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posted: 10/26/2013 12:51 AM

Old Renault given new life as a modern electric

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  • Chris Roberts converted his 1985 Renault Alliance into an all-electric car. The Alliance DL convertible didn't run any more after the engine's timing belt broke.

    Chris Roberts converted his 1985 Renault Alliance into an all-electric car. The Alliance DL convertible didn't run any more after the engine's timing belt broke.
    Photos by Steve Nagy/Belleville News-Democrat

  • Replacing the engine with 800 pounds of batteries has only slightly increased the weight of the car.

    Replacing the engine with 800 pounds of batteries has only slightly increased the weight of the car.

By Wally Spiers
Belleville News-Democrat

BELLEVILLE -- Chris Roberts took a lemon and made lemonade out of it.

He took his 1985 Renault Alliance DL convertible, which didn't run any more, and converted it to an electric car, which hums right along.

Or maybe whirs right along would be a more accurate description.

Roberts, 38, of Belleville, is an infrastructure specialist for Ameren Illinois, supporting applicable operations personnel in implementing the utility's advanced metering infrastructure. He works at the Collinsville office and commutes in his newly converted electric car.

Why the '85 Renault, a car that makes many of the top 100 worst-car lists?

"Convenience," he said. "I had the car. I was driving it to work (in St. Louis) until 2006 when the timing belt broke. I was able to coast into the parking lot."

He said there is a history of Renaults in the family. This was the third.

"It was something I knew inside and out from working on it," he said. "I spent the last two and a half years working on the conversion, putting it together in the garage."

He bought all the components, batteries and such, and put it all together. You can see some of the technical details on his page at an electric car website at

Although the car carries a French nameplate, it actually was a joint venture with American Motors Co. and was manufactured in Kenosha, Wis., he said.

It had a lot of problems. After he put a new timing belt in his broken car in St. Louis, it only made it home to Belleville before the new one snapped. Turns out the timing belt break also messed up most of the rest of the engine.

"I learned it was one of those problems mechanics see a lot," Roberts said.

So he junked the engine and went electric.

His father, a qualified electrician, had helped him work on cars when they were both younger, and that continued on the Renault, he said.

"Dad built the circuit that runs all the original gauges in the dashboard," Roberts said.

Inside the gas cap flap is an electric plug, which would fit a regular clothes dryer 220-volt outlet in an emergency.

"You would need a 100-foot extension cord, though," Roberts jokes.

He has driven it only about 500 miles, so he is still tuning and making adjustments on connections and settings, he said.

"I moved from the St. Louis office to Collinsville a few weeks ago and just started driving it regularly when I came here," he said. "It's a 24-mile round trip. The car seems to handle it."

He is still figuring out the high end of its range on one electric charge.

"I haven't gone much more than 25 miles with two people so far," he said. "I guess the range would be somewhere in the 40- to 50-mile category."

A recharge takes about three to four hours, he said.

The car holds only two passengers. Part of the batteries fill the space where the back seat used to be. There also are batteries under the hood and in the trunk.

Roberts said he has spent a little less than $25,000 in the renovation.

"About half was the cost of batteries," he said.

Finding all the parts he needed involved a lot of trips to junkyards all over the region as well as other complications.

He shipped the original transmission to Arizona where a shop made an adapter to work with the electric power. When it came back, some of the connecting bolts were too short and the only match he could find was from a DeLorean.

The gears go from one to five but he has never gotten clear up to fifth.

"I've had it up to 65 mph once during testing," he said.

The interior is reworked and there is a new stereo and heating system but no air conditioning.

His best guess on battery weight is about 800 pounds, which makes the car a little heavier than its original weight. He has special shocks on order to support that weight, which tends to be concentrated on the rear end.

"I'm hoping as technology improves, when it is time to replace the batteries down the road, it will be cheaper," he said. "The literature says batteries should last about 1,000 charges. Every day, that's about three years, but I'm guessing four to five."

His special electric car license plate, "237-EL" came at a discount, but he said applying for it involved jumping through a lot of hoops with many pictures, affidavits and red tape.

"The rebate program from the state for electric cars was so complicated that I opened the application, looked at it and just closed it again," he said.

Other than it obviously being an older car, the somewhat faded red Renault doesn't attract a lot of attention, Roberts said.

"Most people don't seem to notice except in parking lots," he said. "I was at Belleville Crossing and one guy did look because the car is so old. But then he did a double-take when he didn't notice any noise."

Building a totally electric car is not for the faint of heart, he said. There are a lot of advantages, but there also are drawbacks.

Now Roberts is subject to a new syndrome that often applies to electric car drivers.

"I get range anxiety," he said.

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