Car owner David Benardo and I are scooting around San Marcos, north of San Diego, in his lovingly resto-modded 1958 Volkswagen Beetle. It’s been lowered and raked slightly, like any good Southern California custom, and it’s been upgraded with gas shocks, an adjustable suspension, and four-wheel disc brakes. Needless to say, no Beetle ever came out of the factory in Wolfsburg with such luminous paint and impeccable panel gaps, not to mention pristine leather seats and a seemingly virgin wicker parcel tray. But the vague steering, lumpy ride, and primitive mechanical feel seem properly archaic, and there’s nothing to suggest that I’m not driving a car from a bygone era.
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Except for the sound. Or, rather, the lack thereof.
Instead of the wheezy clatter of an air-cooled four-banger, I hear the sound of, well, nothing, because this particular Beetle is powered not by a VW engine but by an electric motor generating 102 horsepower and more low-end torque than an entire colony of Bugs. “It will do 100 miles per hour, no problem, and it will go 80 uphill,” Benardo says, adding that it has an 80-mile range. “It’s quiet. It doesn’t smell. It doesn’t leak oil. You don’t have to warm it up in the morning, and you don’t have to wrench on it every weekend. If there’s a problem, you can take it to a place that services golf carts.”
As the founder and self-proclaimed “retrofuturist” at Zelectric Motors, Benardo sells electric versions of classic cars. Although Zelectric specializes in old VWs—a turnkey Beetle starts at $75,000—Benardo has also delivered a Porsche 911S, and there’s no limit on the projects he might undertake in the future. “I get e-mails every single day from guys asking if I can convert their favorite car to electric power,” he says. “We’re opening up the classic car world to a whole new group of people.”
The notion of an EV classic—or should that be a classic EV?—had an international moment this past summer when Prince Harry drove his new bride to their wedding reception in an electrified 1968 E-type Jaguar. Known as the E-type Zero concept, the car was commissioned by Jaguar Land Rover Classic as a one-off to showcase not only the company’s restoration skills but also its ability to create a zero-emission version of a historic collectible automobile.
Internally, the project was dubbed “Marmite” after the love-it-or-hate-it British food paste, and JLR Classic director Tim Hannig admits the car spawned plenty of catty comments. But so many people expressed interest in buying an E-type Zero of their own that Jaguar decided to put the 170-mile-range car into limited production. The conversion alone runs $75,000, with an all-in price of as much as $300,000 for a full restoration. But the price hasn’t scared potential customers away. “We’ve heard from E-type owners who don’t want to drive their [conventional] cars anymore,” Hannig says. “We’ve also heard from people who aren’t into classic cars at all.”
At this point, it’s still not clear whether EV classics are enjoying their 15 minutes of fame or if we’ve arrived at an inflection point in the history of collectible cars. Gearheads have been retrofitting old vehicles with new parts virtually since the automobile was invented more than a century ago. But replacing internal-combustion engines with electric motors is a novel concept that raises a host of phenomenological issues about what makes a classic car a classic car.
The mere fact that we’re asking these questions is a powerful indication of how much the public’s attitude toward electric vehicles has changed over the past decade. General Motors euthanized the EV1 in 1999 because it was obvious it couldn’t be sold profitably, and it wasn’t until 2008 that the Tesla roadster effectively created the modern EV market. To this day, EVs account for less than two percent of new-car sales. But there are now more than a dozen models on the market, with about 60 new electric or hybrid models expected in dealerships by 2020. There are pockets of the U.S. where electric vehicles are as thick on the ground as pickup trucks.
The biggest knock on EVs is their limited range. This wasn’t an issue for Michael Bream, however, when he decided to convert a BMW E36 M3 to electric power to run in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in 2012. A former skateboard manufacturer who’d come to racing through the 24 Hours of Lemons series, Bream was intrigued by the prospect of lots and lots of nearly instantaneous torque, especially torque that doesn’t slacken with altitude, and he wasn’t worried about the baggage that came with an electric motor. “Racers don’t care what’s in the engine compartment,” he says. “They’ll race a f***ing horse against a giraffe.”
Bream’s Bimmer killed it at Pikes Peak. Shortly after he returned to Southern California, a customer asked him to create an electric version of his 1991 Toyota MR2. Suddenly, Bream was in business, and before long, EV West in San Marcos was one of the largest conversion shops in the country. Bream now has 10,000 square feet of shop space and 10 employees, including two mechanical engineers. (He himself is a computer engineer.)
Although Bream’s most famous project was a fire-damaged Ferrari 308, he focuses on more mainstream classics. When I visited his shop, I spotted a twin-motor, twin-cab VW shop van, several Beetles, a Karmann Ghia, a Fiat 2000, a De Lorean, a BMW 2002 and a first-gen M3, a dune buggy, several Tesla Model Ss being cannibalized for parts, and the Pikes Peak M3, now fitted with a Tesla motor and capable of roasting rear tires at pretty much any time, any place, any speed. “For the rest of my life, I can work 24/7 and never run out of classic cars to convert,” Bream says.
EV West’s principal business is selling parts to do-it-yourselfers—everything from electric motors and battery packs to hoses and fittings. The company offers entire conversion kits, which arrive on a palette laden with 250 pounds of components, for 14 models ranging from a Porsche 356 Speedster to a VW Thing. “We’re expanding the collectible-car market,” Bream says. “In general, we attract the coolest muthas in the world.”
After leaving EV West, I hightail it up to Los Angeles to meet two EV DIYers. Mark Brems owns a 1974 Porsche 914 that goes 70 miles on a charge, and Thomas Almodovar is the builder of a 1979 MGB that travels 60 miles on a charge—typical range figures in these early days of retroelectric conversion. As a young man, the 59-year-old Brems owned a 1967 Triumph (“tuning those Stromberg carburetors was an art form,” he says), and he wanted something less fussy. “The 914 came together as a nice package—reliable, zero maintenance, and no fossil fuel,” he says.
Starting with a roller he found on Craigslist for $1250, Brems spent $18,000 and countless hours of sweat equity converting his 914 to electric power. That dollar figure doesn’t include the cost of restoring the car. The horsepower rating is roughly the same as stock, but his car has significantly more low-end torque. The batteries added 266 pounds—a Tesla Model S’s battery can weigh up to 1300 pounds—but Brems mounted them to retain the weight distribution that made the mid-engine 914 such a pleasure to drive. The result is a car that feels like a vintage Porsche with some additional oomph. In other words, sweet.
Almodovar, 60, lusted after a two-seat roadster that harked back to his youth, but he wanted it to be cheap and reliable enough to use as a daily driver. He figures he spent $20,000 on the MGB project, plus $2500 for the donor car and the cost of restoring it. He now has a spunky electric motor with 90 horsepower and 110 pound-feet of torque in place of the emissions-choked lump that originally came with the U.S. version of the roadster. “It’s a better car now than when it was built,” he says. “Plus, it costs me only $10 a month to drive the car, and I drive it every day.”
Of course, an MGB and a 914 aren’t the kind of cars that set collectors’ hearts aflame. Mitch Medford is a muscle-car guy from way back. When a Top Gear episode showing a Tesla roadster outrunning a Lotus Elise inspired him to build an EV, he decided to use a 1968 Ford Mustang fastback as the donor car. The result was the so-called Zombie 222—for two motors, two controllers, and “too damn fast,” according to Medford. He knows whereof he speaks. Shortly after the car was completed in 2014, it went 177.8 mph at the Texas Mile.
Medford, a former tech executive, now runs Bloodshed Motors (“we bleed for speed”) in Austin. At the moment, he’s converting another Mustang and a slammed 1964 Lincoln Continental, with a 1958 Corvette, a 1967 Chevy C10 pickup, and a Porsche 944 race car in the pipeline. Prices should run anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000. “What we’re trying to do is pioneer a new type of hot rod—the Lightning Rod,” he says.
Medford recognizes that some cars are too rare, exotic, and/or iconic to undergo an electric motor transplant. “I’d love to build a 300-mph Superbird or Daytona,” he says. “That would be awesome. But it would have to be a clone, because I’d never desecrate an original car.” Ditto for a Shelby GT350 or Cobra, which raises an interesting question: When is a classic car too valuable to get the EV treatment? Third-tier collectibles plagued by anemic performance and perpetual breakdowns are the most obvious candidates for conversion, which is why you can imagine old Beetles and postwar British roadsters lining up outside EV shops like unemployed laborers queuing outside soup kitchens during the Great Depression. But as you move up the food chain, electrification becomes harder to justify—for the financial hit you’d take for deviating from stock and the grief you’d get from the self-appointed authenticity police in the collector-car community. (JLR Classic is trying to thread the needle by building the E-type Zero in such a way that it can be easily restored to stock form.)
The larger issue is the philosophical paradox posed by EV conversion. Is an E-type without a Le Mans–proven XK motor still an XK-E? Is a 250 Testa Rossa without a Colombo V-12 still a Ferrari? What about a 911 without an air-cooled flat-six? A purebred or a mongrel that doesn’t deserve the Porsche seal of approval?
Medford argues that radical upgrades are—and always have been—an integral element of the hot rodder’s credo. As he puts it, “What’s the difference between putting a Tesla motor in an old Camaro instead of an LT4?”
A few months ago, I had a long talk with Rob Dickinson, the founder of Singer Vehicle Design, about the $1.8 million “reimagined” 911 that’s being sold as the Dynamic and Lightweighting Study. Despite all the upgrades and modifications, Dickinson insisted the DLS had to remain true to the essence of the original Porsche. As he put it, “The 911 is more than just an iconic shape.”
For better or worse—and maybe for better and worse—converting a classic car changes its fundamental character. Even when an EV classic retains a manual transmission, power delivery is altered significantly. You don’t get the sense of an internal-combustion engine coming on the cam or peaking as it approaches redline. When a car is equipped with regenerative braking, of course, you have to rethink your coasting and stopping techniques.
It’s hard to argue with the notion of replacing a leaky boat anchor of an engine with an electric motor that allows you to merge safely onto the highway and embark on road trips without a fully stocked toolbox in the trunk. But part of the appeal of driving a Model A Ford or Fiat 500 is going back in time and replicating the driving experience enjoyed—or endured, as the case may be—by previous generations. If all you want is something safe, reliable, and environmentally responsible, you can buy a Toyota Prius.
Nevertheless, proponents make the plausible argument that an electric motor is a better mousetrap. “Sir William would have loved the E-type Zero,” Hannig says, referring to Jaguar founder and patron saint William Lyons. “He always used the latest and best technology available.”
Fair enough. I totally get the appeal of leveraging electric power to give a classic car a ludicrous mode. Hooliganism in Bream’s Tesla-ized BMW was a trip and a half, and I climbed out of the car with a giant grin on my face (and the smell of burnt rubber in my nasal passages). But I owned an E36 M3 back in the day, and I remember it as pretty damn good even in purely stock form. So a part of me understands the reaction Bream got when he showed up at Pikes Peak in his electric BMW: “Screw you. You just ruined an E36.”
The collector-car community is a big tent that embraces everything from numbers-matching fuelies and F40s with Ferrari Classiche certification to Eisenhower-era pickups with airbag suspensions and rat rods of uncertain provenance. There’s definitely room for EV classics of any and every description. Even though I can’t imagine electric motors ever being as commonplace as small-block V-8s, the popularity of conversions is bound to skyrocket as batteries become cheaper and more efficient and the technology is more widely disseminated.
Resistance to electric power will almost certainly diminish as get-off-my-lawn baby boomers die off and younger, less hidebound gearheads take the wheel of the collector-car hobby. In light of environmental concerns, it’s even possible to imagine a future when internal-combustion engines are legislated off public roads. So it might be a good idea to get used to electric versions of iconic cars of the past. There might come a day when, if you want to drive a classic car on the street, it would have to be an E-type Zero or something very much like it.