How easy is it to convert your classic car to electric power – and is it worth the effort? That probably depends on whether you drive a Land Rover or a Ferrari, says Daniel Pembrey
With the environment firmly in the spotlight, our attention turns to the question of electric classic cars. But how easy is it to make the conversion? Daniel Pembrey finds out.
The Subaru XV once occupied the gap between the Forester and the Impreza, but does it still? The key, finds Charlie Flindt, is in the suspension.
Sit designers from Toyota and BMW down together and what do you get? A swift runaround with panache if few eco-credentials. Charlie Flindt eases himself in to the Toyota Supra 3.0 Pro.
ELECTRIC CLASSIC CARS
The urge to modify popular cars has been around for as long as famous marques have existed. Tim Birkin’s early ‘Blower’ Bentleys, Harold Radford’s 1960s Minis and today’s Eagle E-Type Jaguars sit in this tradition, driven by a quest for optimal performance and appearance. Now a new type of change has arrived: the conversion to electric power. Electric classic cars might promise to be perhaps the greatest transformation yet.
Electrification could mean reduced costs to the pocket and to the planet. Not only is charging an electric vehicle far cheaper per mile than running one on petrol or diesel, but with a fraction of the moving parts, electric vehicles also have a lower risk of breakdown, which in turn reduces service costs. Indeed, a conventional car with an ageing or failing combustion engine can make an ideal candidate for conversion.
“While historic cars make up a tiny percentage of UK vehicle mileage and emissions, there is growing interest in being seen to do ‘the right thing’,” says Daniel Geoghegan, managing director of Bicester Heritage, the former World War II RAF base converted into a historic car hub. “I heard of one collector who had a Porsche 911 converted to electric in order to have a car that his children would love. Perception is becoming reality, and electrification is expanding the historic-car world, especially among the younger generation.”
Tenants at Bicester Heritage’s 444-acre site include Kingsbury Racing, which optimises vintage Bentleys, and the newly-arrived Singer Vehicle Design, which adapts Porsche 911s. Another arrival is Electrogenic, an Oxfordshire-based company that electrifies older cars such as Jaguars, Minis and Land Rovers using electronic systems developed in-house. The cost of conversion varies greatly depending on the car, the conversion brief and the company doing the work. Some cost may be recovered by selling the removed combustion engine, but any inability to return a vehicle to its original condition can affect resale value. The batteries are typically as heavy as the parts removed. By distributing battery weight between a car’s front and rear ends, handling usually improves. However, with the enhanced power of a modern electric motor might come a need to upgrade wheels, brakes and suspension.
When combined with a large battery pack, a powerful electric motor such as a Tesla drive unit should increase both performance and range. Today, a range of more than 200 miles is at the upper end of what owners can realistically expect from these conversions, so they should consider carefully how and where they wish to use their vehicles. External changes are typically limited to inserting a charging socket – often where the fuel cap is located – and a battery status display on the dashboard – similarly, usually incorporated into the original instrumentation layout.
The most established conversion company in the UK is Electric Classic Cars (ECC), located in Newtown, Mid Wales. ECC has been converting much-loved models to electric for more than five years and has worked on 100-plus vehicles. One of its most successful conversions is a 2007 long-wheel-base Land Rover Defender belonging to Sam Dennigan, the CEO of Strong Roots, a plants-based foods company. “I’d bought the Land Rover to promote the business at events and realised that it was inconsistent to have a polluting vehicle for an environmentally-friendly brand,” he says. “I wanted a vehicle that I could charge up rather than burn out. Longer term, ‘up-cycling’ of vehicles has enormous potential. It beats scrapping older cars and making new ones.”
Land Rovers bring distinct advantages when it comes to electric conversions. The versatile chassis has long lent itself to adaptation by farmers, utility companies, fire services and the Army. Once the engine, gearbox, transfer box, fuel tank, piping and other redundant components are stripped out, the resulting space is cavernous: ideal for stowing batteries.
Yet, at more than two tons, the long-wheel-base Land Rover is challengingly heavy – and the tractable four-wheel-drive system requires a comprehensive rethink if it is to be driven by a single electric motor. The ECC team opted for a 450hp Tesla drive unit that connects to both the front and rear prop shafts. To ensure that the vehicle retains adequate top speed, the team subcontracted modifications to the gearing and the differential inside the motor. They then added three limited-slip differentials (LSDs) to improve off-road traction – one at the front, one at the rear and one on the Tesla drive unit itself.
There were other factors that the ECC team needed to take into account. The Land Rover had already acquired bigger tyres and an air-suspension system that Dennigan wished to retain. He also wanted more than 200 miles of range, so ECC installed a full Tesla Model S battery pack – the most powerful it had installed at that time. The battery box was treated with marine sealant to prevent water and electrics from mixing off-road. Remarkably, the weight of the vehicle barely increased, achieving ECC’s goal of ‘weight-neutral’ conversions.
On the road, the vehicle is much smoother. There are no gears, clutch or high/low ratios to contend with. It offers maximum torque from standstill and accelerates from 0 to 60mph in 5.5 seconds (previously, it was 14 seconds). Off-road, it ascends steep gradients with nothing more than a soft yet determined whine. The three LSDs ensure that traction is maintained even if a wheel or two are spinning wildly. On steep descents, the Tesla drive unit’s ‘regenerative braking’ capability recharges the batteries while acting as a separate brake that avoids locking up the wheels.
“Land Rovers, and the mechanically similar Range Rover, are the vehicles that are most improved by these conversions,” says Richard Morgan, a director and hands-on engineer at ECC. “They were originally tractor-like agricultural vehicles and drove like them. People are amazed by the smoothness post-conversion. The quietness can also be transformational in natural settings, for example, on African safaris.” ECC has now completed five Land Rover conversions, with orders for at least another 15. It has also converted three Range Rovers, one of which was inspected by HRH The Prince of Wales.
THE CONVERSION COST
This sort of comprehensive, hi-spec conversion isn’t cheap. Anyone looking to have a large Tesla drive unit and big battery pack can expect to spend between £75,000 and £95,000, and this does not include the ‘donor’ vehicle, which a conversion company will require to be in reasonable order (aside from the parts to be removed).
The conversion cost is comparable to the higher performance Tesla Models S and X, which retail from £84,000 and £91,000 respectively. The Model X is the ‘sports utility vehicle’, although it cannot compare with a Land Rover in terms of off-road capability. All models come with access to Tesla’s ever-expanding charging network – Tesla Superchargers fully charge batteries within an hour – and an array of other benefits, including software upgrades that cover everything from engine optimisation and stability control to tyre pressure monitoring.
But because conversion companies are fitting second-hand Tesla parts, Tesla warranties cannot apply. Equally, the Tesla charging network will not accept converted vehicles, although there are increasing numbers of fast chargers available from other providers. Understandably, conversion companies tend to offer more limited warranties – ECC has a one-year guarantee. In practice, however, a car owner enters into a relationship with the ECC team that may encompass incremental upgrades as technology improves – for example, the installation of a more powerful charger unit on the car. “Clients come on a personalised journey with us,” says Morgan. “Those with car collections tend to convert several cars over time.”
With rarer, higher-value older cars, other factors come into play – notably originality. ‘Historic’ vehicles are defined as being at least 30 years old and preserved in period condition, according to the Fédération Internationale des Véhicules Anciens (FIVA), the international historic car club of clubs. FIVA says that a car loses its historic status and becomes a new vehicle upon conversion to electric. However, if all mechanical parts are kept and the vehicle is returned to its original condition, it can regain its historic status.
For Dietrich Hatlapa of the Historic Automobile Group International (HAGI), which compiles a widely quoted index of historic vehicle values, electric conversions are too new to be valued accurately according to their power source. Hatlapa points to other precedents for how such converted vehicles might trade. “If you look at, say, the Ferrari 365 GTB/4, the fixed-head coupé models selling for around £500,000 have often been converted to the rarer, open-top Spyders that sell for around £2m. But the converted cars tend to be valued at the price of the fixed-head model less the cost of converting it back to original specification. A similar approach may apply to electric conversions.”
However, Hatlapa adds that it is nigh on impossible to know what approach will prevail in coming years, as new electric vehicles predominate on our roads. Another unknown is the rate of advance in electric technology and so the rate of depreciation to expect with electric configurations. The role of Tesla in furthering electric vehicle performance shows how far the technology has evolved and the Teslas of this world will only continue to innovate.
This uncertainty at the higher end of the market is reflected by the fate of Jaguar’s ‘Concept Zero’ electric E-Type. Despite the role played by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in presenting it to the world on their wedding day, Jaguar has paused the project for the foreseeable future, even while restructuring itself to go all-electric by 2025. Many believe that the experience of an original Series 1 E-Type – pressing the starter button, seeing the Smiths instrumentation flicker expectantly, taking in the old-wool smell and oil tang – should be left alone.
People are less likely to feel this way about an original Land Rover, however. Farmers will recall how long it took for the heater to warm up. Land Rovers were mechanically simple, encouraging owners to tinker, but the appeal of spending time ‘under the hood’ with ageing engines can be overstated. Such niggles and challenges vanish with electric conversions.
As for people’s reactions when you pull up in one at a shoot or a gymkhana, they tend to be positive, especially with the younger set, says Morgan. “The only way to understand it is to experience it. One time I was ‘green laning’ in Elan Valley, Wales, ascending to high, remote open ground; there was just nature, beating wind turbines and two middle-aged walkers on the track ahead of me. Only when I got right up behind them did they hear me, by the crunch of gravel under tyre, and turn around. The marvel on their faces as they stood aside for the converted Land Rover looked like a conversion in itself. It proved to me just how environmentally-friendly and well-received these vehicles have become.”