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Can classic cars be converted to electric? Racers and tinkerers convert vintage vehicles to EVs.

When Kevin Erickson starts his 1972 Plymouth Satellite, a faint hum replaces the sound of pistons pumping, gas flowing through the carburetor, and the low thrum of the exhaust.

The classic American muscle car isn’t broken, even though it’s nearly silent. It’s electrifying.

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

Despite some purists’ derision of converted cars that resemble golf carts or remote-controlled cars, electric powertrain conversions are becoming more common as battery technology advances and the world shifts toward cleaner energy to combat climate change.

“RC cars are fast,” said Erickson, whose renamed “Electrollite” accelerates from 0-60 mph (0-97 kph) in three seconds and tops out at about 155 mph (249 kph). It also draws attention to public charging stations, which are becoming more common across the country.

Erickson, a cargo pilot from suburban Denver, purchased the car for $6,500 at the end of 2019. He then began a year-and-a-half project to convert the car into a 636-horsepower electric vehicle (475 kW) by repurposing battery packs, a motor, and the entire rear subframe from a crashed Tesla Model S.

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

Converting classic cars into EVs is “definitely a trend,” according to Jonathan Klinger, vice president of car culture for Hagerty Insurance, which specialises in collector vehicles, though research on the practise is limited.

The Michigan-based firm conducted a web-based survey of approximately 25,000 self-identified automobile enthusiasts in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom in May. Approximately 1% had either partially or completely converted their classic to run on an electrified drivetrain.

The top three reasons given by respondents for converting their vehicles were for faster acceleration and improved performance, a fun and challenging project, and environmental and emissions concerns. Approximately 25% of respondents said they support classic vehicles being partially or completely converted to EVs.

“Just by the nature of how they work, electric vehicles deliver some pretty amazing performance,” Klinger said. So he’s not surprised that a small percentage of people converting classic cars to EVs want to improve performance. He compared the current trend to the 1950s hot-rod movement.

However, Klinger, who owns several vintage vehicles, believes electric motors will not replace all internal combustion engines, particularly in historically significant vehicles.

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

Other barriers to car conversion include the knowledge required to embark on such a complex project, as well as safety concerns about tinkering with high-voltage components, the availability of parts, and the time required to realise a positive environmental impact. Because classic vehicles are driven for fewer than 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometres) per year on average, Klinger believes it takes longer to offset the initial carbon footprint of manufacturing the batteries.

How much does it cost to convert a used car to an electric vehicle?
Sean Moudry, co-owner of Inspire EV, a small conversion company in suburban Denver, recently modified a 1965 Ford Mustang destined for the dump. The year-and-a-half project cost more than $100,000 and revealed a number of other challenges that highlight why conversions are not “plug-and-play” endeavours.

Moudry and his partners replaced the underpowered six-cylinder gas engine with a motor from a crashed Tesla Model S in an attempt to pack enough power into the pony car to “smoke the tyres off of it” at a drag strip. They also installed 16 Tesla battery packs totaling approximately 800 pounds (363 kilograms).

Most classic vehicles, including the Mustang, were not built to support that much weight — or the increased performance that comes with a powerful electric motor. As a result, the team had to improve the car’s suspension, steering, driveshaft, and brakes.

The end result is a Frankenstein-like vehicle with a Ford F-150 pickup rear axle and Dodge Durango SUV rotors, as well as disc brakes and stronger coil-over shocks in the front and rear.

Although Ford and General Motors have produced or plan to produce standalone electric “crate” motors marketed to classic vehicle owners, Moudry believes it is still unrealistic for a casual car tinkerer to have the resources to tackle such a complex project. As a result, he believes it will take some time for EV conversions to become commonplace.

“I believe it will be 20 years,” he predicted. “It’ll be a 20-year run before you go to a car show and 50 to 60% of the cars have some kind of electric motor in them.”

However, Mike Spagnola, president and CEO of the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a trade group focusing on aftermarket vehicle parts, believes that reality may arrive sooner than expected.

He stated that 21,000 square feet (1,951 square metres) of convention space at SEMA’s annual show in Las Vegas this fall was dedicated to electric vehicles and their parts. This was an increase from the 2021 show’s 2,500 square feet (232 square metres).

Universal parts are being developed, as well as lighter, smaller, and more powerful battery packs. They’re also developing easier-to-install wiring components, among other things. Some are even constructing vehicle frames that include the electric motor, batteries, and other components. Buyers simply place a classic vehicle’s body on top of the platform.

“The early adopters of this would take a crashed Tesla and pull the motor, harnesses, batteries, and everything else out of the vehicle and shoehorn it into whatever vehicle they wanted to build,” Spagnola explained. “However, many manufacturers are now beginning to produce components. We’re really looking forward to it.”

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