Drivers, mechanics, repairmen who convert classic cars into electric vehicles

DENVER (AP) — When Kevin Erickson fires up his 1972 Plymouth Satellite, a faint hum replaces what is normally the sound of pistons pumping, gas rushing through the carburetor, and the low hum of the exhaust.

Even though it’s nearly silent, the classic American muscle car isn’t broken. It’s electric.

Erickson is one of a small but growing group of tinkerers, racers, engineers and entrepreneurs across the country who are converting classic cars and trucks into cleaner and often much faster electric vehicles.

Despite some purists’ derision of converted cars resembling golf carts or remote control cars, electric powertrain conversions are becoming more prevalent as battery technology advances and the world turns to cleaner energy to combat the climate change.

“RC cars are fast, so that’s kind of a compliment,” said Erickson, whose name “Electrollite” accelerates from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in three seconds and tops out at about 155 mph (249 km/h). km/h). He also invites curious looks at public charging stations, which are becoming more and more common across the country.

In late 2019, Erickson, a cargo driver living in suburban Denver, bought the car for $6,500. He then embarked on a year-and-a-half project to convert the car into a 636 horsepower (475 kW) electric vehicle, using battery packs, a motor, and the entire rear subframe from a crashed Tesla Model S.

“This was my way of taking the car I like — my favorite body — and then taking modern technology and performance and mixing it together,” said Erickson, who invested about $60,000 in the project.

Jonathan Klinger, vice president of car culture for Hagerty Insurance, which specializes in collectable vehicles, said converting classic cars to electric vehicles is “definitely a trend,” although research into the practice is limited.

In May, the Michigan-based company conducted a web-based survey of approximately 25,000 self-identified car enthusiasts in the US, Canada and the UK. About 1% have partially or completely converted their classic to run on some sort of electrified drivetrain.

Respondents’ top three reasons for converting their vehicles were faster acceleration and improved performance, a fun and challenging project, and emissions and environmental concerns. About 25% of respondents said they approve of converting some or all of classic vehicles to electric vehicles.

“Electric vehicles perform quite astonishingly just by the nature of the mechanics of how they work,” said Klinger. So it’s not surprising to him that a small percentage of people who convert classic cars to electric vehicles are interested in improved performance. He compared the current trend to the 1950s hot-rod movement.

But Klinger, who owns several classic vehicles, said he doesn’t think electric motors will replace all internal combustion engines, especially when considering historically significant vehicles.

“There’s something satisfying about having a classic car with a carburetor,” he said, because it’s the same as when the car was new. Some enthusiasts want to preserve the sound and rumble of the original engines of older cars.

Other hurdles to converting cars include the knowledge needed to delve into such a complicated project, as well as the safety issues of tinkering with high-voltage components, parts availability, and the time it takes to make a positive environmental impact. Because classic vehicles average less than 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) a year, it takes longer to offset the initial carbon footprint of battery manufacturing, Klinger said.

And then there’s the price.

Sean Moudry, co-owner of Inspire EV, a small conversion business in suburban Denver, recently modified a 1965 Ford Mustang destined for the junkyard. The year-and-a-half project cost more than $100,000 and revealed several other hurdles that underscore why conversions aren’t a “plug-and-play” business.

Looking to pack enough horsepower into the pony car to “smoke off the tires” on a drag track, Moudry and his associates replaced the underpowered six-cylinder gas engine with an engine from a crashed Tesla Model S. They also installed 16 Tesla battery packs weighing a total of approximately 800 pounds (363 kilograms).

Most classic vehicles, including the Mustang, weren’t designed to handle so much weight or the increased performance that a powerful electric motor provides. So the team had to beef up the car’s suspension, steering, drive shaft and brakes.

The result is a Frankenstein-like vehicle that includes a rear axle from a Ford F-150 pickup and rotors from a Dodge Durango SUV, as well as disc brakes and beefier coil-over shocks up front and rear.

Though Ford and General Motors either have or plan to produce self-contained “crate” electric motors that are marketed to owners of classic vehicles, Moudry says it’s still not realistic for a casual auto repairman to have the resources to tackle such a complicated project. Because of this, he thinks it will be some time before EV conversions become mainstream.

“I think it will take 20 years,” he said. “

But that reality may come sooner than expected, according to Mike Spagnola, president and CEO of the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a trade group that focuses on aftermarket vehicle parts.

He said at SEMA’s annual show in Las Vegas this fall, about 21,000 square feet (1,951 square meters) of convention space was dedicated to electric vehicles and their parts. That was just 2,500 square feet (232 square meters) at the 2021 show.

Companies are developing universal parts, as well as lighter, smaller, more powerful battery packs. They’re also creating easier-to-install wiring components and a host of other innovations. Some are even building vehicle chassis with electric motors, batteries and components already installed. Buyers can simply install a classic vehicle body on top of the platform.

“Early adopters of this would take a crashed Tesla and take the engine and wiring and batteries and everything else out of the vehicle and figure out a way to put it into whatever vehicle they wanted to build,” Spagnola said. “But today there are many manufacturers starting to produce components. … We’re really excited about it.

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