Wellington specialist car restorers at The Surgery are converting classics to electric.
It’s not a job for the fainthearted. “If a customer is just thinking about it, they are generally $40,000 in,” says The Surgery’s relatively new owner, John Stevenson-Galvin. For the restorer, it’s not as simple as just taking out the engine and dropping in a battery and electric motor.
The team recently completed a 1993 Mini Mayfair. “Even using an EV kit designed specifically for the Mini came with a range of issues,” he says. The Mini was not an exact match to some manufacturer specifications and there were a lot of calculations, adjustments and customising needed to make the conversion. This included meeting the challenges required to gain LVVTA certification.
“Other countries do not have an LVVTA certification process, so EV kit products don’t have to meet specific standards.” For the Mini conversion The Surgery technicians took out the two back seats to install the batteries, and, to meet LVVTA requirements, built a firewall envelope. “In other conversions like this you would put the battery in the boot, but the owner wanted to keep that space free.”
John says rather than buying a kit designed for a specific vehicle, he prefers the flexibility to buy off-the-shelf motors and components and adjust the software himself to provide the final experience the customer wants. “If we custom-build, we can pick the motor, add regenerative braking, adjust the throttle response and make other tweaks.” He often uses the NetGain products, which have a wide range of motors that can be customised to each project.
The Mini conversion that The Surgery completed was the fourth to be done and it took about six months to complete. A VW Beetle and MG Midget are now in The Surgery, with the owners of several other cars on the waiting list. “There is huge interest in EV conversion, but probably only one in 100 people will go forward with the project, due to cost right now,” says John.
Analogue to digital
In the three years since John took over the respected car restoration business, he has doubled its size and output. By moving its process management from analogue to digital he has unlocked the growth potential previous owner Mike Baucke believed The Surgery had.
Mike says, “I didn’t have the energy for bringing in all the IT that was needed.
"I wanted to slow down, not speed up.” He has stayed on in a part-time role and is enjoying the new team and fresh approach that John brought in.
“Selling was a lifestyle choice for me.
My wife and I have kept ownership of the building and I have time to work on my own car collection.” These include a DeLorean, Lotus Evora, Mercedes-Benz 190SL and a campervan.
For Irish-born John Stevenson-Galvin, when he spotted an unnamed restoration business (The Surgery) listed on Trade Me he saw an opportunity. It would fit well with his passion for cars and the IT expertise he had developed in his training in architecture and 12 years as a project manager with Weta Digital. His skills include pulling together the software tools and systems needed to manage large projects. It’s also helpful that he’s been a professional auto photographer (all photos for the Radiator article were supplied by John).
One of the younger members of the team is Nathan West who is in the final stages of his collision repair apprenticeship. “A lot of what we have studied isn’t used much here. There’s a lot of fabrication and heavy rust, so I’m learning something new every day.” He’s been part of the conversion of the Mini and the Midget and is enthusiastic about all the challenges this has brought his way.
John says Nathan is very tech savvy, which is important to the way the workshop operates. Its project management includes not just keeping track of all the parts needed for each of the 40 or so cars going through a restoration, but also photographing each step of the work. “Each car can end up with a file of three or four thousand photos.” John says the photos are automatically posted online at the end of each day so the owner can follow the restoration process closely. They can also be used for valuation or to help sell a vehicle. “The files also mean that if there is a problem in the future, we can check if it relates to something we worked on or not.”
Building a team
Over the last few years, John has built up the number of staff from five to 11. He says bringing together the people to form an effective team of independent, creative thinkers and problems solvers has been a challenge. “The right team is the most important part of any business. It takes a lot of careful, hard work and ingenuity to bring a classic car back to its original glory.”
There is also a lot of interaction with customers.
“This is not a business like a crash repair workshop. Customers have planned their projects over years and have a long relationship with us. Sometimes, their cars have been through three generations, they are a family heirloom.”
Spreading the risk
John hasn’t just shifted the workshop systems from basic computer programmes and paper-based records and processes to much more advanced technology. He has also doubled the leased floor space, which allows The Surgery team to work on 40 projects at a time, rather than the previous 18.
The business still has a six-month waiting list.
“I’m also not one for putting all the eggs in one basket.” He has leased another building to provide secure storage as an additional service for customers. This building also houses his other business, Detail Depot, which is the New Zealand distributor for CarPro, Jay Leno’s Garage and Kwazar. This allows him to provide a full detailing service to his customers. The Surgery also recently joined MTA to support its move into providing WoF inspections and servicing to its clients and their classic vehicles.