Turning classic cars into electric vehicles is a growing trend — and it's not cheap
Phil Davie has been building hot rods for two decades in southeast Michigan, but last summer he turned his business on its head.
He started a new type of hot-rod business, one that removes a classic car's internal combustion engine — and nearly all of the innards — and replaces it with an electric motor and batteries to make it all-electric. He calls this new hot-rod shop EV Detroit.
"EV Detroit is the modern speed shop," said Davie, who also owns American Speed Company, a traditional "speed shop" that converts standard cars into souped-up hot rods.
"I started it partly because of the interest in EVs," Davie said. "Plus, I was so fascinated with the technology and what it can be: I can build something and give people the electric vehicle experience.”
These types of conversion shops have been popping up all over the nation in recent years as interest in electric vehicles proliferates even in the collector car world. Most established conversion shops have extensive waiting lists, with customers from as far away as Morocco shipping internal combustion engine vintage cars to them to be converted to electric.
The trend also has sparked an aftermarket for wrecked modern EVs with still-good batteries and parts inside that can be used by the conversion companies. A wrecked Tesla, for example, can easily sell for $30,000 and a wrecked Chevrolet Bolt can command $20,000.
So naturally, the cost to turn a classic car into an EV isn't cheap. In some cases, it can top $100,000, depending on the car and how much driving range a customer wants and other amenities. The motivation to spend that amount of money isn't to save the environment as much as it is to get better performance and reliability out of an old car.
"Any time you own a classic car there’s that anxiety of, 'What’s that smell? Am I going to end up on the side of the road?' It takes away the joy of driving," said Marc Davis, owner of conversion shop Moment Motor Company in Austin, Texas. "You’re either a mechanic who loves to work on your car or it sits in the garage for a year waiting for you to take it to a mechanic. By electrifying things, we’re removing the source of 80% to 90% of the problem and we do it in a way that doesn’t rob the car of performance."
A makeover for Audrey
Classic car expert Harry Clark owns about a dozen collector cars. He envisions converting at least one of them to electric at some point, he said.
"But most of the people who are doing this are not big collectors. They have one collector car and they don’t want any hassle" of it being unreliable or requiring work, said Clark, founder of Classic Promenade in Phoenix. "They want it to be like their Tesla and they have the financial means to do it.”
Take Audrey, for example. She's a 1987 MINI in Surf Blue. The color resembles that of the famous Tiffany & Co. jewelry box, hence the genesis of her name. Owner Stephannie Behrens, 45, named her car to honor actress Audrey Hepburn who starred in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."
Behrens, who lives in Austin, specifically bought the vintage car with the intention of converting it to electric.
“A classic MINI has always been my dream car. That being said, they were not known for their reliability. They were budget cars," Behrens said. "The only way to really have it, was to convert it."
So in 2017, after buying Audrey, Behrens hired Moment Motor Company to convert it to electric. She changed the entire interior, making the seats a houndstooth pattern, adding the British round speedometer in the center console and making it left-hand drive instead of the original British right-hand drive. In light of the searing heat in the Lone Star State, she had air conditioning added.
"So it's a 1960s look, but with left-hand drive and modern components," Behrens said. "The speedometer is new, but it looks retro. I kept it a manual transmission, but I can drive it in fourth gear all the time if I want to. It’ll start from zero in fourth gear with no problem."
Behrens declined to say how much she paid for the car and to convert it, but Davis said he typically charges $50,000 to $100,000 to do a conversion.
"A simple car like a Porsche speedster or Volkswagen Beetle is $50,000," Davis said. "But if it was a muscle car, it would be $100,000."
Part of the bigger price has to do with how many more batteries the car might need to propel it as well as any electrical rewiring or cosmetic work.
Davis started Moment Motor Company in 2017 and has converted about 14 vintage cars with 10 more to be completed by the end of this year. One of those will be a 1963 GMC pickup that will cost “well over $100,000" to convert because of the extra batteries needed to move its weight down the road.
"We have to then run all the wiring, connect all the components and preserve the dashboard. We don’t want you to see an iPad and a bunch of wires," Davis said. "You are looking at the same gauges and all the surfaces as the classic car, but you step on the throttle and you have different power."
The gauges show accurate information and any modern gauges needed to show battery life are discretely tucked out of sight in the glove compartment or under a seat to preserve the vintage authenticity, Davis said.
Davis changed the brakes and replaced the suspension in Audrey with one from a Honda, adding weight for a more solid and quiet ride. The car is reliable, making her Behrens' daily driver now.
"I know there are people who think that sort of thing is sacrilegious. There are classic cars where it would be sad to take out the original components," Behrens said. "But those are the really rare cars where it’s important to keep that history. With a MINI, they are not rare cars, so I felt no remorse."
Taking on Tesla
In 2006, Floridian Audrey Clunn fell in love at first sight the night she met her future husband. Her passion was not for him — though that would come later — but rather for his ride.
"He showed up in a 1986 Mazda B2000 pickup that he'd converted and I said, 'Is that electric?' He said, 'Yes ma’am.' I said, 'Well, I'm in love,' " Clunn said.
Audrey, a paralegal at the time, had a vision that the future was electric.
"I could see it in my mind," she said. "I just knew it in my heart.”
Steve Clunn had converted about 50 cars from gasoline to electric for himself and friends at the time. The first car he converted was in 1995. It was a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle that ran on 20 golf cart batteries. Its top speed was 70 mph, he said. Fully charged, he said, the car could drive “30 miles at 60 mph or 60 miles if I went 30 mph.”
Once he taught Audrey Clunn how to do a conversion to her car, she was all in. In 2007, she quit her job of 20 years and with $200 left in her savings, she started Greenshed Conversions in Crystal River, Fla.
Steve Clunn was willing to work with her, but not quit his day job just yet.
"I was not a believer," he said. "Audrey was so gung-ho about this that I was a little concerned she was burning bridges. She quit her job. I was like, 'Whoa … wait a minute. I am still mowing grass, you can do this on the side.' But she really believed in it.”
Audrey Clunn had to change the business model a few times to get the business going, especially after Tesla started selling EVs to the masses.
"That’s when I changed our business to doing the classics," she said. "I can’t compete with Tesla, but I can do the cars people can’t find parts to. They bring them to me from all over the country and all over the world. I’ve got stuff coming in from Morocco next month.”
Greenshed Conversions converts about a half-dozen classic cars a year. Steve Clunn does the work by hand, and each conversion takes about two to three months to do.
The Land Rover Defender, an iconic off-road SUV, is the vehicle coming from Morocco. It will take two months and cost $35,000 to $50,000 to do the conversion, Audrey said. Currently, Greenshed Conversions is finishing converting a 1927 Ford Model T to all electric.
“We’re both amazed that we’re still here doing it. We’re booked through the first of next year,” Audrey Clunn said, adding that they cherry pick their projects now and are teaching two young men how to do conversions because “we need more people like this.”
Almost all conversions use batteries from either wrecked Tesla models or Chevrolet Bolt cars. The twisted metal cars might not be driveable, but they still command a steep price.
“There are businesses that just specialize in taking these cars apart," Steve Clunn said. "It’s about $30,000 to buy a wrecked Tesla, just for the parts."
That's significant considering a new 2021 Tesla Model 3 starts at $39,990 and can go up to $139,900 in other models. The Model 3 retains at least 64.3% of its original value after three years, according to Auto Auction Mall, a site that gives car buyers "dealer-level access" to the used, salvage and insurance vehicle auction houses.
The companies that take the damaged cars apart sell the parts to conversion companies and to people doing solar panels and battery banks to power houses.
From 2000 to 2005, when new EV batteries first started coming out, they cost $1,500 per kilowatt, Steve Clunn said. Now, buying the salvaged batteries costs about $300 a kilowatt. Most batteries are 60 to 100 kilowatts, so they can cost $18,000 to $30,000.
He said one Tesla battery can be divided up for three vehicle conversions. One-third of a typical Tesla battery provides a classic car with 100 miles of range on a full-charge and it performs like a six-cylinder internal combustion engine, he said.
"Though they are not brand new batteries, they are very good," Steve Clunn said. "You lose a little range, but it’s gradual. You can lose half the range in your car, but still have a very usable battery. We still have some from 20 years ago. They have been steadily improving, too.”
David Benardo is CEO of Zelectric, but he calls himself a "retrofuturist."
He and his wife, Bonnie Rodgers, started Zelectric, a San Diego-based conversion company, in 2013. A few years earlier, they had another conversion company, EV West, convert a 1960s VW van to electric for them and they fell in love.
Zelectric converts only Volkswagen and Porsche vehicles from the 1950s through the 1970s. The demand for their conversions has exploded and the company is booked well into 2023. Customers pay a $5,000 fee to reserve a production spot, Rodgers said.
While Audrey Clunn of Greenshed worried Tesla would put her out of business, Rodgers credits the Tesla for her business.
"We owe so much to Tesla to even be driving these cars," Rodgers said. "Before that, electric driving was associated with golf carts."
In fact, Rodgers is happy that other automakers are looking to add EVs to their lineups. General Motors, for example, has vowed to deliver 30 new EVs to the market by 2025.
“It’s great. It lends credibility to driving electric and it doesn’t in any way narrow the niche we have,” Rodgers said. “It celebrates a better way of driving and people are on board with that now.”
Most of Zelectric's clients drive a Tesla daily. They often hire Zelectric to procure a vintage VW or Porsche for them and then convert it to electric. Their first Zelectric customer was late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, she said.
"You can still get a good vintage Beetle for under $10,000," Rodgers said. "We just procured a VW bus for a client who paid $165,000. It’s a 23-window and it’s very rare. He has reserved a spot in the production calendar and it will come to us next year."
The conversion for a VW bus starts at $74,000, she said. If the owner wants to put a Tesla motor in it, it will cost more.
The female interest
When Rodgers and Benardo first started the company, they would promote it at car shows. They often had to convince classic car enthusiasts that driving an electric vehicle was viable and had benefits.
"People thought they were extremely slow, which is wrong," she said. "The reality is you can plug these in next to your toaster and run it out to your garage; you don’t need a special setup."
The conversions typically offer 100 to 180 miles of range with a Tesla motor and transmission, she said. The speed tops at 100 mph or more. It takes about four to six hours to fully charge them on a 220-volt outlet and most are compatible with any public charging station except for DC Fast Chargers.
As people learned the EV benefits, Rodgers said, the company became overwhelmed with interest, half of which comes from women who favor 1960s Volkswagen Karmann Ghia sports cars.
'A whole new world'
The swelling demand doesn't come without problems.
“This is a brand-new industry and you’re kind of pioneering something," Rodgers said. "There is only a handful of people who know how to do this."
Rodgers' lead engineer worked for a competitor when they hired him. Now he has apprentices he teaches because there are no trade schools that teach conversion.
"We’ve been telling ourselves for years that we have to build our own staff because it’s a new thing," Rodgers said.
At Moment Motor, Davis first hired people who worked on hot rods to teach them how to do conversions. But he admits it’s been a struggle to find people with the right combination of skills. He has four guys in the shop, a chief engineer who designs the parts, an office manager and himself. He will hire two more people by year's end to apprentice and learn how to do the conversions.
“It’s a whole new world and they have to learn things," Davis said. "This is the new hot-rodding and there’s no certification they can get that will help us here. Every car is different and every car is new and they have to learn.”
'Fire it up'
All the conversion shop owners interviewed admit that not all classic vehicles should be converted to electric.
Those who do it are preserving the beauty of their classic cars while allowing the vehicles to be driven regularly.
But there are historic cars that should never be touched.
One is the famous 1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt GT driven by Steve McQueen in the movie "Bullitt." Another is Detroit's Black Ghost, the notorious 1970 Dodge Challenger that drag raced along Woodward Avenue, said McKeel Hagerty, CEO of classic-car enthusiast brand Hagerty, which is based in Traverse City, Mich.
"That car will never be electrified," Hagerty said. "Two hundred years from now, it may be in a museum, but somebody will make some gasoline for it and they will fire it up.”
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