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?
In a not so distant future:
"Noice ride mate! What do you got in there?"
"Thanks pal. Well I had a duracell for a couple of years but swaped it for an energizer a few months back. Its bonkers!"
There's no way to avoid reading that without an English accent... lol
Really cool to see that this kind of build is actually accessible as a DIY project if you're willing to learn some new skills - might take some practice to get to Damien's level though! Can't help but in the next few years this kind of conversion will become more and more commonplace, though not necessarily with Tesla parts. Maintaining the original aesthetic with updated performance is surely not that much different to putting fuel injection on your '67 Mustang. I also can't help but feel that 150 years ago horse owners probably bemoaned the introduction of the internal combustion engine as taking the 'soul' from their horse and carts (though technically, they were correct)...
I wonder how the battery packs mate to the transmissions and how it feels to drive? I wish more electric cars would come with manual transmissions from factory, and feel like manuals too: being able to shift up to a certain engine speed until it "cuts off" and you have to shift up.
This vehicle has a Tesla motor, which incorporates a single speed (9.73:1) transmission and differential.
I drive a manual transmission EV, and I can tell you it's lots of fun -- since power starts decreasing at 4500RPM, and cuts off altogether at 6500, there is lots of shifting to do.
I love everything about this. Hats off for taking one of the coolest classic Bimmers to the next level. It's truly commendable his break fix repeat approach to his build. Is there any video? Please keep us updated on this amazing car.
Thanks for your kind words:)
What I'm really wondering is how (outside of UK or Ireland) can you legally homologate and register a car like this. In most countries when you show up to the MOT with a petrol engine when your registeration card says "diesel engine", your car can go back on a trailer either to your backyard or to the scrapyard. Knowing the administrative nightmare it is and the expensive price it costs to even just homologate an home-made trailer in my country (France) I really wonder how you can drive a car like this legally. Unless the shop that builds it goes through the hassle to take months and money to do that for you, but I don't see how it can be profitable then. Not being really pro or anti EV conversion, I genuinely wonder how can this be applied in real life without it giving you headaches.
And how about insurrance? From my own experience showing up to your insurrance company local agency wanting to register a car swapped like this... It's just impossible. Unless lying and giving them a copy of the registeration that still says "petrol engine" but then you will be only virtually covered, and in case of need, you can be sure the insurrance company will pull out since your car is not legal.
Another thing worth mentionning is don't believe we'll pay for the electricity that we'll use into EV at the same price as the electricity for your home appliances. States and governments will need the tax money they collect from petrol, and that's where they'll find more. There's a reason why manufacturers (like Renault with the ZOE) are providing you with devices you have to install at home that separately totalizes the electricity you use for EV car from the rest of your home. Soon or later these devices will be mandatory and you'll pay your taxes for transportation electricity.
You can also debate about how are we going to manage to produce enough electricity to replace all the petrol-power, and will that be without negative consequences on the planet?
Or how are electric cars supposed to make a difference when everyone refuses to see how BY FAR the first cause of pollution due to transportation are cargo boats carrying all the crap made in Asia, and planes carrying tourists all over the world... but I suppose it's easier to guilt-trip the average joe that uses his car to do 10km to go to work.
Or how if we named things for what they really are then "electric vehicles" should be named "nuclear vehicles", but that's another story and I guess that's not something manufacturers really want to brag about when trying to sell you a new car
Really nice swap. I love the fast-charge tailpipe!
I'm in the middle of researching an EV Datsun swap and frankly it's still just wayyy too damn expensive to justify at this point in time, let alone the changes in driving habit (long drives will require careful planning and random exploration/driving will be a little reckless unless you have a good CAA membership).
3rd party or OEM traction motors alone are close to ICE swap prices so that nets as zero.
Where it gets expensive is the equipment required to run a modern EV swap. High voltage AC-3 phase motor appears to be the latest way to go and therefore require high priced controllers (to handle the 400+ volts and huge amps), inverters to handle AC->DC->AC journey, DC->DC converters (to power your 12v system), several different types of chargers, and not least a battery management system to prevent a meltdown. I guess the same can be said regarding the hassle of storing and administering gasoline as a means of energy, but we've had 100 years of development and it's pretty safe and certainly cost effective, EV has only 10-15 years?
I haven't even started with the batteries, which with these super high voltages require many modules wired in series - leaving you with a challenge finding room and maintain weigh minimization while still trying to build enough capacity to make even a short 60 mile / 100 km round trip.
Like it or not, I'm convinced EV is the way of the future but unless you REALLY like your car or have a LOT of cash to burn, you're best getting a factory EV and leave the classics as ICE.
I wish SH would put all these EV’s under another website called TorqueHunters.....Please
This started out as such a great article, then you completely missed the point and turned a full 180 to start undermining that unity. Your segway into propositioning electric swaps was "I think that some of our feelings towards electric cars are based on a lack of understanding." right off the bat going with the low-key insult on intelligence. Nice....
I work on the cutting edge of tech, the brilliant engineers and scientists around me are building things that are mind blowing. However, you go out to the parking lot on Fridays it's filled with their fun project cars. Air-cooled Porsche's sitting next to a Dodge dart, sitting next to a home-built Lotus-7. Monday through Thursday the same lot is filled with Model 3's, S's, CrossTrek EV's, etc.
Shoot, the person whose Tesla Roadster Elon bought back and launched into space, the person who was on the model S design team both drive old carbed euro cars. You couldn't swap electric into either of their cars without heavily sedating them.
New electric cars are amazing, and I can't wait to play with them even more. However, to take out the engine of a classic or import or whatever, is to remove the soul. It's an automotive lobotomy. We simply don't drive old cars for new tech. There seems to be a number of auto journalists/bloggers/new-business-advertising-money that really want to force this on us.
Instead, we DO need to look at actively defending our legal ability to drive ICE cars. Are we going to simply role over, or are we going to legally force/carve out a place for us? Paddy, it seems like you have already given up? Here in the USA, SEMA has legally protected/fought-for many of the automotive-privileges we have in the states. Think of SEMA as the enthusiast's NRA or NAACP.
If people don't drive old cars with new tech, then why are there so many LS swaps?
You are telling me the Chevy V8 is "new tech"?
People with flat heads consider small blocks new tech, people with carburetors consider fuel injection new tech, people with gasoline consider electric new tech. Its all subjective and yet people have been swapping "new tech" into their hotrods for decades.
Hopefully you can see the difference.... whether its a Chevy V8 or fuel injection or other improvements to the engine does not change the fact that it is an internal combustion engine.
Internal combustion or electric motor, they both power the vehicle to do the same thing...
There are differences in all of those power plants (progression of technology) and yet they all accomplish the same goal (vehicle in motion).
The difference is that different ICEs have their own characters be it engine sound exhaust noise power/torque output curves that make each ICE one of a kind, yet electric motors just whine.
You can tune the controller for an electric motor to change the output in a similar manner. The lack of engine sound means you hear other parts of the car. It's not a bad thing, just different. People said the same thing when Audi started putting diesels in their lmp1 cars.
Why are all the classics always being converted? A Chevy Camaro, a 935 (a recreation, thankfully), a 356 and now an 8 series?
The moment the motor is out of the tesla and inside a genuinely cool-looking car, I can't help but love it. I so agree with what's written about the EV's similarity to iphones instead of traditional cars.
Anyone who still cannot accept the EV is the future is just stuck up. Evolution is bound to happen.
Este ainda é um exemplo de um carro com uma aura fantástica que foi readequado para novos tempos.. Pena que a alma foi retirada.
historia incrível... se esse for o futuro que estejamos preparados para ele..
Now all it needs in custom logic for BMW V12 engine noises at corresponding speeds and youre rockin
Fantastic, although I'm not sure I would agree with him about the 'as easy as wiring a plug' I would be interested to find out what it owes him too?