On the eve of Luftgekühlt, a celebration of all things air-cooled, a silver teardrop courses down the mountain. The sight of it is like a watching period historical footage on mute: the speed is there, but not the sound. Past and present blend together in a way that might enrage purists, but you shouldn’t turn up your nose just because this 1966 Porsche 912 runs on electrons instead of gas.
Launched in 1966, the Porsche 912 was intended to be the entry-level Porsche when it came time to replace the 356. It had a four-cylinder engine and budget price, and buyers spoke their approval with their wallets—it outsold the 911 two to one. These days, a Stuttgart crest on the nose guarantees rising values for pretty much everything, but no so long ago, the dime-a-dozen 912 was once as unloved in the collector market as the 914 or the 944 (both of which are growing in demand, themselves). This 912 belongs to Ian Corlett, a voice actor who splits his time between Los Angeles and Vancouver, British Columbia.
However, when Corlett embarked on his project nearly a decade ago, the 912 was generally regarded as little more than a VW Beetle wearing a 911-shaped corset. Having found a somewhat raggedy donor car in Arizona, he figured the conversion to electric power wouldn't upset too many people; after all, it was “only” a 912.
Still, he didn't want to ruin the joy of a Porsche. He's had a string of them over the years, from air-cooled to wasserboxers, and I first met him at a track day. We met up this time at the start of The Professor Run, a Porsche-centric cruise that sees everything from 964s to GT3s running through the California canyons for miles.
Inspired by a scooter
Corlett didn’t convert his 912 to electric power out of concern for emissions—it was the convenience factor. In their earliest days, more than a century ago, electric vehicles were expensive luxuries that always started up when the more-common clattery internal combustion engines wouldn't. Range wasn't much of a thought then, nor was it for Corlett's first project, which was a Vespa.
“It was the Vespa that really started the ball rolling,” he said, “I bought it thinking I'd ride it on sunny days, but any time a half-decent day came around, you couldn't get it going.”
Thus, his Quadrophenia-styled scooter got an electric transplant. Suddenly, it worked on those rare rain-free Vancouver mornings, always charged up and ready to go, regardless of how long it had been sitting. So when Corlett decided to build a classic Porsche project, he decided to go the electric route from the get-go.
Converting the 912
The 912 was in cosmetically sound shape, but as the panels came off, rust reared its ugly head. As any hobby restorer can empathize, a six-month job turned into a tougher three-year slog—all before the switch to electric motors. That last step came together with help from the specialists at EV West in San Marcos, California.
Swapping in an electric powertrain isn’t always straightforward, and vehicles can be hacked to pieces in the process, irreversibly compromising originality. Rest assured, such is not the case with Corlett’s Porsche 912. EV West president Michael Bream was quick to point out that half-assed cowboy projects aren't what his team does.
“We could have that 912 back to gasoline power in under a day,” he said. “It's a target for all our builds—take care of the car.”
In 1966, the Porsche 912 made 90 hp at 5800 rpm. In 2018, Corlett's 912 ElectroPorsche has around 220 hp from its electric motor, Tesla batteries, and torque that comes on with the immediacy of a light switch. The brakes and suspension are a mix of modern Boxster and Carrera parts, and EV West reworked the original build with battery-regenerative braking.
A lithium-ion battery pack up front more evenly distributes weight than the original rear-engine setup. As it is, range is currently between 100–150 miles. But as battery tech improves, the 912 will be capable of even greater distances on a full charge. And when that time comes, the battery’s modular construction makes it easy to swap out older packs for more advanced replacements. The overall result is about 300 pounds of extra weight. The electric 912 is only very slightly heavier than a contemporary 911S with a full tank of fuel, and it makes 60 additional hp and a whole lot more torque.
Hushed tones of sacrilege, and it feels so good
In the ElectroPorsche, you surge off the line with all the thrust of the current turbocharged 911 lineup. And although there’s no air-cooled engine sputtering away behind your ears, it’s not a vacuum of silence inside the cabin. There's an eerie warble from the electric motor, the roar of the wind, the whine of the gearbox, and the slight squeal as you test the limits of the tires.
As to the gearbox: it's a manual! The dogleg five-speed shifter is retained as part of the build, preserving an essential part of the car-driver bond. There is a little weirdness to a manual EV—you can't stall it, for instance—but it otherwise operates just like any car you're used to. It's just electrons turning the wheels instead of combusted liquid dinosaurs.
Hustling the electric 912 through the curves of Angeles Crest, I can't help but be impressed. While the pendulum feel of a rear-engined Porsche is rendered neutral by the front-mounted battery, mostly everything else about the experience is classic Porsche. The windshield gives you a widescreen view of the world. The car is lively and nimble. The sun glints off the silver paint of a pontoon fender. It's just that everything is far more responsive than the 1960s original, with gutsy torque to blast out of corners, and brakes you can trust. The feel of the steering wheel and shifter are faithfully old-school, but everything that physically stops, turns, and goes has been upgraded.
A sign of what’s to come?
We all know the rise of electric vehicles is at this point a foregone conclusion. A timeline is open for argument, but in a hundred years or so there probably won't be too many gas stations around.
A car like Corlett's electric Porsche 912 might not have an internal combustion soundtrack that enthusiasts love. I’ll be the first to admit I miss the engine’s music to pace the dance of the steering wheel, shifter, and brake. This is simply a quieter, perhaps more meditative way to immerse yourself in speed.
And when you step out into the fresh air and look back over your shoulder, it’s the same beautiful Porsche. It glimmers in the sunlight on this bright, cloudless, utterly Californian day. An anonymous crossover pulls over at the lookout, and a young woman steps out, walking over to the edge to gaze down at the city.
“That's beautiful,” she says, passing by, “Just a beautiful car.”
With the amount of classic car lovers out there, the internal combustion engine’s legacy is safe, and air-cooled Porsches won’t be forgotten. But if this is heresy, we look forward to living in silent sin.