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As Tesla and big carmakers like GM and Nissan gear up to bring electric cars to the masses, it's worth noting that electric cars have been on the road for decades.

Reporter Krista Almanzan of member station KAZU visited a company called Electro Auto in California's Santa Cruz Mountains. For more than three decades, it's been teaching people how to convert their conventional cars into plug-ins.

KRISTA ALMANZAN: I appreciate the functionality of cars, but I'm not the type to eagerly await my turn to get behind the wheel of something new. But this is different. It's a gold 1984 VW Rabbit, and it's electric.

Unidentified Man #1: You want to drive it?

ALMANZAN: Yeah. I'll give it a shot.

I'm crammed in this tiny car with three guys. But some quick maneuvering lands me in a very quiet driver's seat.

So is it on?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #1: It's on. You just have to take off the parking park.

ALMANZAN: And off we go onto the streets of the small Santa Cruz Mountains town of Felton.

Yeah. It's just like driving a normal car.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

ALMANZAN: Any of these guys will tell you that's pretty much the point.

Unidentified Man #3: You have the hardware for this side?

ALMANZAN: Just days ago, they converted the gas Rabbit to electric in this hands-on workshop.

Unidentified Man #4: I'm guessing this is the charging point.

ALMANZAN: The Rabbit is getting an electric motor that will run on the same batteries used in golf carts - 18 of them.

Mr. MIKE BROWN (Co-Owner, Electro Automotive): We're putting the back supports for this rack here, which holds eight batteries, four up here and four across the front.

ALMANZAN: That's Mike Brown. His company Electro Automotive has been in the electric car conversion business since 1979. It was the first to sell parts for gas-to-electric conversions. Now he also teaches these classes.

Mr. BROWN: The market we focused on was the grocery getter. The mission statement or the job description for that gold Rabbit out there: It had to haul four adults and a load of groceries.

ALMANZAN: The short-commute market is a natural fit for electric car conversions because these cars to have limitations, the biggest being how far the car can go on one battery charge.

Shari Prange is Brown's wife and business partner. She says range can vary from 20 miles to 100-plus. It depends on the car and its amenities.

Ms. SHARI PRANGE (Co-Owner, Electro Automotive): If you're using accessories like air conditioning, or if you get four-wheel drive, that's going to use more energy. If you want a really hot acceleration car, that's using more energy, just like it uses more gas.

ALMANZAN: And that's the challenge a business like Electro Auto will face from the growing electric market.

Bill Moore publishes the online electric vehicle magazine EV World. He says what the Nissan Leaf will have over gas conversions is it was built to be an electric car.

Mr. BILL MOORE (Publisher, EV World): This thing's going to drive just like any car. If you got into a Nissan Versa, it's going to have all of the function and features that you would expect in a conventional gasoline car, the only limit being it'll only go as far as its batteries will carry it.

ALMANZAN: Nissan puts the range at 100 miles.

Still, back at the Electro Auto workshop, student and former airplane mechanic Daniel Marcom says he'd rather build his own.

Mr. DANIEL MARCOM (Former Airplane Mechanic): This way, I could probably modify it exactly the way I want it.

ALMANZAN: He says he'll take what he learned working on this conversion back home to Hawaii. He expects to spend about 20 grand to convert a Porsche, though some DIY conversions can be done for as little as 9,000.

Mr. MARCOM: It's not about saving money. It's about having an electric vehicle for my enjoyment, as well as doing good for the environment.

ALMANZAN: Shari and Mike know the emerging electric car market can take a bite out of their business, but it can also help their business grow because it increases awareness.

Ms. PRANGE: We're no longer a bunch of hairball freaks on the fringe.

ALMANZAN: And while major manufacturers may not say so, EV World's Bill Moore credits the fringe electric car enthusiasts for keeping the technology alive.

For NPR News, I'm Krista Almanzan in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

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