Denver, Colo. ( Associated Press) – When Kevin Erickson cranked the engine in his 1972 Plymouth Satellite sports sedan, a low hum was heard instead of pistons moving the crankshaft, gasoline rushing through the carburetor and the rumble of the exhaust.
Though It’s Nearly Silent, The Classic American Muscle Car Isn’t Broken: It’s Now Electric
Erickson is part of a small but growing group of hobbyists, racers, engineers and entrepreneurs across the United States who are turning old trucks and cars into electric vehicles that are not only greener but faster.
Despite derision from some purists who attack retrofits that look like golf carts or remote-controlled cars, modifications to electric powertrains are becoming more common as battery technology advances and the world looks to clean energy to combat climate change. Searches for
“Remote-controlled cars are fast, so saying that is actually a compliment,” says Erickson, whose renamed “Electrolyte” accelerates from 0 to 60 mph (0 to 97 km/h) in three seconds and tops out at around 155 mph (249 km/h). There is also growing interest in public electric charging stations, which are becoming more common across the country.
Erickson – a truck driver who lives in suburban Denver – bought the car in late 2019 for $6,500. He then began a one-and-a-half-year job to convert the car into a 636 horsepower (475 kW) electric sedan using a battery pack, a motor, and the entire rear subframe from a crashed Tesla Model S.
“It was my way of taking a car that I love—my favorite bodywork—and then taking modern technology and performance, combining it,” explains Ericsson, who invested about $60,000 in the entire project.
Jonathan Klinger, vice president of car culture at Haggerty, an insurance company and automotive lifestyle brand that specializes in collectible vehicles, says converting classic cars to electric is “definitely a trend,” though research on the practice is limited.
In May, the Michigan-based company conducted a web survey of nearly 25,000 self-identified car enthusiasts in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. About 1% had partially or completely converted their classic car to run some form of electrified drivetrain.
Respondents’ top reasons for converting their vehicles were to improve acceleration and performance, taking on a project that sounded fun and challenging, but also addressed environmental and emissions concerns. About 25% said they approve of partially or completely converting classic vehicles to electric cars.
“Electric vehicles offer great performance just by the nature of the mechanics of their operation,” says Klinger. So it should come as no surprise that a small percentage of people converting classic cars to electric cars are interested in improving performance. He compared the current trend to the hot-rod car movement of the 1950s.
But Klinger, who owns several older vehicles, doesn’t think electric motors will replace all internal combustion engines, especially when considering keeping historically significant vehicles.
“There’s something so satisfying about having an old car with a carburetor,” he explains, because the car looks like it did when it was new. Some enthusiasts want to preserve the rumble of the original gasoline engines.
Other barriers to car conversion include the knowledge required to tackle such a complex project, as well as safety concerns about high voltage components, parts availability, and the time it would take to demonstrate a positive environmental impact.
Because classic vehicles drive less than 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) per year on average, says Klinger, it takes longer to offset the initial carbon footprint of battery manufacturing.
And then there’s the problem of price.
Sean Moudry, co-owner of Inspire EV, a small conversion company in suburban Denver, recently modified a 1965 Ford Mustang that was destined for scrap. Their project took a year and a half, cost more than $100,000, and revealed many other obstacles that underscore why conversions aren’t just plug-and-play projects.
Moudry and his colleagues tried to put so much power into the car that it would burn out its tires when starting on the race track. He replaced the low-powered six-cylinder gasoline engine with the engine from the crashed Tesla Model S. They also installed 16 Tesla battery packs with a total weight of approximately 360 kg (800 lb).
Most classic vehicles, including the Mustang, were not designed to handle that much weight or the high output of a powerful electric motor. The team therefore had to strengthen 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 pickup and rotors from a Dodge Durango SUV, along with beefy disc brakes and coil-over shocks, both front and rear.
Although Ford and General Motors have plans to produce stand-alone electric motors marketed to classic vehicle owners, Maudry says it’s still unrealistic for a casual auto mechanic to have such a complex system. Will have the resources to take on the project. Because of this, he believes that the conversion to electric vehicles will take time to become widespread.
“I think it will take 20 years,” he estimated. “It’s going to be 20 years before you go to a car show and 50 to 60% of the cars have some sort of electric motor.”
But that reality may come sooner than expected, according to Mike Spagnola, president and CEO of the Specialty Equipment Market Association, an industry association dedicated to vehicle replacement parts.
He noted that during the annual SEMA show in Las Vegas this fall, nearly 21,000 square feet of space was devoted to electric vehicles and their parts. This was an increase of just 2,500 sq ft (232 sq m) compared to the 2021 fair.
Companies are developing lighter, smaller and more powerful batteries, along with universal parts. They are also making cabling components that are easier to install and many other innovations. Some are even building vehicle frames with electric motors, batteries and components already installed. Buyers can simply install a classic vehicle body on top of the chassis.
“Early adopters of this would take a crashed Tesla and take the engine, harness, battery and all that out of the vehicle to fit it into whatever vehicle they wanted to build,” Spagnola says. “But today a lot of manufacturers are starting to make parts … We’re very excited about that.”