As car enthusiasts, we’re at a crossroads.
Right now, governments and legislators are doing their utmost to make our lives more difficult. They’re introducing stricter road traffic laws with increased surveillance and revenue collection measures, along with forcing manufacturers to abide by tighter emissions standards. Quite simply, the future doesn’t seem all that bright for us.
Despite our passion for cars, we’re actually a very small community in the grand scale of things. While almost everyone drives these days, only the smallest percentage of us don’t see our cars as just an appliance to take us from A to B. We take pride in our cars, and the art of driving actually means something. An aimless drive with no destination in mind might not make any sense to your typical commuter, but we all know that these are often the best kind of outings.
For all of this, we’ve never been more fractured as a group. Instead of being just car enthusiasts, we’ve divided and sub-divided ourselves again and again until we have found our niche.
This is evident even within the BMW community itself, where some people prefer to immerse themselves in retro models like the 2002 and E30, with others want to be at the fore of performance technology with the latest M3 and M4. Despite being ‘united’ under the same marque and loving the same roundel, neither of these groups actually share that much interest in each other.
There is perhaps one area of current car culture that does unite a lot of us, and that’s our apprehension towards an electric future. The general consensus is that when you remove the internal combustion engine, you remove a car’s soul.
It probably doesn’t help that the current crop of EVs on sale today feel like they share more in common with smartphones than the petrol and diesel-powered cars that preceded them. They’re the pinnacle of current automotive technologies, but they still leave us cold.
I mean, who amongst us has ever truly fallen in love with their iPhone?
I think that some of our feelings towards electric cars are based on a lack of understanding. Instead of the fascinating and noise-making mechanical processes inside a traditional engine, there’s the comparatively sterile world of logic boards, processors, software and batteries operating silently and invisibly instead.
Also, as with any piece of technology, we expect that there’s always a better one coming soon, so we never invest ourselves wholly into them.
I guess that when we think ‘electric cars’ we think of people in white coats in a lab somewhere with white walls, white ceilings and white floors.
What we certainly don’t think of are rural villages on the south-east coast of Ireland, where Damien Maguire has been quietly converting BMWs to electric in his spare time for well over a decade.
The Tesla-powered 1996 E31 8 Series you’re looking at now isn’t Damien’s first foray into the world of EV conversions. An electrical engineer by trade, he has converted six other BMWs to electric power in recent years.
There’s no laboratory here either; Damien carried out all of these conversions between his driveway and garage at the side of his house, including Project Land Yacht, a 2001 E39 which he has covered over 100,000 electric miles (and counting) in.
The moment you meet Damien, you know that he isn’t doing these conversions for shock value (pardon the pun), but rather out of genuine enthusiasm and passion for building these cars.
There’s not an unlimited budget behind the projects, with Damien telling me that his biggest challenge is often a lack of resources.
But it’s these deficiencies in finances, something which we can mostly all relate to, that have forced Damien to get creative when needing to figure out solutions to problems which others might just thrown money at until they go away.
Affectionately known as ‘Der Panzer’, this E31 has been a long-term goal of Damien’s. He distinctly remembers a Dinan E31 featuring on the cover of BMW Car magazine in the mid-1990s – around the same time that ‘Der Panzer’ would have rolled off the production line – and being captivated by it.
In 2014, Damien found the right E31. Following a train journey to Newry in Northern Ireland, he paid the lowly sum of £2,000 for what he describes as a “pretty rough” 1996 840Ci. It might have been a bottom-of-the-market example, but it still made the journey back to his home in Wexford, albeit after consuming some €82 in petrol courtesy of its woeful 14mpg fuel consumption.
It was always Damien’s intention to convert the 8 Series, and not long after arriving home he had removed the 4.4-litre M62B44. In its place went a Siemens 1PV5135 electric motor connected to a ZF automatic gearbox with a custom shift controller and Renault Fluence battery packs. This was the first of five electric iterations of this car, which came to an end when an incorrect software parameter saw the motor rev to 9,000rpm, ejecting the torque converter through the bell housing.
The ZF automatic was replaced with a Getrag 5-speed manual gearbox which fared much better from an efficiency perspective, but that too exited this world in style, with the layshaft coming through the gearbox casing following an attempted J-turn manoeuvre. Version 3 saw the introduction of a 6-speed ZF manual which happily turned out to be J-turn proof, and the car ran happily for about a year.
It was around this time that Damien acquired a Tesla Model S drive unit and things took a really interesting turn. The Tesla drive unit is an all-in-one package featuring the motor, inverter and differential, but is very much a ‘closed shop’ when it comes to communicating with non-Tesla control systems.
There were one or two aftermarket solutions available, but these came at a huge cost, so Damien went ahead and designed his own custom logic board with an open source motor control system. There’s now over 200 of these logic board units in action around the world, but the first hand-soldered example still lives in Damien’s E31.
Getting the Tesla drive unit to communicate with a non-Tesla control system was one of the biggest challenges Damien faced. While he was able to take care of the hardware, he relied on the community at OpenInverter.org to assist with the software side.
With the Tesla drive unit now under control, the next challenge was a more traditional ‘engine swap’ one – making the whole Tesla unit fit in the E31.
For this, Damien turned to a friend and fellow BMW enthusiast Dave Gormley to design and fabricate a custom rear subframe and suspension system around the Tesla unit. With limited space, the original E31 multi-link was replaced with an adapted E34 semi-trailing arm setup.
The added weight at the rear of the vehicle required a custom coilover pairing, but at over £2,500 these provided a considerable roadblock for the project. However, luck would have it that GAZ had built a set of the exact same specification coilovers for another customer, but they were never paid for or collected, so Damien was able to pick them up at a heavily-discounted price.
The next piece of this new puzzle were the 16kWh batteries from a hybrid 2013 Vauxhall Ampera which were fitted at the front of the vehicle. They currently only offer around 80km (50mi) of range, but supply enough power to make the most of the Tesla drive unit, propelling the BMW from standstill to 60mph in around 3.4-seconds.
If you know one thing about electric cars, it’s likely their incredible levels of torque and their ability to essentially deliver it all from the first RPM if required, without lag. The Tesla unit is capable of 1,500Nm (1,106lb-ft), so Dave and Damien chose off-the-shelf E34 540i driveshafts for ease of replacement should the time come.
With this new setup completed and running, Damien made plans for his first track day in the electrified 8 Series. Although he was weary in advance of the day, fearing animosity towards the project from other track day goers, his concerns proved to be unfounded. He was welcomed by an enthusiastic group at Mondello Park, and the organisers even provided the required three-phase electrical supply for him to charge the car between sessions.
Unfortunately, this is where version 4 comes to an end. A simple over-correction led to the E31 hitting a bank on the outside of the track. While the damage was mostly cosmetic, and the car was still relatively rough around the edges, it inspired two thoughts in Damien’s mind: The first was that he should build a dedicated electric track car; the second was that it was time to bring ‘Der Panzer’ up to spec.
Which is where we are today, with the fifth and most current EV evolution of the car.
There is something disconcerting about watching the immaculate E31 move away silently under its own power, but it’s something you quickly get used to and appreciate the novelty of. The car’s ability to vanish up the road in relative silence never gets old either. If you didn’t know otherwise, there aren’t many tell-tale signs that the 8 Series is electric when at a stand still.
Even the shifter which controls the Tesla unit is from an E60 M5, which although odd, is still a BMW part. The interior is standard asides from two small toggle switches.
The largest giveaway is the recently added CHAdeMO fast charging port which resides where the passenger side exhaust tip once lived. This is in addition to the slower Tesla 10kW charging port which hides behind the factory fuel filler cap. If you get down on your knees and look under the rear, it is difficult to miss the Tesla unit, providing you know what it is in the first place.
If you know two things about EVs, the second is likely to be their heavy weight. Even the sleek Tesla Model S saloon can weigh over 2,200kg (4,850lb) depending on its configuration.
The E31 was never lightweight itself, with Damien’s weighing 1,905kg (4,200lb) pre-conversion. But with clever componentry choices, the car has shed 195kg (430lb) and now sits at 1,710kg (3,770lb).
It has experienced a power bump, too. The original M62B44 engine produced around 282hp, but Tesla unit is another 110hp up on this, and has the extra benefits of huge torque and instant power delivery.
Since the first electric conversion with the Siemens motor, the 8 Series has covered around 26,000 miles under pure battery power, with around 6,000 of these being with the Tesla drive unit. The car will come off the road again shortly for its next evolution, with the plan to add a significant amount of range to the car with larger battery packs so Damien can drive from Ireland to Münich in 2021.
Despite everything he has achieved with the car – being the only Tesla powered E31 in the world, and the first car in the world to use a Tesla drive unit with a custom control system – Damien remains remarkably humble about the whole thing, while still exhibiting a huge level of passion for the project and the desire to continue to improve it.
“It’s not a big-budget build; I even felt nervous bringing it to the Fully Charged show in Silverstone this year, but people were really interested in it,” he told me.
When I asked Damien if there was any advice he would give to others who are also interested in going electric, he said this: “This is all stuff that you can do in your shed or at home as safely as wiring a plug or working on a high pressure fuel system. You still get your hands dirty. They’re still cars.”
It was that last bit that struck me as being particularly poignant. We’ve spent so much time over the years dividing ourselves as automotive enthusiasts based on our different tastes, when we should have been focusing on what we all have in common instead. Damien, and others like him, have simply found another way to enjoy cars.
Besides, since when is removing nearly 200kg (441lb) and adding over 100hp and nearly 800lb-ft of torque a bad thing anyway?