Ogden car guy gets a charge out of VW Beetle restoration and conversion

Ogden car guy gets a charge out of VW Beetle restoration and conversion

Other than perhaps the paint scheme based on the 1968 Disney film “The Love Bug,” on the surface Steve Nestel’s 1967 Volkswagen Beetle doesn’t appear to be any different than countless other classic VWs out there.

Well, aside from a couple of telltale signs.

For starters, the personalized Utah license plate reads “VOLTWGN.” And the vehicle’s “No. 53” racing decals cleverly incorporate the letters “kW” — short for kilowatt.

So let’s just go ahead and call this one the “Voltswagen.”

Nestel’s 52-year-old VW will be on display at this year’s Historic 25th Street Car Show, but there’s one key component that’s missing from this classic vehicle.

An internal combustion engine.

Last October, Nestel bought a ’67 VW that — theoretically, anyway — had a blown engine. He’s been restoring the vehicle, which has a “Herbie the Love Bug” paint job, and retrofitting it with an electric motor. He’s just putting the finishing touches on it now.

“In fact, I was up late last night, working on it,” he said on Tuesday.

So then, will the vehicle be ready for Friday’s car show, which runs from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Historic 25th Street in downtown Ogden?

“It’ll be ready enough,” Nestel declares.

The interior has been restored, but the exterior still needs a little work, according to Nestel.

“It needs a paint job,” he said. “And that won’t be done by Friday.”

Nestel was bit by the electric bug about 4 ½ years ago, when he purchased his first Tesla Model S and “quickly fell in love with it.” He became enamored with everything about electric vehicles — the concept, the simplicity, the quiet operation, the environmental advantages.

It got him to thinking about marrying classic, vintage vehicle styles with 21st-century technology.

“What it inspired in me, is I wanted something that had the soul and the aesthetic of an old VW — that’s something that appeals to a lot of people on a deep emotional level — but also had the performance and technology of a modern vehicle,” he said.

But why a VW Beetle?

“These cars are simple and lightweight, and don’t have a lot of extra stuff — no power windows or power brakes or anything,” he said. “It’s just a shell of a car, so it was easy to replace what powers it from a gasoline to an electric motor.”

Well, relatively easy. Nestel says converting a gasoline vehicle to electric is not just a simple take-out-the-old-engine-throw-in-the-new-one process. He’s a mechanical engineer by trade and says he really did his homework on this conversion.

“Do your research,” Nestel warns. “This is not one of those things yet where you can just buy a kit and replace the engine. I have a 3D printer at home, and I had to fabricate some parts for this. So it’s something that is a bit involved.”

His VW utilizes used Tesla batteries, as Nestel says Tesla is generally recognized as the leader in battery technology. He estimates his Beetle is about 150 pounds heavier than it was with a gasoline engine.

“The car probably has about 265 pounds worth of batteries,” he said.

Nestel estimates his electric vehicle will have a range of about 100 miles, although he hasn’t been able to confirm that for himself yet.

“My wife tells me I ought to get out on the road and just drive it ’til it stops,” he said.

Which isn’t such a swell idea, according to Nestel, as it takes a 2,500-watt charger eight to 10 hours to fully charge the vehicle.

“You can’t just bring a generator out to charge it,” he said. “If you run out of charge, you’ll probably have to tow it.”

Nestel said he doesn’t think his VW Beetle was any more expensive than the typical restoration of a gasoline-powered vehicle.

“Other than the labor,” he says. “I did put hundreds of hours of work into it.”

But Nestel calls that sort of sweat equity a labor of love.

“I missed most of the ski season because of a leg injury, so all winter while my friends were up drinking powder, I had this project to take my mind off it.”

Nestel says he likes the idea that he’s transitioning to cleaner power. And, he says, if you put solar panels on your home and use them to charge your vehicle, suddenly it’s a completely clean — and cheap — mode of transportation.

“That’s the ultimate goal, to get to the point of driving for free,” he said.

Nestel said he intends the vehicle to be a daily driver, although it still has “a couple of issues” to be resolved before that happens. Still, he’s not interested in owning a vehicle that’s just for show.

“It’s not a show car that you wrap up in plastic and take it somewhere to display it,” he said. “You should be willing and want to drive your vehicle.”

Eventually, Nestel hopes to convert a VW Bus to electric — that was his initial goal, because the larger chassis affords more space for more batteries. But he found that the initial cost of buying a used bus was quite a bit more, so he decided to use the Beetle as a starter project.

And Nestel is contemplating launching a side business where he converts others’ vintage cars to electric for them.

“Part of the reason I’m doing this show on Friday is to get a sense of whether or not people are interested in this,” he said, “or if they hate the idea of converting a classic VW to electric.”

Nestel says he knows there are still challenges ahead for electric vehicles, but he thinks the future is bright.

“I think the challenges are being worked on by a lot of companies that want to succeed and that are saying, ‘We’re done with fossil fuels,’” Nestel said. “Although I suppose there are probably a lot of guys out there who like to roll coal in their big trucks who would disagree.”

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