EVs aren’t the enemy of car culture

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2018 Tesla Model S red bridge Tesla

You know the type. The purist who screams at the top of his lungs that the death of internal combustion is the death of our love affair with the automobile? Who wails that the automotive’s soul will evanesce, that electric range and recharge capacity will never match the convenience of petroleum-based horsepower—oh, and did he mention the sound?

We know the type, and some days we are that type. Here’s the thing. If the surge of hot rodding and innovation in the electric vehicle aftermarket is any indicator, the kids are gonna be alright—and they’ll have stuff that simply can’t exist within the constraints set by the Luddites and their piston-hurling crown jewels. Granted, I have to avoid making eye contact with the two Chevrolet trucks and an eight-second AMC Gremlin in my driveway that all owe their identities to their powerplants, but hear me out.

We’ll get the concept of a machine’s soul out of the way first.

Just about every gearhead has listened to Jeremy Clarkson wax poetic about what brings us to idolize everything (more or less) with four wheels in Eric Bana’s Love the Beast. Clarkson’s key line is this: “When something has foibles and won’t handle properly, that gives it a particularly human quality because it makes mistakes, and that’s how you can build a relationship with a car that other people won’t get.”

The soul of a machine is rooted in its particularities, Clarkson is saying. Unexpected actions and, sometimes, overreaching capabilities create a character of sorts that you must truly understand to cooperate with. Sometimes, you might even empathize with the cantankerous machines.

Based on Clarkson’s reasoning, even the benevolent Nissan Leaf has a soul of its own, though we can’t speak to how fun it is at parties.

The flawed presupposition regarding EV machines is that they’re unerring tools that do nothing out of the ordinary. EVs don’t have the unsteady chop of camshafts that nearly suffocates an engine at idle speeds. Their inner workings are untouchable, sealed off from the common guy or gal on the street who wishes to twist technology to fit his or her own means. Or so we hear.

To be fair, this EV stereotype is something of an insult to the generations of homebrew electrical engineers that have kept many of these bastard corporate engineering projects alive decades after others abandoned the efforts. There’s a religion behind saving old Toyota RAV4s, Ford Rangers, and GM EV1s (what few escaped their contractual dates with the crusher), along with the dozens of other EV experiments from the past 100 years of automotive development. The passion of those who restore and update these forgotten automotive chapters is as legitimate as any other enthusiasts’.

So old EVs have a fan club we didn’t know about, the skeptic may say. Why are we just now seeing increased interest in new EVs, both factory EVs and custom conversions?

Blame Elon.

While we’ve had the venerable industrial motors with heavy lead-acid batteries for decades, the tidy packaging and belligerent performance of the Tesla Model S’s drivetrain gave the community the potent Lego brick necessary to finally pull down the barriers to aftermarket entry.

2018 Tesla Model S rain red
2018 Tesla Model S Tesla

The improvement in automotive-grade batteries was a given, but Elon’s wildcard of an automotive company gave gearheads a drive unit built for real performance in a mass-produced package. Simultaneously, Tesla proved to even the casual car spotter that an electric machine could trade blows with the world’s quickest performance cars.

As Teslas began to fill insurance auctions, enterprising EV pioneers began buying them up and reverse-engineering the controls necessary to swap an electric drivetrain as easily as an LS. The compact motor and axle assembly solved many of the routine engineering challenges that accompanied prior swaps—namely, the struggle to transmit power from the electric motors to the wheels in a system that was both energy-efficient and compact.

Many of the commonly-available motors, like the massive NetGain Warp 11-inch DC motors found in EV West’s earlier BMW M3 build, had bulky dimensions, even when paired with some of the most compact transmissions available, like the two-speed General Motors Powerglide (a go-to for drag racers and, crucially, a transmission able to withstand the abrupt torque of electric motors). Not only that, but many conversions used motors well outside of those motors’ intended applications, resulting in over-volted drivetrains simply ill-suited to automotive demands.

This is the original drivetrain out of EV West’s BMW time-attack car. A pair of NetGain Warp 11s spun a two-speed Powerglide transmission. Today, they’ve updated the infamous E36 with a Tesla drive unit—and it’s basically the same price as a Chevrolet Performance LSA crate engine.
This is the original drivetrain out of EV West’s BMW time-attack car. A pair of NetGain Warp 11s spun a two-speed Powerglide transmission. Today, they’ve updated the infamous E36 with a Tesla drive unit—and it’s basically the same price as a Chevrolet Performance LSA crate engine. EV West

These sorts of compromises had to be made when adapting a bunch of parts that were never designed to work together in the first place—and these same struggles were alleviated by the Model S power unit. 

Once MoTeC cracked the controls with a stand-alone “ECU” of sorts, these swaps began to proliferate throughout the gearhead community. Most of the black magic had already been solved. You didn’t have to learn anything about industrial motors or how to convert traditional automatics to operate on EV power plants. Speed shops and garage engineers like plug-n-play solutions, and here was one of the best ones yet—it took most of the guesswork out of the equation. 

Better yet, the proliferation of modular lithium battery packs brought by EVs, and by hybrids like the Toyota Prius, had flooded the market with high-quality, energy-dense battery packs that could be easily re-tooled for different applications—more LEGO bricks that clicked together. 

The Tesla drive unit does, however, change the air-cooled flat-six aura of a vintage 911.
The Tesla drive unit does, however, change the air-cooled flat-six aura of a vintage 911. EV West

With new tools come new capabilities, and EV drivetrains are rife with advantages that are the stuff of dreams for those with the sole intent on going fast as hell by any means possible. The average joe can recite the rabble about full-torque at zero rpm, but the real magic of an EV drivetrain is the absolute control over torque delivery. 

Imagine a dial-your-own torque curve, without trying to titrate a chemical reaction through a myriad of fuel, air, and timing adjustments. A gasoline engine wants to run away against any restriction, whether that be throttle or the load of a drivetrain, and any attempt to restrain the engine ultimately creates a compromised and wasteful package. Think about the job of a turbo’s wastegate: to waste exhaust heat and pressure because you either need to limit horsepower for traction or because you’re approaching the engine’s mechanical limitations. 

The advantage of an electric motor is that there’s no waste or delay in torque management. You can effectively plot your own torque curve in the power delivery or “throttle” input (and you’ll need it, because they can twist the tires loose on a whim). 

There’s practically no power loss due to altitude or ambient temps, either, so electric motors are undeniably consistent. Naturally, of course, if you stray more towards a refined experience, there’s just no denying the silent, invisible hand of electric thrust. There are many things internal combustion engines don’t do all that well, though they’ll die trying as the electrified onslaught continues. 

There’s this widespread fear that EVs will be the death of hot rodding or the enthusiast car culture in general. Here’s my beef with that idea: it betrays a preconceived notion about what makes a gearhead, and limits who and what qualifies as “legitimate” in the automotive world. This restrictive attitude is the absolute antithesis of what drives this culture and industry. 

New technology brings new problems, new barriers, and new ingenuity to the table; it’s the keystone of what made the golden era of motorsports so damn exciting—the insatiable tease of the unknown limits and the path of discovery it takes to figure it all out. The internal combustion engine will someday be replaced as our primary motivator, but combustion’s farewell does not spell the death of motorsports and modification that everyone fears. We’re only beginning to see the start of a new performance era.

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