Electric car conversion business booming

Jul 13, 2011 By David Morrill

Rising fuel prices have been painful for many small-business owners across the country.

They've been a boon for Nathan Hutchison.

The reason: Hutchison specializes in converting gas-powered cars to run on electricity, and adding that can be plugged into wall outlets for and Ford Escape cars.

"I knew when I started this business I wanted to do something that was good for the environment, and with going up, I felt it was the perfect time to get into this," Hutchison said.

You might call Hutchison an early-stage entrepreneur. Very early stage. His "business," Hutchison Electric Auto Repair in El Cerrito, Calif., is behind his home, there are no car lifts as in most auto shops, and Hutchison is 22.

When Ezra Daly first approached Hutchison to convert his 1978 Datsun 280Z to fully electric, he hesitated because of his youth.

"I remember when I first met him, the first thing he said was something like, 'I know I look young, but I know what I'm doing,'" Daly said. "And after talking to him for a bit, you could clearly see that he did."

The son of a mechanic, Hutchison started working on cars with his father, Frederick, when he was 4. He has a picture of himself holding an air gun as he helped his dad take the nuts off the wheels. About a year later, he was under the cars.

Initially, his parents didn't want him to become a mechanic and nudged him toward college.

"I studied at San Francisco State, and I just felt it was a total waste of time," Hutchison said. "I knew right away that mechanical engineering wasn't what I wanted to do."

Hutchison instead was fascinated by how cars work.

In 2008, Hutchison left school and got the education he really wanted as shop manager at Green Motors, an electric car specialty store, in Berkeley, Calif.. He quickly found his calling.

"I remember getting under the cars and looking at them and saying, 'I could do this so much better myself,'" he said.

After Green Motors closed, Hutchison inherited many of the stranded customers and used them to start Hutchison Electric Auto in 2010.

The first year, his gross revenue was about $95,000. He projects this year to finish at $150,000 to $200,000.

For the right price, Hutchison says, there's not a car he can't convert into an all-electric model. But the easiest for him is VW bugs because they are much lighter.

However, because most people don't want to spend the money it takes to make the conversion, he does only a few a year. Starting price for a VW bug conversion is $25,000.

"They don't understand that I'm building an entire car for them, so it's going to cost close to what it would to buy a new car," he said.

Between conversions, the main work he does is adding plug-in features to the Toyota Prius and Ford Escape.

The battery packs come in two sizes and range in price from $6,000 to $11,500 for the Prius, and $7,500 to $15,000 for the Escape.

The batteries replace the space for the spare tire and allow the cars to be run in a blended mode, which means utilizing both gas and electricity to power the vehicle. The Prius has the option of running fully electric. In the blended mode, the cars can get 80 to 180 miles per gallon.

Not only does Hutchison build the battery packs for local customers, he's also in demand nationally and internationally.

Currently, he has one pack that he'll fly to Chicago to install and another that he's shipping to the Netherlands.

Patricia Heller added the plug-in mode to her Prius last year and was impressed with Hutchison's expertise.

"Nathan's passion for is inspiring," Heller said. "I've had several great encounters with him in the process of 'greening' my transportation and have always come away with a feeling of excitement about this project."

Hutchison hopes to soon find a larger shop and eventually hire more employees to help with his growing workload.

And he has ambitions far beyond that.

"More than an auto mechanic, I saw myself as an engineer who understands everything about how to make a work better," he said.

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