Change is inevitable. It can be a difficult truth, but what works now won’t work forever. Converting classic cars to electric power isn’t entirely new — half-baked electric Porsche 914 conversions and the like have been home-brewed in garages for decades. But today’s evolved electric vehicle technology means that electrified classic cars are a viable alternative — or addition — to owning conventional collector cars powered by their original internal-combustion engines.
Classic looks, Tesla-like performance
“Some people find part of the fun and the challenge of owning an older car is keeping it on the road, but there are a lot of other people who don’t want to mess with that. They just want to get in the car and drive,” says David Benardo, founder of Zelectric (www.zelectricmotors.com), a company based in San Diego, CA, that specializes in converting classic Volkswagens and Porsches to electric power. “Our clients own these cars because they love the car, love the design, love driving it — when it drives — but they’re spending too much time with the upkeep. They just want to enjoy the car and don’t want to tend to anything. That’s the biggest benefit of going electric.”
Benardo has worked with independent technicians to perform electric power conversions on about 40 conversions over the past decade. Recently, Zelectric has secured its own shop space and is primed to take such conversions in-house. Its system uses motors and battery packs from Tesla vehicles with Canadian-made control boards to manage them. Power is variable based on the type of car being converted, while range is related to available space.
The company is currently working on a pair of Porsche 356s, a ’61 and a ’62. Both will have their electric drivetrains detuned to produce between 100–150 horsepower, rather than the roughly 300 hp of a stock Tesla. The battery pack will give the cars about 120 miles of range. Volkswagen buses have the space to add more batteries, which should push range to about 170 miles. These numbers are up from the 80-mile range of earlier builds, due to technological improvements.
Benardo notes that other aspects of conversion cars must be updated to handle their extra power and torque. For example, heavy-duty 930 Turbo axles are often used for 911 builds, while 356 and pre-’69 short-wheelbase 911 projects need extra work to their rear suspensions.
Costs for these conversions can easily exceed the price of the car. A Zelectric VW Beetle conversion, assuming a solid donor that doesn’t need any restoration, starts at $78k. Porsches start at $98k and VW buses start at $113k. Nevertheless, Bernardo claims that the conversions aren’t necessarily money losers. “They continue to go up in value, and we have resold three or four conversions for more than the clients put into the cars in the first place,” Benardo says. “The pricing of the cars themselves is going up every year, thanks to Bring a Trailer and everyone else. We just resold a VW Thing for $92,000 — a VW Thing!”
While Zelectric’s conversions are reversible, with the cars able to be returned to stock, Benardo says often buyers don’t care. “Most clients will sell off the engine, gas tank, transmission, etc. We’ve had a few who want to keep the original engine and crate it, but two or three of them, after a few weeks of owning the converted car, they sell it and let someone else have fun with it.”
Charmed by an electric snake
Lance Stander, CEO of Superformance, the licensed builder of Cobra roadsters, Daytona Coupes and GT40s, says that he thought he’d never see the draw of electric vehicles. “I was the most anti-electric car person you could ever get. I always said, ‘I want to die never having driven an electric car.’ But now, we built our first electric Cobra, and holy moly, you’d be just stupid not to love it. We’ve built 1,500-horsepower Cobras, but they’re slower than this car!”
Stander has plenty of orders for electrified Superformance Mk III-E Cobras now, but due to the personalized nature of the builds and unstable availability of electric powertrains from suppliers, these cars take somewhat longer to make than conventional internal-combustion Cobras. He also says his cost is around $200k, but that will come down as production is standardized and a reliable powertrain supplier is retained. Interest comes from both older enthusiasts with mostly internal-combustion-powered collections as well as younger enthusiasts new to the fold.
“Some have old-school Cobras in their garage and they want a car that doesn’t piss their neighbors off at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning when they go to Cars & Coffee. These guys live in very high-end developments,” says Stander. “That’s one side of it. The other side is mostly the younger sector, 30- to 40-year-olds, they’ve made a lot of money in the tech industry, they like cars. A lot of these guys have a Ferrari in the garage, but they’ve got a Tesla too, because they want something faster than the Ferrari.”
“We also have an all-wheel-drive Cobra Daytona Coupe going together, that’s going to have Tesla motors front and rear.” Stander tells us. “That should be ready for SEMA this year, if all goes well.”
The DIY approach
Eric Hutchison co-founded Electric GT after buying a burned-out Ferrari 308 at auction for $10k and ditching the V8 for an electric powertrain. A friend experimenting with electric conversions helped with the build process, and before long, they’d created the world’s first electric-powered Ferrari. Now the company sells ready-to-install electric “crate motors” for conversion projects.
“I think it was very disturbing for Ferrari because they decided to introduce me to their legal department. Fortunately, nothing ever came of it; I had a good laugh and I have a letter or two framed on my wall.”
Sacrilege? Hutchison thinks not. “We rescued the car from the graveyard and we were able to recycle all the salvaged parts into other vehicles. I think the airbox went to the Netherlands. The carbs went to Germany and got rebuilt. The block went to Canada. The heads went down to Costa Rica. That car went all over the world.”
What began as a hobby project soon turned serious. Today, Electric GT sells complete kits to enthusiasts who want to build their own electrified classic cars. Kits are assembled based on the required specs, then tested and shipped out, ready to bolt in. Electric GT conversions can be manually shifted with a conventional gearbox. Typically, standing starts are made in second gear, given virtually instant peak torque from zero motor rpm.
While Electric GT’s crate motors are versatile enough to fit virtually any car, it also makes an eGT913 kit that’s specifically made for 911 conversions. Priced at $69,995, it is specifically designed to bolt in to 911 (and 912) engine bays. Optional upgrades include an air conditioning system, limited-slip differential and custom electric gauge package.
“There are a lot of hobbyists who do this who aren’t necessarily experts in building these.” Hutchison says. “Building complete systems that we know work when they leave here makes a big difference.”
The future is now
It’s not just the aftermarket that is ramping up for electrified classics. Jaguar’s E-type Zero, built in 2018, is a restored Series 1.5 convertible with a 295-hp (220kW) electric motor mated with an electric battery pack. The hardware was borrowed from Jaguar’s I-Pace EV. It sits where the original engine once did, and its similar size and weight allow the original suspension, differential and brakes to be used, while weight distribution remains the same.
After a multi-year pause, the automaker is now getting tooled up to make this concept a reality. The goal is a “future-proofed” classic, according to Jaguar.
It seems like the future is nearly here already. ♦