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Engineering Students Turn Vintage MGB Into Electric Car

The year was 1984. Roger Dougal, a newly minted Ph.D. in electrical engineering, was beginning his career in the University of South Carolina’s College of Engineering.

He was the new owner of a 1972 MGB – a red convertible, perfect for life in the Palmetto State, where he could zip along the highways and city streets with the car’s top down practically year-round. Lightweight with easy handling, the MGB was a snazzy roadster for a young professor on the go.

But that was, shall we say, soooo last century.

Fast forward about two dozen years. Now internationally recognized for his research on power sources and systems, Dougal still loves cars and has added a passion for sailboats. The MGB was collecting dust – and a few leaves – in his garage. But the professor’s ongoing curiosity about all things auto and electrical meant one thing: He had to find out if he could build an electric car.

“I’ve always played with cars as a hobby,” said Dougal , who has a touch of gray in his hair as the years have rolled on. “I bought the car to rebuild it, but just ran out of time. I decided to do something useful.”

He took the car out of retirement and turned it over to electrical engineering students at the University of South Carolina’s College of Engineering and Computing. He gave them the opportunity to turn the British Leyland Motor Corp. vehicle into a car of the 21st century – a car not run on “petrol,” but electricity.

And they have. The “Electric MG,” as it’s called, is a reality.

“It can go really fast for short distances,” said Dougal, who estimates that about $10,000 has been spent in making the changes.

About 15 students have worked on the car since Dougal began the great experiment, which has left some MGB fans aghast. But the professor was determined to create an electric vehicle in the machine shop of the College of Engineering and Computing.

“I said, ‘We can do this before GM can,’ ” said Dougal, who estimates that he and several groups of students have worked on the project for about 18 months. “It didn’t move along quite as fast as I’d planned. When you think about how many people are working at the major auto manufacturers, we’ve probably made pretty good progress.”

But much of the student ingenuity and labor was volunteered. Some students have received course credit for their work. A few have received payment.

Tyler Price, a senior from Lexington, S.C., is one of the students working on the car, which has had the convertible top removed and a roll bar added.

The original engine is in Dougal’s garage and has been replaced by an AC motor with a custom driveshaft. In its place is a bank of more than 100 supercapacitors, resembling soft drink cans that have been encased in a plastic box and loaded into the trunk for the power source. A lithium battery will be added later and coupled with the supercapacitor bank to improve range and efficiency.

“The changes take the car from one century to another,” said Price. “Like all projects, it’s been an evolution.”

The experience has shown Price that electric vehicles can be a reality.

“I believe we’re doing something that will be used. We’re ahead of the curve. Only a few universities are doing what we’ve done,” he said.

The car is waiting on some modifications, including a paint job, LED lamps to replace the headlights, a sports windshield and new carpet. Because it’s electric, the car sounds much like a golf cart. The students want to add acoustics to give the MGB-EV, as they call it, a sound more closely resembling a car.

Nevertheless, the car can be driven – just not on a highway yet, Price said.

Dougal and the student team, which includes undergraduate Robbie Motte of Bonneau and graduate student Steven Kowski of St. Petersburg, Fla., are looking forward to testing it for speed, acceleration and economy.

“This was a famous British sports car back in its day,” said Price, who wasn’t born when Dougal acquired the car. “Now, it will have some fame in another century.”

Karen Petit | Newswise Science News
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