Why Converting Classic Cars to Electric Drive Is A Thing

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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.

Read more: hackaday.com