This post originally appeared on the Holley MotorLife Blog here.
“My first car was a 1973 Mercury Cougar that I bought from my next door neighbor,” explains Jake Graham of Reno, Nevada. “I couldn’t afford to send it to a shop to have someone else do the work for me, so that’s where I kind of learned how to wrench. But I’ve always been interested in how things work mechanically, and electronics was kind of a natural progression from that.”
After a string of projects that included a hot rodded Merkur XR4Ti and reverse trike with a custom tube chassis, in 2017 Graham decided to try his hand at something totally new to him. “I guess all of my builds have kind of been about leveling up and taking on a challenge,” he says. “And that leads into the “Teslonda” project, the ’81 Honda Accord that my business partner and I swapped a Tesla Performance drive unit into. We basically took the entire Tesla subframe assembly and grafted it into the rear of the car.”
The project was as much about learning and discovery as anything else, he points out. “It was kind of early on in what I would consider to be the modern wave of EV aftermarket conversions. When we first started digging into it, we found that there really wasn’t a lot out there in terms of components. But I was confident that I could build an inverter from scratch. At the time I was working on this, there weren’t many other options available if you weren’t doing a Tesla swap.”
He bought a 2016 Nissan Leaf drive unit and spent the next six months figuring out how to reverse engineer an unlocked controller for it. “There was a lot of trial and error before I was successful,” he says with a laugh. “I blew up a lot of components along the way, but I persevered!”
While the EV motor and battery pack are fairly straight-forward pieces of hardware, they can’t do much without an inverter, and stock OE inverter isn’t going to be of much help in a custom build. “If they’re not cracked, you can’t really do anything with them – you can’t talk to them,” Graham points out. “But if you have a cracked system, you can give it instructions about what to do based on throttle inputs and that kind of thing.”
In the meantime, Graham also had another project on the backburner. “This ’81 DeLorean was pretty unique even before the EV swap. I got it off of eBay back in 2013, and at the time, it was known as ‘The World’s Fastest DeLorean.’”
Motivated by a twin-turbocharged V6 out of a Buick Grand National, the DeLorean was a lot more lively than was with the its original 130hp mill, but it was clear that the previous owner had never really completed the project.
“It was in pretty bad shape,” Graham tells us. “Aside from the engine swap, it was clear that the car had been mostly sitting since the early 90s, so I got started on the restoration process. The body came off, the wiring came out, and at that point I decided that the twin-turbo setup was probably a bit much for the chassis, so I rebuilt it as a naturally aspirated engine.”
But after getting everything back together, it still wasn’t up to snuff by Graham’s standards. “Some of it had to do with the factory transaxle, which just sucked. I was just really discouraged with this thing, and it sat in the corner of my shop for a while. Meanwhile I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with this custom inverter that I was working on, and one day I just decided take some measurements. That’s when I discovered that this Nissan Leaf powertrain would fit really well in the back of the DeLorean.”
He put the DeLorean up on the rack later that day, yanked the V6 out, and set to work making the swap. After verifying that the motor would fit in place of the combustion engine, he tossed all the ICE-related components like the fuel system, heater lines, and linkages for the gearbox and began designing motor mounts for the EV hardware. “It was the classic ‘CADboard’ method – I just took some cardboard, cut it up, and figured out what my sheet metal motor mounts were going to look like. After translating that into an actual CAD drawing, we laser cut all of the parts and bolted it in.”
With the motor installed he then moved on the axles. “Amazingly it turns out the axle shaft diameter on the Nissan Leaf and the DeLorean are the same size, so I grafted the inner portion of the Leaf axle to the outer portion of the DeLorean’s.” From there it was on to the battery pack, which was also sourced from the Leaf. “I split up the pack into three different sections, mounting two of them up front and one in the back of the car, and then connected them in series. One of the nice advantages of a pack like that is that it allows you to tune the weight distribution.”
Along the way he also outfitted the car with electric power steering rack to compensate for the additional weight up front and retrofitted the factory gauges to play nice with the new powertrain. “The tachometer now shows the real-time amps,” he says. “So, for instance, 4000 RPM on the tach means 400 battery amps.” The fuel gauge has been adapted to display the percentage of charge remaining, while the coolant temp gauge now monitors the temperature of the batteries. Graham also installed an Android-based head unit with custom software that allows him to keep an eye on the vitals of the motor and inverter setup.
In its current configuration the combination is good for about 200 horsepower and 80 miles of range, and combined with the coil-overs, bigger brakes, and 15-inch wheels that carried over from its Grand National days, the DeLorean is now a far sportier machine than it was when it left the factory. But he’s not done with it just yet.
“I’m kind of at that 80 percent point in the build, where everything’s working and it’s more about the detail work and tidying everything up,” he says. “But I also have some upgrades in the works, like fast DC charging capability so I can take it on road trips. I’d also like to swap in a bigger battery pack – right now I’m using a 24 kWh pack, and I’d like upgrade to at least 40 kWh. Things are changing month to month as this point, so who knows what will be available by the time I’m ready to swap the pack out. The options just keep expanding.”