When Volkswagen unveiled the ID. Buzz back in March 2022, I couldn’t help but find myself beaming from ear to ear; a modernised throwback to the iconic Samba Bus, a vehicle that has gained a huge cult following around the globe since its introduction at the tail end of 1949.
This is the direction in which the automotive industry is heading, with familiar monikers like the Chevrolet Corvette range and BMW’s M3 lineage all heading for electrification in the near future. This has also given rise to an abundance of specialist firms that are converting vintage classic cars into modernised electric iterations.
Take Zero EV, for instance - a brand that offers EV conversion kits for Porsche 911s, Mazda MX-5s and Mercedes SLs. Much like the Samba Bus, each of these cars are hugely popular in their original guises, and have amassed an almost religious patronage throughout the years that would argue that they shouldn’t be tampered with.
I do agree that stripping a car of its engine and replacing it with electric motors and batteries does mean that you lose a myriad of the ‘’archetypal’’ factors that makes a car exciting - in the sense that we’ve grown used to it being. There are less bodily senses being roused, and this isn’t something that EVs can fix naturally.
The noise, or lack of, is one key example. The gnarly sound of a thumping great V8, or the high-pitched symphony of an euphonious V10 do both make you feel a certain tingling sensation in your body. It forms a bridge of emotions between your ears and your heart, tugging at your heart strings with every glorious step up the rev counter.
The removal of a clutch pedal and a conventional gearbox is another. I think the most important part about enjoying a ‘good drive’ is how involved the human is with the machine. The more work that’s put in, the more rewarding a manoeuvre feels. It provides you with a near-instantaneous dopamine release.
Picture this: The sunshine is beaming down on you as you begin your ascent up a tight, windy mountain pass in the Austrian Alps. You lean back into your seat and feel the bolsters hugging you, as you look up at the picture-perfect ribbon of asphalt that’s fast approaching - preparing yourself to gurn like a child in the face of unfiltered joy.
You nudge your gear lever into second, before balancing your footwork with a timed, precise flick of the steering wheel: and you hold it right there. For those few glorious seconds, the driver, the machine and the road are in perfect harmony with one another, culminating in a feeling that can’t necessarily be put into words, only expressions. It sounds perfect, doesn’t it?
Believe me, I am every bit an enthusiast a traditionalist would consider themself to be. It’s what I’ve grown up knowing, and the reason why I wanted to play my part in the automotive spectrum one day. But I also believe that change is necessary to adapt, and that we as humans will find a way to make EVs as stimulating as their ICE-powered equivalents.
It’s important to consider that compromise is necessary in moving forward to enable humanity to reverse the damage we’ve caused to our planet over the last 100 years. With that in mind, think about what classic car electric conversions represent: a marriage of timeless 20th century style and aesthetics with the dramatic performance provided by voltaic propulsion.
When you consider that the automotive industry is spawning a new breed of car fanatics as we head into uncharted waters, why shouldn’t the latest generations enjoy an environmentally-friendly revamp of a retro classic? This is why I believe classic car electric conversions are a good thing, and here are three reasons to support my position:
Classic shapes and bodies can remain on the road
One frequently expressed opinion from ICE enthusiasts is that electric cars aren’t as desirable to look at, and aren’t styled with the passion of the sheet metal workers that created the art-like shapes of the 20th century. You’d be hard pressed to disagree, even if it is a predominantly subjective topic.
A few months ago, I had a conversation with renowned British automotive journalist Andrew Frankel, who issued me with a compelling metaphor for electric cars: when you compare digital watches with analogue watches, the former can often be picked up at high street stalls for a fiver, while the latter has spawned many ‘collectors’ examples that sell for thousands of pounds. Why is that?
Andrew’s reasoning was the engineering and time that went into developing analogue watches. He told me that, in hindsight, this is the challenge for electric cars. Because there are considerably less moving parts in an electric car, and less room for creative expression as a result, how will electric cars stay interesting?
And for the time being, as engineers and carmakers try to formulate an answer to that issue, specialist brands are offering an interesting makeshift solution by way of electric conversions. Remember the legendary AC/Shelby Cobra which housed a big V8 from Ford? You can now order a brand new zero-emissions spin-off to the iconic two-seater convertible muscle car.
And that’s just one example of classic car conversion that truly makes the heart smile. Of course, it’s irrational to believe every car you see on the road will look like a Cobra, most will continue to adopt the archetypal body shape associated with common cars like a Mercedes-Benz C-Class or a Nissan Qashqai. But instead of eliminating classic cars from the road entirely, why shouldn’t we continue to enjoy driving/seeing them on public roads?
Reimagined with modern performance
One of the most bizarre yet brilliant sights is seeing a hefty, cumbersome all-electric SUV leaving a purpose-built supercar in its wake at a set of lights. It redefines the whole ‘sleeper’ movement that is often associated with cars that look like they aren’t very quick, but actually are.
So, one thing that you're almost certain to get with replacing the internal combustion engine in a classic car with an electric conversion kit is increased acceleration. Yes, you won’t have the sound, or the vibrations, but instead you have near-instantaneous torque.
That’s not to say that ALL classic cars have below par performance: they were quick for their respective periods, and they provided the foundations for us to be able to achieve what we now can. But while retaining a classic car’s periodic performance is an appeal in its own right, reimagining a mid-20th century sports coupe - such as a Jaguar XJR6 - breathes a new lease of life into a timeless silhouette.
You save the planet while continuing to standing out from the crowd
At the end of the day, the whole reason we need an alternative propellant to fossil fuels is because of the damage they’ve caused to our planet, and the automotive industry is responsible for a substantial chunk of that.
Efforts have been made by manufacturers to improve the inefficiency of ICE-powered cars, with a recent study from ACEA concluding that CO2 emissions from car production has decreased by 46% since 2006. But the sad reality is that the damage has already been done. So, we need to begin to reverse the damage our civilization has caused by reimagining the propulsion used to power an automobile, and electricity is our best bet right now.
Another benefit of these conversion kits is that they provide a wider scope to the electric car market. If common electric cars such as the Tesla Model 3, or the Kia e-Niro aren’t to your taste, the world of electric conversions opens up a whole new market of EVs for people to explore. Do you want the eco-friendliness of a Hyundai IONIQ 5 without the space age design? A classic Land Rover Defender that’s been converted might just ruffle your feathers.
Die-hard enthusiasts of ICE must come to terms with the fact that preservation of life outweighs the allure of prolonging the combustion engine for a generation - or two at a stretch. It’s not to say that ICE will be completely frozen out from society, there will be some form of accessibility - perhaps dedicated track days? But for common-use, electricity really is the most promising solution. And why shouldn’t you do your planet-saving in a converted E30 M3, or a fourth-generation Toyota Supra?
With those points in mind, here are three examples of classic car electric conversions that I think work very well
Price: £30k (estimate conversion cost for a small car)
Alongside the Volkswagen Samba Bus and the Mitsubishi GTO twin-turbo, the bug-eyed Beetle completes my personal dream three-car garage. Electric Classic Cars, located just outside the Shropshire Hills National Park in Wales, can provide the perfect revamp to revitalise an ageing retro Beetle.
A 21kWh battery pack provides around 100 miles of range, depending on how you drive it and the conditions it faces. The electric motor churns out 71bhp and 163 Nm of torque, presenting a stern power upgrade from the 51bhp and 106 Nm of torque found in the most powerful iteration of its 1.6-litre petrol-powered variant. Electric Classic Cars will also offer a brake and suspension kit upgrade, so your reborn Beetle can be further enhanced.
Considering Volkswagen produced over 21 million units of the original Beetle, there are no shortage of examples on the market if you were to consider such a proposition. I certainly will one day.
Price: £24k (+VAT)
Arguably the single greatest family of multi-utilitarian cars ever created, the Land Rover Defender has done more than enough to justify its standing in automotive folklore since its inception in 1947. Many people still use traditional Defenders in their day-to-day activities, and now, you can get them converted to produce zero-tailpipe emissions.
This offering from Electrogenic focuses on the Series III, otherwise known as the Land Rover 90 and Land Rover 110. An 80kW electric motor replacement sees slight increase in performance but, more importantly, substantial savings on expenditure. The average Cost Per Mile will drop to between 1/5th and 1/6th by converting your Series III to electric.
Many people view the Land Rover Defender family as a constant: there has been no stopping it since 1947, and there seemingly will be no stop to it as we move forward into the electrified era. This conversion kit from Electrogenic acts as an ode to that.
The Mercedes Pagoda: perpetual class and elegance personified. If ever you felt that the styling traits attributed with modern electric cars aren't for you, this project from Oxfordshire-based Everrati Automotive might just retain the aesthetics that you’re after.
The standard Pagodas contain straight-six engines that develop around 168bhp. Everrati has replaced that with a 180bhp electric motor, which cuts the 0-60mph time from 8.8 seconds to just 7. The torque (expectedly) has also shot up from 244 Nm to 500 Nm, while the 57kWh battery pack allows for an estimated range of 160 miles.
Mercedes had a highly-commended purple patch with model designs during the 60s and 70s, and Silver Arrows from this era, like the Pagoda, are still very much in high demand. So, while this may be a little more on the extravagant side of things, it does tick an awful number of boxes for bucket list worthiness.
As we move ahead into a new era for the automobile, we must remember that everything needs to be taken with a pinch of compromise, and perhaps the ultimate form of compromise will be to embrace the old with the new. Yes, many enthusiasts will miss ICE, there’s no disputing that: but how significant is that when sustainability is called into question?
In hindsight, EVs still have some way to go before they can actually claim to be as enthusiast-focussed as ICE, but never say never. The advancements of technology and developments with engineering could one day provide us with an even more rewarding experience than ICE does.
Robert Downey Jr - also known as Tony Stark - revealed earlier this year that he’s working on a new show currently titled ‘Downey’s Dream Cars’. In this series, he will restore and convert classic cars to be more eco-friendly. And while we don’t yet know which cars he will be working on, we do know that his personal car collection includes a Porsche 993, 1965 Chevrolet Corvette, 1974 BMW 3.0 CS and one of the aforementioned Mercedes-Benz Pagondas.
So, if Iron Man is willing to give classic car electric conversion a chance, then why can’t the rest of us?
Carry on the conversation in the comments section below, we’d love to know your thoughts on the topic!