Frugal, or just plain cheap?

What will it cost to do this anyway?

Do I hunt for a better deal, or make progress faster? That is often the question with a project like this one.

You may think that money is not an issue for someone who can afford to buy a Tesla, but we all have our limits and this project has been one to push my comfort zone. I suppose that that’s part of what makes it all interesting as well. I find it rather amusing to watch my initial resistance and then my justifications for spending funds along the way. Much of my life I’ve been concerned with money and here I’m strangely driven toward a large optional expenditure. It’s not like I’m concerned about making rent or food budget here, I’m very fortunate in that way these days, but this does involve what I would call considerable sums from what most people would suggest I’d do better to save for retirement.

It all started with getting the Tesla base vehicle. Six months ago when I started this project my budget seemed simple. I’ll buy a totaled Model S for $18K or so (seems about right for a luxury wreck), throw in a few grand to get the essentials running and then it will take much labor but very little cash to merge it with the stretched Vanagon body. Not pocket change, but not bad at all for such a cool EV. Ah grasshopper, you have so much to learn. After losing a couple auctions with my low bidding limit I reconsidered my budget. Had I not justified $30K for a battery pack on the conversion project this replaced? And is not $10K a perfectly reasonable amount for a powerful drivetrain? What about the value of a huge panoramic sunroof? That practically essential tech package? Don’t I need a test bed for high power AC drives in order to further my business? That retirement fund isn’t earning much anyway and besides this is going to be fun! I’ll sell a few vehicles to help with the cash flow and free up some work space as well. Within a few weeks I had talked myself into a $40K bid limit. Not that I’d need that much, no, I’m sure I’ll get one for $30K. Did I mention how I used to teach “Creative Justification 101”? I waited and watched some more. A number of less than ideal auctions went by with issues, no air suspension, the smaller 60 kWh battery, $50K selling prices, those were not for me. After over three months of auction watching my car showed up. The damage was not too bad, it had almost every feature I wanted, lacking only the dual onboard chargers, and best of all the passenger air bags were all intact so the interior was perfect. Very nice! Not only that, the pre bid value closed at only $12,300. It’s not uncommon for the final bid amount to be twice the pre bid, but not often much more than that. I thought long and hard about my bid limits for this car the night before the auction deciding I would go as high as $38,200 but not to my $40K hard limit. If I didn’t get it for that then I’d accept it was “not meant to be”, thereby giving my guardian angels a vote.  Either I have a lesson to learn about expecting a good deal, or my guardian angels have a great sense of humor because the other bidders stopped at $38K and I won it for $38,100. As I watched it bid to $38K I knew I had to mentally let go, and even when I “won” it, I had to wait for the insurance to approve the sale since they had a $40K reserve, but I held tight and still won it. In the end auction fees, broker fees and shipping brought it to $42K.

$42K for a totaled car. What-Had-I-Done!? Prior to this, my most expensive car was a new Prius for about half that, and this one was a severe wreck. I just had to laugh. It started as a nervous laugh but now that the car has been here almost a month I can really laugh about how nutty it seems. Oh well, I reserve the right to do nutty things when I can, I guess it reminds me I’m alive. I’m grateful to have this freedom. The Stretch project in 1998 felt similar. Back then the front half was also the most expensive car I had bought by a factor of two and I promptly cut it up. It feels a bit like I’m trying to cut up my mental blocks. But this is not the end of those.

I think I got over the cost of the donor car. I’m still working on adjusting to the cost of luxury car parts. The steering rack mounting ears were broken in the accident. This is not uncommon in a wreck so you just replace the rack. I’m well accustomed to old Volkswagen prices and I normally pause a bit before I spend a few hundred dollars on a steering rack, but $3066.60 for one? This pause it taking longer.

Now I have a choice, do I buy a new rack or try for some alternative fix? Buying new is quick but costly. Alternatives take more time, carry more risk of lost time and money but can have hidden benefits. As a child I wanted a new go-cart, it was there in the Sears catalog and it would have been so cool! But buying a new go-cart was not an option in my family and so I had plenty of time to ponder alternatives. Eventually I built a much more creative go cart for almost no money and learned how to build things along the way. I’m not vouching for its safety, but I survived and gained valuable skills. I would have preferred the easy path of a new go-cart at the time, but the financial limitations forced me toward an education that my friends from wealthy families missed.

Back to the steering rack. If the Tesla were a few years older I might buy one from a wrecking yard for under $1000, but as of today I have not found a single Model S being sold for parts. A friend suggested having it welded so I took it apart. Now this part was fun, I’d never taken apart a modern EPS rack. If you are as curious as I am about these you can read about them here: It’s the high end Paraxial Servo Unit on page 8 and 9. I didn’t find this document until I had it apart, so I had the joy of discovering the fine brushless motor and belt, the integrated torque sensor and even how to put a few errant balls back in the recirculating ball gear before reading about them. With it apart I was able to take the housing to the finest aluminum welder in the region. He said there was a good chance he could weld it up, but complications such as the proximity of precision surfaces and my desire to run it on a heavy vehicle had me agreeing with him to look into other fixes first and only consider welding as last resort. The rack is made by ZF Lenksystems and with help from friends and Google we’ve found the cast housing may be the same as the one on a 2012 right hand drive Land Rover Evoque. There seem to be more of those in the scrap yards than there are Teslas. There’s one on eBay in the UK for $327, I’m awaiting more details from the seller to see if the housing is the same so I could swap it. Maybe this will work, but I’m warming up my justifications in case it doesn’t.

The steering rack is just the most expensive part. My list of parts to get it rolling comes to $8000.61 and I’m sure I’m missing some things. Many of the smaller parts are clearly worth buying but the air strut at about $1800 has me looking for alternatives as well. Eventually I’ll either find a workaround or get tired of looking for alternatives and just spend the money. I don’t want to wait too long to order parts since I hear Tesla parts sometimes have long lead times.

I wanted to write this post to let you know that I’m still working on it, even if it feels like nothing is happening on the outside. It may take some time to adjust my comfort zone, but with some minor delays the Stretchla will make progress.

19 thoughts on “Frugal, or just plain cheap?

  1. Otmar,

    I just wanted to post a note and say that I am in awe of what you are doing. The discovery aspect of it all must be terrific fun. I hope you are successful in identifying suitable non-Tesla donors for your steering and air-suspension parts. I am there are plenty of Mercs in the scrap yard too that could get you that Air strut and I think @lolachampcar on the Tesla forums could provide or source one for you (he may even have a new one lying around).

    $42,000 for a wreck is incredible; I paid a little more than that for a brand new Lexus GS 300 back in ’06.

    Here’s a thought; once you have your base car fully operational and have removed the body, why not strap on a driver seat and try it out as a go-kart? At least get us a 0-60 and 1/4 mile at a local drag-strip; I’m sure it would be hilarious fun – don’t forget your goggles.


  2. Hi Otmar,
    I am enjoying this project so keep it up. Regarding the rack you have the chance to build a custom mount so I would grind the present mounts off and fabricate some new bolt on mounts that fit around the housing.

  3. Otmar, I replaced the 1.6L diesel in my 81 Vanagon with a fuel injected 1.8L out of an 86 Jetta GLi and replaced the corroded steel pipes that carry the coolant from the front to the rear with locally fabricated stainless steel pipes in the process. As a result I am quite familiar with the underside of a non-synchro Vanagon and I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be better to retain the Vanagon suspension and just mate the Model S calipers (and axles if necessary) to the Vanagon stuff. There’s a picture of a Vanagon Rear Disc Brake Kit at the following URL that gives a rough idea of what I mean:

    Not sure about getting the wheels to fit even though some guys in Europe have done some pretty sic things to their Vanagons (Transporters or Caravelles as they’re known on that side of the pond). Here’s a link to a VR6 conversion with Porsche 8jx17 alloys wearing 265/40 rubber at the rear:

    Speaking of the maniacs in Europe, a search for volkswagen t3 w12 brought up some youtube videos from a VW Bus Tuning Meeting in Hockenheim Germany. These guys are certified lunatics but, the stuff they have done (450hp W12 in a T3!) suggests that the Vanagon suspension should be able to handle the monster torque from the Model S drivetrain! I found the handling of the Vanagon very decent all things considered.

    • How to make it all fit is an ongoing challenge and brings up many options. I had the same questions that you bring up. As is often the case I had great simple ideas which had to be adjusted for reality once I started measuring things.
      The diameter of the 17″ tire in your link is about 2.5″ smaller than the 19″ wheels on the Tesla. 19″ wheels are required if I want to keep Tesla brakes and all the systems connected with that. The Tesla brakes are quite a bit larger than the Audi brake conversions as well. I have a strong desire to retain the Tesla Adaptive Air suspension for the adjustable ride heights so that plays into it. Overall, when I put them next to each other and go back and forth with a tape measure I think using the Tesla suspension and wheels is the easiest solution. But I am contemplating modifying parts of it to fit better.

  4. Otmar,
    Jennifer and I have used the same justification/rationalization on use of our retirement funds, and we are at “retirement age”. If this “money” is not valuable enough to the system to give us a modicum of return, we believe that using our knowledge and skills that we can better our own future more than “money in the bank”. Thank you so much for this window on a fabulous and educational project, and the challenging decisions.
    BTW, I look at AC drive stuff at least once a week, maybe some day…

  5. I follow your blog as I do a lesser version of EV rehab: I have a 2009 Zero S with a dead pack, and I am working up the monetary faith to invest in a pack composed of Nissan Leaf cells. I am too inexperience to comfortably jump in, but hesitantly trying out each idea. The first being to replace the Alltrax controller with a 4QD controller, but size and viability are still to be considered (the 4QD was exposed to the environment for several years). Each step of your progress helps me justify another step of my own (how’s that for passive-aggressive?)

  6. Great project.

    But why so much focus on this particular rack? Its good to be a little OCD about OEM parts, but ultimately many of the “interface” parts in a swap like this will need to be custom fabrications or creatively sourced alternatives.

    Since you already will be dealing with a new mounting situation on the new frame, only a few things I can think of would matter:

    Rack ratio and throw

    Matching effective rack length (if you start shorter, such as from a car with a narrower track, it is comparatively easy to add length inboard of the tie rods).

    Rack position (longitudinal and vertical placement relative to suspension mounting points) to maintain factory bump steer.

    If you care, number of turns lock to lock and amount of assist.

    There probably is a steering angle sensor incorporated for TCS or torque vectoring, but I suspect a simple retrofit.

    I’d be looking at 2nd hand Mini Cooper, or even better, 1st gen Honda Insight racks (Both electric assist and widely available in nearby junkyards), if I were you!

    • Every part of the Model S is run by software, including the rack. I doubt that Omar wants to deal with constant the service error codes that will come with choosing non OEM components.

  7. Freddy, you hit the nail on the head. The steering response on the Model S can be adjusted from the main 17″ display. For all I know it may be required to keep the ESC happy as well, and without ESC I may not get regenerative brakes (At least I know without ABS I don’t get regen) so overall I believe it’s important to keep all the systems connected and stock.

    • Well, I clearly underestimated the connectivity piece. Probably a way to fool the system by replicating a sensor output, but especially without even a wiring diagram available I’ll retract that advice. (I’ll also look somewhere other than Telsa for my next swap idea!)

  8. Just to add another thought: why not go with the front half of the Tesla ( from the B post forward,excluding battery ) and the trimmed off nose of the Vanagon to the rear. I mean once the loafs been cut, what’s one more slice? And, of course, you’ll have to call it a Teslabago. If the added length isn’t a problem, more battery space could be available. Can we hope for a 300mile range?

    Too much weight in the rear? Ditch the stock multi-link rear suspension. The fancy geometry is probably wasted on a (dare I say) motor home type vehicle anyway. The stock VW semi-trailing arms (I think that’s what it has) maybe could be beefed up. Or, how bout the Ford Ranger EV route: a de Dion rear axle and [spit] leaf springs! Remember you’ll need the room afforded by the leaf spring design for the extra batteries. An axle tube and leaf spring set up should be easy to do with commonly available trailer and truck axle parts in a wide range of weight capacities.

    Just don’t tell Elon or Franz about it.

  9. Hey Otmar, what do you think about a trailer? Imagine taking a wrecked Tesla and building a trailer around it. Maybe it’d be a camper, maybe just to carry bicycles or motorcycles…

    Imagine connecting it to, say, an electric Toyota Rav4?

    How do you think that would work?

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