Why Converting Classic Cars to Electric Drive Is A Thing

A vintage British sportscar is a wonderful thing. Inimitable style and luxury, beautiful curves, and a soundtrack that could make even Vinnie Jones shed a tear. However, even under the most diligent maintenance schedule, they are known, above all, for their unreliability. As the value of such cars is tied heavily to their condition as unmodified examples, owners are typically reluctant to make modifications to remedy these issues.

However, things are starting to change. Cities across the world are enacting measures to ban fossil fuel vehicles from their streets, and sales of such vehicles are similarly going to be banned entirely. The automotive industry is preparing for a major pivot towards electric drivetrains, and no carmaker will be left untouched. In this landscape, it’s not just Tesla and Nissan who are selling electric cars anymore. Luxury brands are beginning to deliver electric vehicles, too.

What This Means for Classic Cars

Luxury brands trade on history and cachet; perhaps the former even more than the latter. There’s a reason why Ferrari and Porsche are household names, while Koenigsegg are more well known among the Top Gear set. Immaculate examples of historically relevant cars regularly change hands for millions of dollars, and brands will often invite only their most loyal and famous customers to buy their limited edition cars.

This strong focus on history is reflected in how automakers treat the glory models from their past. It’s possible to ring up Porsche and get just about any part you could imagine for a 911 from model year 1964 to 2018. Try calling Ford up and asking for a new gearbox for your 1988 Tempo AWD and you’ll likely be out of luck.

Aston Martin and Jaguar are two such brands with a storied history and are a huge presence in the classic car market. Unfortunately, they’re also known for their legendary unreliability and the spectre of Lucas electrics which haunts many British car owners worst nightmares. This can make it hard for owners to drive and enjoy their classics.

All is not lost, however. Jaguar is already selling the I-PACE electric SUV in several markets, and Aston Martin plans to launch the Rapide-E early next year. Both companies now have experience with electric drivetrains, and are bringing it to bear on some of their most celebrated past models.

In the Jaguar, the electric drive package is styled to recall the aesthetics of the original XK engine.

The E-type, commonly referred to as “the most beautiful car of all time”, is the first car to get the electric treatment from Jaguar Land Rover Classic Works, an official department of the company dedicated to working on the older members of the fleet. Billed as the E-Type Zero, the package consists of a full drivetrain conversion, as well as a completely new dashboard with modern gauges and an infotainment screen. Power was limited to 295 horsepower to avoid having to update the suspension and brakes to cope with the extra power, changing the character of the car.

Meanwhile, Aston Martin is gearing up to retrofit the DB6, again with a full drivetrain swap, but limiting interior changes to a single screen added to the interior. The conversion is designed to fit as neatly as possible, picking up the original engine and transmission mounts. Figures aren’t available yet, but we’d suspect power to be less than 400 horsepower due to the limitations of the original chassis and handling package.

Why?

The simple fact is supply and demand. Owners of these classics have money to burn, and now that reliable electric drivetrain technology is within reach, a conversion package backed by the factory is an attractive prospect.

This confusing vision coming to a classic car show near you!

A key consideration is that both Aston Martin and Jaguar have stressed that their conversions are completely reversible — requiring no permanent changes to the original vehicle. This is key, as owners of investment-grade classics are reticent to drill holes in priceless original bodywork.

With a factory conversion, it’s possible to enjoy a classic sportscar in a whole new way, with improved reliability and no worries about dodgy workmasnship from an aftermarket supplier. No more shall the E-type and DB6 owners struggle with post-winter oil changes and can after can of starting fluid — it will be as simple as plug in, and go.

The Trickle Down, Or Not

It’s true enough that most automotive trickles down from the pointy end to the common commuter car, given enough time. Things like satellite navigation and power windows were once expensive luxuries, which are now de rigeur on most cars.

The cars of Looper, set in 2044, were retrofitted with all manner of solar panels and exhaust recirculation systems. We suspect the future won’t be quite like this, but it’s a compelling aesthetic for sure.

However, it’s unlikely you’ll see electric conversion kits from more mainstream automakers anytime soon, and once again, it comes down to basic economics. A full drivetrain conversion is expensive to engineer, and the labor costs to install are somewhere between painful and a house deposit — and that’s not even counting the parts.

There are packaging issues, too. Front-engined, rear wheel drive sports coupes from yesteryear like the E-Type and the DB6 had big, long 6 cylinder engines, or in some cases, even V12s. With the combustion engine and fuel tank removed, there’s plenty of space to work with. Contrast that with a modern front wheel drive hatchback, and things are a little more cramped.

Unfortunately, it simply doesn’t make sense to spend tens of thousands of dollars converting a mid-2000s commuter car to electric drive. Range would be short compared to modern all-electric cars due to the limited space available to retrofit a battery pack, and there may be safety concerns as to how to put in necessary battery cutoffs to aid emergency crews in the events of crashes and fires. For the cost of a conversion, it would make far more sense to buy a brand new electric car, rather than converting a not-particularly-desirable hatchback or SUV from the last 20 years.

What We Expect To See Next

There is a lot of work ongoing in this space, with both automakers and third-party shops developing electric drive packages for retrofit purposes. Typically, we see these going into passion projects, like the Electric GT Ferrari 308. There’s also madcap drag racing projects like this 1981 Honda Accord with a Tesla drivetrain — a truly impressive hack.

In the coming years, we expect to see packages for more of the classics, particularly those where the electric drivetrain can solve issues or improve performance above and beyond that of the original combustion motor. A drop-in swap for an air-cooled 911 might have a decent take rate, but the purists love those cars for the character of the engine above all else. However, a classic 4×4 Ford Bronco, already a darling for engine swappers looking for more performance, would be a perfect candidate —  the low-down torque from electric drive would be ideal in many off-road scenarios.

In any case, the focus will likely remain on producing reversible swaps for the more popular classic cars out there, where sales volumes can help defray the development costs of the conversion. There’ll also likely be more off-the-wall motorsport and enthusiast DIY builds, too. However, the benefits simply aren’t there to convert the grocery getters and kid haulers of the world, and they’re likely best replaced with a nice new electric automobile from the showroom floor.

95 thoughts on “Why Converting Classic Cars to Electric Drive Is A Thing

  1. “It’s possible to ring up Porsche and get just about any part you could imagine for a 911 from model year 1964 to 2018.”

    While not as far back as that, Caterpillar makes replacement parts available for 40 years…

    1. I went to my local Caterpillar dealer and bought new (not NOS) special inverse (outside-lip) axle seals for the steering differential in my WWII M29 Weasel amphibious personnel carrier. Over the counter, in stock, no waiting. Incredible.

    1. I’m helping a customer converting one from lead to Chevy Volt lithium which is very cost effective, less than a new lead pack.
      I’d like to dispel the notion converting to EV is hard as EVs are dead simple, just a battery and starter. The hardest part is taking out the ICE bits. In a Vette I did I sold the transmission but mostly it was to get the engine taken out and get paid for it!!.
      Converting say an S-10 there are many kits, adaptor plates, etc available and well shopped you can now convert to EV and lithium in the $5k-$10k range. I’d do the work for just $3k and parts, under $10k plus S-10.
      Look at the EVPhotoAlbum for 1k+ examples of EV conversion and older factory ones like the Solectria including several 1,000 of factory Chevy, Ford EV pickups besides other companies and conversions..

      1. Tricked out “Trabbi” with electric drive train and some batteries would be the ultimate sleeper car. Not gonna get very far, but should accelerate like crazy. It’s just paper, after all.

    1. Even being someone rather opposite to Tesla fan, I must say that building one semi-working (is it even working, by the way? anybody seen it working?) car is not the same as mass-producing a decent (even if not perfect) car.

  2. “Cities across the world are enacting measures to ban fossil fuel vehicles from their streets”

    Please tell more. I’ve never heard this!

    I wonder about life with an electric car. There is a lot about the idea that I like but what if I forget to charge it? If I forget to fill my gas-powered car I’m at most a few minutes delayed as I have to stop somewhere to fill up. How many hours will I be late to work if I wake up one day realizing that I forgot to plug in my car? When will I finally get home if I do make it to work but don’t have enough charge to get home?

    Do electric car charging stations have waiting rooms?

  3. It is a matter of economics, but this article’s major ignorance is in claiming the costs need to be anything like the gigantic conversion prices charged by Jaguar. GM will be offering an electric crate elecric motor in three sizes, that can be bolted up to any GM transmission

    1. A crate motor isn’t a full car prepped and ready to drive away.

      As stated, labor costs “are somewhere between painful and a house deposit” – yes, there’ll be people doing electric Camaros and Firebirds, but the average Joe isn’t going to do an electric Toyota Corolla just to save on fuel for the grocery run. It doesn’t make economic sense for daily commuter cars.

      Yes, there are cheaper ways to do electric conversions, but they don’t make sense for non-enthusiasts who just need to get from A to B. In that case, new electric cars make far more sense.

      1. >but the average Joe isn’t going to do an electric Toyota Corolla

        Coincidentally, there was just such a project to produce an open-source conversion kit for Toyota Corollas.

        http://ecars-now.wikidot.com/ecars:electric-toyota-corolla

        It failed because everyone involved used the project to build their own private careers, and in the end nothing useful was released. One guy got a garage built by volunteers, others got to travel a few trade shows and hype meetings with the prototype car, and then they all vanished off the radar.

    1. LOL, not even close.

      Both Series 1 engines developed 265BHP, the difference between the 4.2L and the 3.8L was in the torque (283 lb.ft vs 240 lb.ft). A reasonable comparison would be a Mk.7 VW GTI which APR measure to have 235 HP and 278 lb.ft torque at stock. The GTI is a turbo though, so high torque is available through much of the engine’s RPM range, which goes someway to explaining how it can get from 0-60MPH in 5.9s versus the 6.4s for the Series 1 E-Type, despite having less power and being heavier.

      I can’t decide what is more impressive – the numbers that the E-Type achieved nearly 60 years ago, or that similar performance is widespread in daily drivers now.

      The beauty of the electric motor is that high torque is available from 0 RPM. It should accelerate more like a turbo car does, although less peaky than the GTI – maybe more like a typical Saab tune.

  4. I’m still wondering when people started believing electric cars don’t run on fossil fuel. Did I miss the total conversion to nuclear or solar (lol) or wind (lolol) energy production? Is anyone recycling these lithium batteries yet?
    It appears ‘big oil’, in terms of pushing an agenda for profit, has been replaced by ‘big al’.

    1. You didn’t miss the total conversion to solar (and battery) yet, but in my country there are so many taxes on electricity that it’s stupid to not install solar. Not just a couple of panels on the roof, but making the whole roof out of solar panels.

    2. Don’t solar panels have sort of a limited lifespan, 10-15 years? Not bad, but expensive, unfortunately they don’t work very well at night, or stormy days either. Seems like night time would be the peak car charging hours… Wind isn’t practical for most locations. I’ve got a hunch coal and gas will still be burned, to produce the electricity, needed to charge all those mandated electric vehicles. Wonder if the USA will work the change over, like health care, pass out freebies, if you can’t afford to buy, and subsidize the electricity too. Sad but true, carbon-based fuel is here to stay, until something better comes around. Regardless of the marketing, the downside of electric, is that it takes hours to charge the battery, only a few minutes to fill a tank with gas. You run out of gas, you only need a gallon or so, to get to a filling station, not sure what you could do for a low battery on the side of the road. Drive will likely be a luxury, for the rich elite, most of us will be taxed into mass transit anyway.

      1. Fossil fuels burnt in a modern power station is better than burning it in a car tho, it’s more efficient plus it supports the movement to full renewables or CO2 recapture/sequestration (in the unlikely event either become viable).

      2. I have some solar panels that are 30+ years old and still producing worthwhile output (down about 20%, but very far from dead).
        No, they don’t work at night or on cloudy days, but that is when fossil fuels should be used – not for base load (daytime) applications like they are now.

    3. Additional bonus for electric cars is that we take fumes out of cities and reduce noise. That would be something even if we still use fossil fuels to produce energy (which we try to stop in future near as possible).

  5. Mostly clickbait. The writer won’t list the prices so unless you’re already wealthy, forget about it. And all those cars accomplish is allow the owner engage in some virtue signalling just like Tesla buyers do, at least when their cars don’t burst into flames.

    A electric Bronco? What a joke. Generally where you off-road it there are no 230 volt outlets to plug into and get free electricity. Worse, how long do you think a battery charge would last when you’re gunning that Bronco across sand dune and mud pits and red lining it? Maybe a couple of hours before you have to call a wrecker and tow it a charging station.

    And there is no need to convert, what states like CA want is to eventually mandate all new cars sold will be electric. New not current.

      1. The Model 3 was a joke.

        The point was that they got a $7500 tax credit, so the car that Musk promised to make would have cost about $27000 after the rebate, but Elon knew that he wouldn’t be able to make the car to the price. He did a bait-and-switch and instead manufactured only the $44000 “options included” model, refusing to make the cheaper model. The rules on the tax rebate was that once they make 200 000 cars, the rebate would drop, and with more cars it would disappear, so that got people racing to pay the $1000 deposit and earned Tesla millions.

        Now the people on the waiting list have to choose whether they want the smaller rebate out of the $44000 car and switch up, or wait even longer to finally pay $35000 for the car with no options included.

        Either way, Tesla got a bunch of money, and the Model 3 is still too expensive for most people to own. Nothing solved, nothing gained.

  6. “Try calling Ford up and asking for a new gearbox for your 1988 Tempo AWD and you’ll likely be out of luck.”

    Try calling up VW and getting a part ……

    These conversions would be hideously expensive but then if you have the dollars to blow on such a car the conversion cost would be nothing more than lunch money.

    I rebuilt a ‘75 vw beetle with my daughter a couple of years ago and we looked at electric conversion for it, but just a kit of parts was around the A$30k mark.

    I’m currently rebuilding a ‘74 vw kombi and will be reinvestigating an electric conversion for it when the time comes

    1. Just keep “salvaging” lime and bird scooters off the side of the road until you have a tesla-sized battery pack and link up all those little BLDC motors into a satanically complex gearbox to combine their output and you’re good to go

      1. Bugatti did it with their full sized driveable (slowly) LEGO Technic car. Pretty good trick how they geared together 1000+ LEGO motors and didn’t lose it all to gear friction and slop.

    1. The problem with electric cars is that they are a rich man’s toy. Generally the people who have a Tesla have several other gas guzzlers they drive for work. The poor schlub who drives a 2nd hand Hyundai or Nissan is never going to be able to afford a decent electric car.

      The other problem is,the electrical grid could not handle hundreds of thousands or millions of electric cars being charged at the same time. Here in CA, when we get a heat wave every summer – conservation is mandatory. You can’t do that when you have a million electric cars that need charging every day.

      1. So…
        A) The poor man can buy an electric motorcycle… Or a Tata electric.
        B) If the current grid cannot handle it, upgrade the grid at the same time we install municipal internet.

        I am not being sarcastic Theresa need for both, and the technology footbridge

        Go newgreenplan

      2. Think of not only drawing energy out of the net to charge a battery, it could even supply energy to the grid if needed. The way will be having more and smaller hubs / sub hubs to give and take energy. Cars would be perfect for that.

    2. I really don’t need engine noise and exhaust smell. I want a comfortable ride and good power. So no golf cart or mini-car but I would like a full size car with electric drive with comparable range >500km like my gasoline powered one. And of course for a comparable price, so Tesla is ruled out at the moment. I also would not like my car to permanently transmit it’s location to the internet. Some privacy is also important.

    1. A lot of the older cars are lower and smaller – these are generally sports cars we’re dealing with here that have a particular asthetic. I’d be surprised if the aerodynamics are much worse than a lot of modern cars which for the majority are tall slab sided hulks. Breaks, suspension and the general precision of, well every aspect of construction may be more reasons to assign them to history.

    2. Pretty sure that if you took a typical 30s car with it’s tear drop body shaping, it would wipe the floor with most of the shoeboxes on wheels they call cars nowadays…at least in the aerodynamics…

      Back when engines had shit output power, you HAD to make cars narrow and aerodynamic, otherwise they’d just be snail-slow. Then power became cheap, so car manufacturers stopped caring and let the designers do whatever they want…

    3. Aerodynamics? How about the Oldsmobile Intrigue or Aurora, Mercedes S class from the early 2000’s, Shoot! The AMC Pacer was more aerodynamic than most of today’s cars, but I wouldn’t put an electric conversion in it.

  7. You play with hundreds of amps even in a ICE car…the starter easily draws over 250A when cranking :P

    I’d be worried about the bit that involves both amps AND volts in the hundreds at the same time!

  8. They can have my 1986 Porsche 911 when they pry it from my cold, dead hands! Having established that, my Smart ForTwo electric drive is nearly as awesome as the 911 for it’s own reasons. I’ll be the criminal in the bootleg internal combustion 911 when that day comes.

  9. I have been toying with this idea for my old Land Rover Series 2. The loading capacity (on paper) is over a ton and plenty of room to put a battery-pack on the bed. Cost is what is keeping me from it, mostly. I don’t think the engineering of it would be too hard, even making the changes totally reversible wouldn’t be a huge deal in such a simple car. Maybe when gas gets prohibitively expensive. :)

  10. Volkswagen Type 2 especially the T1, T2 and T3/25 variants, Plenty of space under the floor for batteries, The engine bay and fuel tank area also have quite a bit of room, The motor would greatly improve the acceleration (My T2 does 0-60 in about 23 seconds) and there are lots of them about with many of them running non standard engines so there would be less resistance to changing. I think they are perfect and would have no problem converting either of mine (T2 and T25). I also own a Nissan Skyline and I really can’t see where you would store enough batteries, There is space under the bonnet and the tank area of course but I don’t think you would get the range currently. With that one though, I feel like removing the engine somehow removes part of what the car is.

    Either way, It’s good to know there are options being placed on the table for classic car enthusiasts, Even if it’s not for everyone yet. Losing access to driving in cities and later having petrol harder to find is a genuine concern.

  11. My dad had wanted to convert an old Jaguar about 10 years ago (he is 95 now). He said the drive train was very good for an electric conversion. He was talked out of it by his wife.

  12. The main attraction of an old car, is the feeling of driving an old car. If i drive something old, i want it to feel mechanical. I want to feel the gears mesh – or not, if i am not treating the gearbox with care.
    I want to feel how the engine is running rough when cold, slowly smoothing out as it warms up. I want to smell the oil and gasoline. I want to backshift to get into the powerband, i want to feel the body roll and tyres search for grip.
    If i want to mash the pedal and enjoy a completely linear power delivery, i would just drive a brand new electric car.

    Electric vehicles are cool, but please just leave the old machines be. They hardly contribute to pollution because the total amount of distance driven by old vehicles is infinitesimally small compared to the huge numbers of new and modern vehicles that are around.

    1. If the changes are reversible and contribute to making the old vehicles more useable, why is it such a bad idea? If you wanted to be picky about it I’m sure you could even match the power characteristics of the old engine.
      I’d like to drive my Land Rover more than I do, if it was electrical I could. Fuel prices, insurance and taxes are quite prohibitive in countries like mine.

  13. Converting gas cars to electric is always tricky, because an electric motor can just shear metal components due to instant torque. I wonder what would happen if someone placed a torque converter somewhere in a manual drivetrain to mitigate the effects of instant torque. Not a perfect solution, but it seems like a cool idea in my head.

  14. “Cities across the world are enacting measures to ban fossil fuel vehicles from their streets”

    In a very large city with a proper support network in place, no big deal. But if the dinosaurs are out of their pens and the power is out, you’ll wish you still have the ICE vehicle.

    I get the intention here, but in this mad dash to “save the environment” and wrest independence from big oil, has anyone ever stopped to consider what would happen if your precious car (Tesla) has DMCA and the company decides your car no longer qualifies for “super charging” just because? Are we really gaining independence or are we handing our dependence to yet another entity?

  15. Changing over gas vehicles to electric is constantly dubious, on the grounds that an electric engine can simply shear metal parts because of moment torque. I wonder what might occur on the off chance that somebody put a torque converter some place in a manual drivetrain to alleviate the impacts of moment torque. Not an ideal arrangement, however it appears to be a cool thought in my mind.

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