Me & My Car: ’68 VW Bug, which owner bought new, goes electric
David Krumboltz/for Bay Area News Group
September 2, 2018 David Krumboltz
Kris Whitten, of Kensington, appears recently with his 1968 Volkswagen Bug
that he had specialists convert into an electric car in July
There is a fascinating history involving Volkswagen starting when Adolf
Hitler in 1938 called on Dr. Ferdinand Porsche to design the “peoples’ car”
that could sell for less than 1,000 Reich marks, or about $140 at the time.
I’m not sure if it was a request or a command, but he complied and the
people’s car was introduced in 1939 at the Berlin Motor Show.
But then Hitler got involved in some other activities in Czechoslovakia,
Poland and other places, so production was halted. Later the Allies
obliterated the VW factory, but after the war the Allies focused on VW to
rebuild the German auto industry. Early sales of the Volkswagen Bug
(sometimes called the Beetle) were slower in America than other countries,
probably due to its Nazi history, funny looks and small size.
By the 1960s, though, people had accepted the car, and it became this
country’s best-selling imported car. VW manufactured more than 21 million
Bugs in almost 70 years with the last one being produced in Mexico on July
One person who saw the value in this small, well-built car in 1967 was a
young college sophomore named Kris Whitten. He walked into Stan Carlsen
Inc., a San Francisco VW-Porsche dealer one December day and plunked down
$2,258.61 (about $17,000 in today’s dollars) to buy his first car. He still
has it. It is now 50 years old and been driven more than 238,000 miles.
While most 50-year-old cars would have been retired, restored or scrapped,
Whitten’s VW is embarking on a new future.
“When I was getting ready to go back to school in D.C. in 1997, the (then
30-year-old) Bug and I had a one-way conversation about how we could make it
across the country if we took it slow and easy,” the Kensington owner
explained. “Soon after, the Bug’s engine died as I was coming off the
freeway in Danville, but I was able to coast to a place where I could park
it and call for help.
“The fuel pump had gone out, and the tow truck driver was able to replace it
on the spot with a new one I bought from a nearby auto parts store (only
accepting $20 for his efforts), but I took that as a sign that I was
supposed to get another car for the cross-country trip. Thus, my 1997 Saturn
SW2, which I still drive, is my “longer trip” car. The Bug has been my
‘around town’ car, and has not been on the freeway much for several years.”
What was Whitten’s solution to what ailed his Bug? Converting its engine
from internal combustion to electric. Whitten admitted that “I’m not
terrifically fond of change, but the conversion is something I have been
thinking about since the idea began being publicized about 10 years ago, and
for the last five years I have been actively (off and on) researching it. A
recent health scare (I’m OK now) motivated me to actually do something about
it, so I gritted my teeth and paid the beaucoup bucks to Richard Van Wyhe of
EV4U Custom Conversions of Shasta Lake, California.
“He did a terrific job! In addition to the electric conversion, I got new
front disc brakes, a new clutch and the torsion bar raised a bit to deal
with the 300-plus additional pounds of batteries, all of which cost about
$25,000, which I figure is probably less than what I saved by not buying a
new car from 1967-1997. Rationalization? I don’t care. It’s really cool.
Richard also buffed it up, so that the 50-year-old paint shines (it’s spent
most of its nights in a garage).”
Whitten just got his VW returned with the electric conversion this July, and
he is still learning about it.
“It has a 90-mile range on a charge and will, according to Richard, go up to
90 mph. It can be charged from a 110-volt outlet in the garage. I’ve also
charged it from commercial 220-volt charging stations, which takes about
half as long as 110. It has a lot more pickup than it used to and still has
the four-speed transmission, but you can start and stop and drive around in
the 2D or 3D gear without having to use the clutch.
“When you’re stopped the motor is not turning, so you don’t have to touch
the clutch. It also charges the batteries when you let off the ‘gas’ pedal
and glide down a hill or press the brake pedal, which is called
‘regenerative braking.’ Also, rather than using reverse gear to back up,
there is a new switch under the dashboard that reverses the direction the
electric motor turns, so you flip the switch and press on the ‘gas’ pedal to
“Since the conversion, friends have described the Bug as ‘born again,’ but
I’m sticking to my ‘heart transplant’ analogy because although it has a new
propulsion system, the rest of the car and the driver are still old, so easy
’68 VW Bug that proprietor purchased new goes electrical
September 2, 2018
search on Hitler 1938 Porsche “peoples’ car” 1000 marks
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