The Current

World's Weirdest Van Goes Ultra Green

An Oregon mechanic and electric-vehicle rock star wants to turn his iconic Franken-van into the ultimate earth-friendly camper.

Mechanic Otmar Ebenhoech's "Stretchla" combines two VW Vanagons and a salvaged Telsa engine.     Photo: Otmar Ebenhoech

Otmar Ebenhoech was cruising down Interstate 5 last spring in his stretch Vanagon—that's a 1986 Volkswagen Synchro merged with a 1982 Volkswagen Westfalia, no big deal—when calamity struck. The engine threw a rod and he was forced to take a pricey tow ride back home to Corvallis, Oregon.

This was already the second engine he'd built for the 15-year-old rig. (He'd swapped out the gasoline engine for a turbo-diesel in the mid 2000s so he could run on biodiesel.) Disheartened, he was ready to hang up the keys for a while. But then a buddy of his sparked an idea: why not pull the engine out and replace it with an electric motor?

"I like the idea of EV camping. But the Achilles heel is that EVs have such short driving ranges [it’s hard to get them out into the wilderness]," says Ebenhoech. That's true for just about all EVs except, of course, for Teslas, which get at least 200 miles on a full charge (up to 300 with the 85kWh battery). What's more, Tesla's network of lightening fast "Superchargers" could get him from Oregon to Death Valley, Calif., his favorite playground, very quick-like.

But only a crazy person would buy a $90,000 luxury EV, pull it apart, and convert a Franken-van into an electric Franken-van. But what about a Tesla Model S that's been in a wreck? Ebenhoech scoured insurance auctions and struck gold: a badly banged up Model S for $40,000.

So now the fun has begun and he's building the "Stretchla." The van's busted diesel engine has been removed and Ebenhoech has entered the long, mysterious, pioneering process of trying to sculpt the Tesla innards into his stretch Vanagon. He expects some potholes.

"Tesla has not made its service manuals or wiring diagrams available to the public yet," he says. That means it'll all be trial and error, but Ebenhoech is used to that. A long-time mechanic and tinkerer, he also drives a Porsche 914 that he electrified and he developed a motor controller, called the Zilla, that opened the doors to EV drag racing. He's kind of an EV rock star.

Ebenhoech is pretty meticulous in his note-taking and sharing his process on his blog, so if you’re a fellow EV obsessive, check that out. But here's the basic plan: More than 80 percent of the Model S will be used, including the wheels, suspension system, seats, and, obviously, the motor and battery pack. "I might even use the tail lights," he says.

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