Q&A with Kit Foster: July 26, 2012

Q. In the June 7 Q&A, reader Ron Brumka asked about adding air conditioning to his ’49 Ford without putting an air conditioner compressor on the engine. I have looked into this challenge in a similar yet different situation. I had always wanted to build an electric car and in the mid-1990s I bought a 1984 Pontiac Fiero for this electric car project. The project seemed pretty straightforward except for heating and air conditioning. Heat was a must and even though air conditioning was optional, the lack of natural ventilation in newer cars without side window wing vents or under-dash vents made air conditioning almost a necessity.

My solution to heat was a South Wind gas heater from a VW, which only needed a small amount of electricity,  a vacuum source and, of course, gasoline. The air conditioner solution was a 12- or 24-volt DC electric-powered air conditioning unit from an airplane such as a small Cessna or Beech. I happened to be working in the aircraft industry at the time and some of these electric-powered air conditioning units were quite compact (smaller than a bread box), but did require quite a bit of electricity.  It was way too much current draw for an electric car, but with an alternator on your car, I believe it could work. The drawback is the cost of the air conditioner unit and an alternator doesn’t fit the image of an old car. So, in short, where there is a will there is a way, but it may or may not be practical.

Oh yeah, about my electric-powered Fiero project: I sold the Fiero to my neighbor before I started on it because it was such a beautiful car. I just didn’t have the heart to modify it.

Eric Lundgren, Wichita, Kan.

A. That was my thought, too. Sufficient electrical supply could be a challenge in an old car. I think you’re almost certainly talking about 12-volt conversion for most pre-1956 cars, and installation of an alternator. As far as integrating conventional automotive air conditioning components into old cars, the street rodders have come up with some pretty unobtrusive systems, although authentic engine compartments are generally not their concern.

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Q. I have a beautiful 1941 Lincoln Continental coupe (Paradise Green). I’m 85 years young, but without power steering, I regrettably drive it less and less. I read your response to Ron Brumka’s question about an electric air conditioning (Q&A, June 7) in which you mentioned an electric power steering unit for old cars. Could you please give me more information? If I can’t resolve my lack of power steering, I’m afraid I’ll have to put the Continental up for sale. It needs to be driven.

Dan Cantor, Kenner, La.

A. The system I have seen, EZ Electric Power Steering, comes from the Netherlands and I have seen it exhibited at European car shows. It arises from the technologies developed for new cars, in particular hybrids and electrics which, as mentioned above, need both air conditioning and power steering to compete in today’s marketplace. New cars using electric power steering include the Honda S2000 sports car, the Toyota Prius, Lexus LX470 and quite a few GM models. They use compact, Japanese-made electric motors for assist, and EZ Electric integrates these with their own control electronics into a system that can be hidden under the dashboard. The system is fail-safe (it reverts to unassisted steering in case of failure), has no fluids to leak and even has variable assist levels, controlled either by vehicle speed or manually. Installation involves replacing the steering column with a new unit that is visually like the original, and mounting the electronics on custom brackets made for the car.

Most systems have been tailored for European sports cars, but EZ Electric has a U.S. agent, Robert Hall at The Driven Man in Cookville, Tenn. (423-773-9789 or thedrivenman@thedrivenman.com). He tells me that in addition to full kits (among U.S. cars mostly Corvettes and Mustangs) they offer “hot rod kits” that include just the control electronics and a motor mounted to a short section of steering shaft, that the customer or restorer can install. I see two complications for a pre-war Lincoln Continental: the need for 12 volts, since the motors require it, and the column-shift linkage that may get in the way. Hall says, however, that they have done custom installations on column-shift cars, in particular a 1939 Packard, but each new application must be individually designed. Kits for Corvettes and Mustangs run from $2,500 to $2,800, and the hot rod kits are about $1,800 to $1,900. Installation labor and vehicle-specific adaptations, of course, are additional. In comparison to electric air conditioning, the power requirements are more modest, since the motor operates only when the steering wheel is turned. Although purists may decry such modifications, the new technologies may enable many old cars that might otherwise sit unused to enjoy life as it was intended: on the road.

To submit questions to this column: E-mail angelo.vanbogart@fwmedia.com or mail to: Q&A, c/o Angelo Van Bogart, 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990-0001.

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