The racers, mechanics and repairmen who convert classic cars into electric cars

DENVER (AP) — When Kevin Erickson fired up his 1972 Plymouth Satellite, a faint hum replaced the sound that was usually the sound of pistons pumping, gas passing through the carburetor and the low sound of the exhaust.

Although it’s nearly silent, the classic American muscle car hasn’t idled. It’s electric.

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

Despite quips from some purists about convertibles that look like golf carts or remote-controlled cars, electric powertrain conversions are becoming more mainstream as battery technology advances and the world shifts toward cleaner energy to combat climate change.

Renamed “Electrolite,” Ericsson said: “RC cars are fast, and this Kind of a compliment really.” It also invites curious stares at public charging stations, which are becoming increasingly common across the country.

At the end of 2019, Erickson, a cargo pilot who lives in suburban Denver, bought the car for $6,500. He then embarked on a year-and-a-half project to convert the car into a 636-horsepower (475-kilowatt) electric car, using the battery packs, motor, and rear subframe entirely from a Tesla Model S.

“This was my way of taking the car that I love — my favorite body — and then taking modern technology and performance, and mixing it all together,” said Erickson, who put about $60,000 into the project.

Converting classic cars into electric cars is “definitely a trend,” said Jonathan Klinger, vice president of car culture at collector vehicle specialist Hagerty Insurance, though research on the practice is limited.

In May, the Michigan-based company conducted a web-based survey of nearly 25,000 self-identified car enthusiasts in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. About 1% have partially or completely converted their classics to run on some type of electrified drivetrain.

Respondents’ top three reasons for converting their cars were faster acceleration and improved performance, a fun and challenging project, and because of environmental and emissions concerns. About 25% of respondents said they would agree to partially or fully convert classic vehicles into electric vehicles.

“EVs deliver some amazing performance just by the mechanics of how they operate,” Klinger said. So it’s no surprise to him that a small percentage of the people converting classic cars into electric cars care about improving performance. Compare the current trend to the hot stick movement of the 1950s.

But Klinger, who owns several vintage cars, said he doesn’t think electric motors will replace all internal combustion engines—especially when considering historically significant vehicles.

“There’s something satisfying about having an old car with a carburetor,” he said, because it was the same thing when the car was new. Some enthusiasts want to preserve the sound and roar of the original engines of old cars.

Other barriers to converting cars include the knowledge needed to delve into such a complex project, as well as safety concerns about tampering with high-voltage components, parts availability, and the time it takes to achieve a positive and environmental impact. Because classic cars are driven less than 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) on average annually, Klinger said, it takes longer to offset the initial carbon footprint of battery manufacturing.

Then there is the price.

Sean Mudry, who co-owns the Inspire EV, a small conversion company in suburban Denver, modified a 1965 Ford Mustang that was destined for a landfill. The year-and-a-half-long project cost over $100,000 and revealed many other hurdles underlining why conversions are not “plug and play” attempts.

In an effort to pack enough power into the pony car to “knock the tires out” of a drag strip, Modry and his partners replaced the weak six-cylinder gas engine with one from a wrecked Tesla Model S. They also installed 16 Tesla battery packs weighing a total of about 800 lb (363 lb). kg).

Most classic cars, Mustang included, weren’t designed to carry that much weight—or the increased performance that comes with a powerful electric motor. So the team had to beef up the car’s suspension, steering, driveshaft and brakes.

The result is a Frankenstein-like vehicle that includes a rear axle from a Ford F-150 truck and rotors from a Dodge Durango SUV, plus disc brakes and sturdier shocks front and rear.

Although Ford and General Motors have or plan to produce stand-alone electric “cage” motors to be marketed to classic car owners, Modry says it’s still unrealistic for a regular automaker to have the resources to undertake such a complex project. Because of this, he believes it will take some time for electric vehicle conversions to become mainstream.

“I think it will take 20 years,” he said. “It will be 20 years before you go to a car show and 50 to 60% of the cars run a different type of electric motor in it.”

But that reality could come sooner than expected, according to Mike Spagnola, president and CEO of the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a trade group focused on aftermarket auto parts.

During the annual SEMA show in Las Vegas this fall, he said, about 21,000 square feet (1,951 square meters) of conference space was set aside for electric cars and parts. This was up from just 2,500 sq ft (232 sq m) at the 2021 show.

Companies are developing universal parts, as well as lighter, smaller and more powerful battery packs. They also make easier-to-install wiring components and many other innovations. Some even build vehicle frames with the electric motor, batteries, and components already installed. Buyers can only install the classic car body on top of the platform.

“The early users of this would take a wrecked Tesla and pull the motor and the tools and the batteries and all that out of the car and find a way to fit it into whatever vehicle they wanted to build,” Spagnola said. “But today there are many manufacturers that are now starting to make components. … We are really excited about that.”

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