sized plug-ins within the next three years.

But if you've got $110,000 to drop, Tesla Motors in Menlo Park, Calif., will reserve for you the world's most hyped electric car, the Tesla Roadster. Powered by nearly 7,000 tiny lithium batteries, it promises to smoke zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds, on par with the Ferrari, and get 200 miles per charge.

Shoop converted the Volt Vette for under $26,000, car included, or the price of a Prius another condition his wife put on the project. Of course, that doesn't include the hours he and his crew have spent working on it.

But now that he's got it drivable, he's looking for a victory lap.

"I figured I would get it done, and have the pleasure of cruising by a gas station and maybe waving."

Leslie Brooks Suzukamo can be reached at 651-228-5475.