Clas­sic cars be­ing con­verted into elec­tric ve­hi­cles

Lodi News-Sentinel - - SPORTS - By Charles Flem­ing

In a garage near South Los An­ge­les, metal fab­ri­ca­tor Greg Ab­bott fits bat­tery packs bor­rowed from a de­com­mis­sioned Fiat 500E un­der the hood of a 1965 Mus­tang.

In Ocean­side, Calif., for­mer AAMCO me­chanic Matthew Hauber com­bines the sus­pen­sion sys­tem and bat­tery packs from a to­taled Tesla to make an 800horse­power, all-wheel-drive Shelby Cobra.

In an un­likely mar­riage of clas­sic car cul­ture and green tech­nol­ogy, so­phis­ti­cated hot-rod­ders — mostly men, mostly Cal­i­for­ni­ans — are can­ni­bal­iz­ing crashed elec­tric cars and us­ing their bat­ter­ies to cre­ate elec­tri­fied sports cars and mus­cle cars.

As com­fort­able wield­ing an ohm­me­ter as a spark-plug wrench, they are ex­pand­ing the au­to­mo­tive world’s con­scious­ness about what can be done in the elec­tric-ve­hi­cle space — and mak­ing good money do­ing it. Their price can run from $30,000 for a do-it-your­self con­ver­sion kit for a VW Bug to sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars for a fully cus­tom­ized, up-from-the-tires EV over­haul.

“These guys are tak­ing driv­e­trains out of Tes­las and Nis­san Leafs and putting them in all kinds of ve­hi­cles,” said Gor­don McCall, founder of the Quail Mo­tor­sports Gath­er­ing in Carmel, Calif., one of the coun­try’s most re­spected an­nual au­to­mo­tive events. “They’re hot-rod­ding elec­tric cars just like their grand­fa­thers did with 1932 Fords.”

The EV clas­sics are gain­ing stature on the cus­tom car cir­cuit. Au­gust’s Quail event fea­tured “A Trib­ute to the Elec­tric Car Move­ment.” On the fair­way were a VW mi­crobus con­ver­sion and a bat­tery-pow­ered 1949 Mer­cury, which took the top prize in the Quail’s first-ever elec­tric car class.

Hauber be­came in­ter­ested in elec­tric ve­hi­cles af­ter see­ing the 2007 doc­u­men­tary “Who Killed the Elec­tric Car?” about the demise of GM’s 1990s-era EV1. He got a job work­ing on EV pi­o­neer Jack Rickard’s pop­u­lar elec­tric ve­hi­cle we­b­cast. Soon he was build­ing elec­tric cars on his own.

Ab­bott started early, too. Some­time around 2004 the artist, fur­ni­ture builder and metal fab­ri­ca­tor, who goes by the moniker Rev­erend Gad­get, con­verted a Tri­umph Spit­fire into an elec­tric ve­hi­cle, us­ing old-fash­ioned leadacid bat­ter­ies that were heavy and hard to con­trol. Friends be­gan ask­ing him to build them elec­tric cars, too.

The process was te­dious, and the re­sults were un­de­pend­able. Stand­ing in his cramped Florence-area work­shop along­side a mid-elec­tri­fi­ca­tion Porsche Speed­ster, a clas­sic Volvo sta­tion wagon and a rust­ing 1947 Ford pickup, Ab­bott said, “They were like rolling sci­ence ex­per­i­ments, and you had to be a tin­kerer to own one.”

Sal­va­tion came in the form of Elon Musk and Tesla. Pour­ing mas­sive re­sources into bat­ter­ies and bat­tery man­age­ment, the bil­lion­aire en­tre­pre­neur started sell­ing in­creas­ingly large num­bers of elec­tric cars pow­ered by lithi­u­mion en­ergy packs that were pow­er­ful, recharge­able and re­li­able.

When Tesla own­ers crashed their Tesla Model S sedans and Model X SUVs, and the cars wound up as in­sur­ance write-offs, EV scav­engers came run­ning. They would scour lo­cal junk­yards for the dam­aged cars and pay, in the early days, only a few thou­sand dol­lars for their un­dam­aged bat­tery clus­ters.

That in­creased the power and range of the cus­tom elec­tri­fied ve­hi­cles and made them a lot eas­ier to own and op­er­ate. “Then you could just hand the keys to some­one, to any­one, and say, ‘Drive it un­til it runs out of elec­tric­ity and then plug it in,’” Hauber said.

In­ter­est in retro EVs has ac­cel­er­ated in re­cent years.

In 2013, for­mer ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive Dave Be­nardo and his wife and part­ner Bon­nie Rodgers traded San Francisco for San Diego to pur­sue their pas­sion­ate in­ter­est in vin­tage Volk­swa­gens. When they elec­tri­fied a Bee­tle and doc­u­mented the process on­line, cus­tomers came call­ing. To date, their Zelec­tric Mo­tors has con­verted about 30 Bugs, Kar­mann Ghias, mi­crobuses and VW Things into bat­tery-pow­ered run­abouts.

They found that putting main­te­nance-free elec­tric driv­e­trains into vin­tage ve­hi­cles elim­i­nated a lot of me­chan­i­cal babysit­ting that clas­sic cars de­mand of their own­ers. “There are peo­ple who are in love with the de­sign of these clas­sics, but they don’t want to do the wrench­ing on them,” Be­nardo said. “They just want to spend more time driv­ing.”

For one cus­tomer, Be­nardo re­cently elec­tri­fied a 1973 Porsche 911 S. The car looks ex­actly as it did when it was new, ex­cept that un­der the hood an elec­tric mo­tor that makes 240 horse­power has re­placed an en­gine that made 180.

“Now it’s just a ques­tion of go­ing faster in an old car,” Be­nardo said.

Some­times, too fast. The 800horse­power Shelby Cobra that Hauber made for com­mer­cial TV light­ing tech­ni­cian Don Swadley of El Ca­jon was so pow­er­ful as to be vir­tu­ally un­driv­able.

“Even with the mo­tor tuned down, we couldn’t get any trac­tion con­trol,” Swadley said. “At 50 miles per hour, you’d put your foot on the pedal and the car would go com­pletely side­ways.”

Hauber’s so­lu­tion: Make the Shelby more like a Tesla by adding a Tesla driv­e­train and sus­pen­sion sys­tem, with the Model S’s stan­dard P85 mo­tor in the back and an up­graded Tesla P100D mo­tor up front. “It’s 2,600 pounds lighter than a Tesla, and it’s ab­so­lutely faster than any Tesla on the road,” Swadley said. “Now I can go down the road with the wind mess­ing up my hair and out­ac­cel­er­ate any­thing and not be killing any trees.”

Graphic de­signer Thomas Almod­ovar of Playa del Rey said he was think­ing of buy­ing an elec­tric car, in part to help the en­vi­ron­ment. Then he thought, “It cre­ates a lot of pol­lu­tion to make a new car. But if you buy a used one and con­vert it, you’re not pol­lut­ing at all.”

Almod­ovar paid a lo­cal garage $2,500 for a 1979 MG that had come to the end of its me­chan­i­cal life. Then he spent $19,000 to have Ab­bott mod­ify it. The re­sult: A silen­trun­ning con­vert­ible sports car that has amaz­ing torque and a 60mile range.

In the case of Jonathan Ward and his Icon work­shop in Chatsworth, the clas­sic cars are re­ally clas­sic.

The car builder and for­mer Toy­ota de­signer, who made his name turn­ing shells of gas-pow­ered Toy­ota Land Cruis­ers, Ford Bron­cos and Chevy pickup trucks into mod­ern street rac­ers, spent three years and thou­sands of R&D hours elec­tri­fy­ing the Quail­win­ning 1949 Mer­cury for a loyal cus­tomer. When he was done, he’d built a 400-horse­power EV bomb pow­ered by Tesla bat­ter­ies and ca­pa­ble of be­ing recharged us­ing any of the charg­ing sys­tems cur­rently in use, in­clud­ing Tesla’s Su­per­charg­ers, he said.

MYUNG J. CHUN/LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES

Jonathan Warda plans to con­vert his clas­sic Mer­cury Coupe Icon Derelict 1949 into an elec­tric ve­hi­cle with bat­ter­ies from Tesla.

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