Jim Steil still remembers the magazine article that started him down the road where he is today.
“It was an article in the Alberta Oil Review,” he said. “They had a picture of a red Tesla, and the headline was ‘Hell on Wheels.’”
He’s got a copy of that magazine ready to frame and put on the wall of his new used electric car dealership, Go Electric. It will be the first in Calgary to specialize and sell only used electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids.
The business signs have been up for a while on 17 Avenue SW, but Go Electric received its first shipment of used electric cars from the United States last week.
It’s a niche market that Steil and his partner David Lloyd hope to corner and grow in Calgary.
When Steil, an engineer, saw that Alberta Oil Review article, he decided he wanted to build his own electric car with the body of a 1966 Volvo station wagon. That project is still a work in progress, but it’s going to inform the other half of his business. He’ll be renting out space in the 7,000 square foot basement of his garage for hobbyists to convert their own classic cars to electric.
While Steil would like to make a full time gig of converting old cars, he said most people with the time and money for such a project want the hands-on experience of doing it themselves.
Also, there’s the cost.
“As much as we love taking the old cars and converting them to electric cars, the main thing we learned in that first year is that it’s way too expensive.”
He said hobbyists should expect to pay at least $50,000 to do a conversion.
Despite that cost, he has a collection of owners waiting to use his garage space – mostly Porsche owners who want to get rid of the noisy gas engines without sacrificing speed.
Teslas are by far the most common electric vehicle on Calgary streets because of a local dealership, but Steil said there are many other EV models now out the market, such as the Kia Sol, the Chevy Spark, and the Fiat 500.
The problem he’s found is that most dealerships don’t seem to stock many EVs, if they have any at all.
He thinks that has something to do with the dealership model, which relies as much on maintenance packages as it does on selling the vehicles. Electric cars require very little regular maintenance.
“An electric car needs no service to the drivetrain at all for the first 150,000 kilometers,” he said. “The only thing you have to do is drain the oil out of the single speed transmission after 150,000 kilometres.”
There’s also battery coolant that needs to be changed around the same time, depending on the make and model.
Even brakes need little work, because the electric motors use magnetic resistance to help slow vehicles. As they do, they generate electricity which flows back into the battery.
All that leaves are things like bodywork, shocks, and tires. The business Steil bought to house his business happens to have an OK Tire franchise.
The City of Calgary is developing a strategy to adapt to electric vehicles. Its objectives include helping build the charging infrastructure that will be needed, and supporting the adoption of the technology as a way of helping to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in the city.
Eric MacNaughton, a senior transport engineer with the City of Calgary who is working on the electric vehicle strategy, said electric car adoption is one of the key ways the city plans to reduce emissions in the city,
“For the transportation sector – electric vehicles were the single biggest emission reductions we identified, and one of the top three emissions reductions that could happen for the City of Calgary in general,” he said.
Aside from being difficult to find in Canada, new EVs are more expensive up front than their gas equivalents (although proponents argue the lifetime cost factoring in maintenance and fuel mean they are cheaper).
Steil and Lloyd hope to take advantage of a short window where US electric cars will be more affordable there than here.
Because of its drive to reduce smog and improve air quality, California has incentives up to $10,000 to encourage drivers to buy or lease electrics. Steil will import EVs that were leased for two years and then traded in.
“The dealers can’t get rid of them fast enough, and they’re really reasonably priced at a dealer auction,” he said.
Getting them across the border is more work than the average consumer has time for, so Go Electric hopes it can cater to those who want one, but don’t want to go through all that trouble and paperwork.
“We don’t have a lot of room on the lot here so we’re going to try to have 10 cars, maybe 12. There’s about six or eight models of cars that are really popular down in the US.”
As the owner of a Fiat 500 EV, Steil said he’s now hooked on electric cars, especially their ability to accelerate.
“It’s basically like driving a normal vehicle except they’re so responsive,” he said. “As soon as you put your foot down, it goes. I call it the pass pedal instead of the gas pedal.”