A Poor Man's Tesla

MIT students electrify a classic sports car

PHOTO: Donna Coveney/MIT


Students at MIT take their electric Porsche 914 for a spin on campus; team leader Irene Berry walks alongside. Inset: A state-of-the art battery array nearly fills the Porsche’s trunk.

If you’re itching to own a sexy electric roadster but can’t afford the US $109 000 price tag for Tesla Motors’ sleek new model, there’s another option you might want to consider: building your own.

Two years ago, Yang Shao-Horn, a professor in MIT’s department of mechanical engineering and head of its electrochemical energy laboratory, bought a 1976 Porsche 914 roadster on eBay for about $5000. She then donated it to her students so they could electrify the car, which is a popular model among hobbyists for electric conversion. The budding engineers put together a vehicle that, like Tesla’s acclaimed sports car, uses lithium-ion batteries (about $36 000 worth, donated by Valence Technology, of Austin, Texas) as well as an ac motor and controller. And like the Tesla roadster, which is based on the Lotus Elise, the MIT vehicle should inherit the superb handling of a midengine sports car. We haven’t seen its top speed yet—the students are only now preparing to carry out high-speed highway tests—but they have calculated the expected performance, and it’s very respectable for a DIY conversion.

If you can spare about $60 000 and are willing to put in some long hours in the garage, you too could have such a set of wheels. You’d still be smoked coming out of a stoplight by any Tesla driver, but you could probably turn just as many heads with your retro electric roadster. And the car’s 210â''kilometer range is surely enough to take you, laughing, all the way to the bank.

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