Classic Conversion: Roanoke students transform 1939 Pontiac into electric-powered vehicle

Roanoke environmental studies students pose with 1939 Pontiac at Oliver's Garage. From left to right, Preston Moore, Mike Bankert, Steven Belknap, Eric Lefevers, Justin Morgan, Nomin Baasandavaa, Madison Ericson, Ryan Montoni, Jackie McCann (mechanic), Tucker Prisley and Stephen Floyd.

Roanoke environmental studies students pose with 1939 Pontiac at Oliver's Garage. From left to right, Preston Moore, Mike Bankert, Steven Belknap, Eric Lefevers, Justin Morgan, Nomin Baasandavaa, Madison Ericson, Ryan Montoni, Jackie McCann (mechanic), Tucker Prisley and Stephen Floyd.

A Roanoke College student organization that explores alternative energy sources is restoring a classic car by converting it from gas to electric power. 

The vehicle, in its partly finished form, will be displayed on campus this weekend during Roanoke's Commencement activities.

But that's not all. A Roanoke museum also has taken an interest in this classic car's unique conversion.

Roanoke students who were part of an environmental class in 2010 came up with the idea to convert a 1939 Pontiac Silver Streak into a fully electric vehicle. They had in mind Roanoke's slogan, "Classic for Tomorrow."

The class created RC Electric, a club, to ensure that the project would be carried out and completed. RC Electric is Roanoke's first student-run organization devoted to making the campus more energy efficient. So far, more than 50 Roanoke students have participated in the Pontiac conversion project.

The College purchased the car for $1,500 from Oliver's Garage in Blacksburg, Va., where it is currently being housed. The Greenbrier, a resort in West Virginia, used the car prior to World War II to transport the rich and famous to the hotel after they arrived to the area by train.

To get started on the electric conversion, Roanoke students stripped the Pontiac and had it professionally sandblasted to remove rust inside and out.

Recently, they painted the car a burgundy red wine pearl color to match the College's color scheme.

This project  "shows that we can move forward and be green," said Eric Lefevers, who is president of RC Electric.

This year, Lefevers has been responsible for scheduling project meetings, ordering parts for the car, contacting mechanics and recruiting sponsors to help purchase additional parts. One of the sponsors is Mac & Bob's Restaurant in Salem, which is donating LED headlights for the vehicle.

The conversion project is quite unique. It is not typical to find a college converting an old vehicle into an electric powered machine, said Benoit Colin, a spokesman with the Electric Drive Transportation Organization in Washington, D.C.

Though the Pontiac can't run on its own yet, its transformation is drawing attention from the community. The Virginia Museum of Transportation in downtown Roanoke wants to display the car during the winter months, said Preston Moore, a Roanoke student and a member of RC Electric, who has been communicating with the museum's director. The display dates and other details are not yet final, Moore said.

After graduation, the club will continue working on the vehicle's electric conversion and restoring its upholstery and interior. To transform the Pontiac into an electric vehicle, students will replace the gasoline combustion engine with an electric motor using a conversion kit. The kit includes vacuum power brake and power steering systems.

The club's ultimate goal is to have the car completed and running with a direct current electric motor, which operates with rechargeable batteries, by Roanoke's Alumni Weekend in the spring of 2014.

Lefevers, who is a member of the 2012 environmental class, said he has enjoyed learning about electric conversion firsthand.

"Working on cars is a passion of mine," he said. "It's been a very interesting experience so far."

Dubbed the "President's Car," the Pontiac will be stored in the garage of Roanoke President Michael Maxey's house, and it will be maintained as a college vehicle. It's unclear how the vehicle will be used.

Meanwhile, RC Electric plans to take on more alternative energy projects on campus, including installing electric car chargers.

To join the club, "you don't have to know how to work on a car, be an engineer or an environmental science person," Lefevers said. "There's a job for everyone."

To get involved with RC Electric, contact Eric Lefevers at emlefevers@mail.roanoke.edu.

Watch this slideshow of Roanoke students working on the 1939 Pontiac.

 

Posted May 1, 2012


About the Author

Kristina Breux, a senior from Connecticut, is a student writer in Roanoke's Public Relations office. Breux is majoring in English, with a concentration in marketing, and she is a member of the Phi Mu sorority. She hopes to pursue a career in public relations.