Electric conversions of classic cars have been a part of the electric car scene almost from the start. The appeal is obvious. Interest in older cars is at very high levels, with classic car events such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed or Germany’s Techno-Classica apparently in much better shape than the mainstream motor shows like Geneva and Frankfurt, which increasingly struggle to attract a full complement of car manufacturers.
Not everyone who is interested in old cars finds it practical to own one. In particular, not everyone has the time, or the skills, to do the repairs that are needed to keep an old car on the road – and even for those that do, old cars aren’t necessarily a practical option day-to-day, instead for occasional use only.
In principle, an electric powertrain has the potential to turn an old car from a leaky, unreliable, money pit into a cheap to run, low-maintenance daily driver. That is a change that has the potential to turn lots of people who are merely interested into potential buyers.
Most classic conversions so far have been one-offs. Enterprising enthusiasts have produced electric versions of a variety of old cars, and the mainstream car makers have been getting in on the act as well. Jaguar has produced the battery-powered E-Type Zero and stands ready to produce further examples for anyone who can afford the reported £350,000 conversion cost.
Now, though, there are signs that electric conversions of older cars could be about to become a lot more widespread. Volkswagen has teamed up with the German firm eClassics to produce an official electric conversion kit for the Beetle – the rear-engined original, that is, not the recently discontinued modern reinterpretation. The availability of a standardised kit which has ironed out all of the snags likely to be encountered during an electric conversion is sure to boost the number of cars being turned over to battery power. The existing base of old Beetles provides a huge ready market for the switchover, and it is being suggested that conversions will also be available for other air-cooled rear-engined VWs, including the popular campers, buses and buggies, as well as early Porsche models, such as the 356.
Of course, there are several reasonable objections to electric conversions. I’d be wary of converting anything particularly valuable or rare – at the very least, in those cases, it is important that any changes should be reversible, although whether any electric conversion would in practice ever be reversed seems unlikely to me. Once a car’s main mechanical bits are sitting gathering dust in storage, rather than being used and maintained, I think the chances of the conversion being undone are low.
And as the burgeoning resto-mod scene demonstrates, not all old car enthusiasts are sticklers for originality anyway. Many fans take a classic model not as the basis for a detailed faithful restoration, but as the starting point for the construction of the car of their dreams, featuring bodywork modifications and modern brakes, engines and other technology. At the top end, Mechatronik will sell you a perfectly restored, but also updated 1960s Mercedes-Benz “Pagoda” convertible with a modern V8 engine. I don’t think an electric conversion really offends against the originality of older cars any more than these other modified cars do.
The other factor, of course, is how essential the original petrol or diesel engine was in forming the character of any given car. I probably wouldn’t rip the six-cylinder boxer engine out of a Porsche or the straight six out of an old BMW, because that would deprive those cars of a central element of their appeal. But in many cases, the engine is just a way of moving the car down the road – and there are a few cars such as Citroën’s DS and CX, which seem to me to scream out for electrification. Those cars had fairly unremarkable engines that always seemed to me to be the weak link in what were otherwise very modern designs. A smooth electric motor would at last give the DS and CX the effortless propulsion they deserve.
So electric conversions of older cars are likely to become increasingly popular. And far from being a threat to the classic scene, I think electrification will save many an old car that would otherwise have gone to the scrapyard.