Electric Conversion It’s an electric dream! We test UK’s only electric E9 coupé.
Nobody can have escaped the emergence of electric power in the modern car market. It’s been greeted with everything from excitement and relief among the ‘early adopters’, to horror and aggressive ridicule from dyed-in-the-wool petrolheads. But the large mass of motorists in the centre has yet to react either way. As is so often the case with the public majority, significant action is unlikely to be seen until it’s triggered by legislation and/or financial incentive.
As things stand, today’s electric vehicles are very much at the cutting edge of technology, with models such as BMW’s innovative i3 marrying state-of-the-art construction and design techniques, with the latest in battery and electric motor tech. But vehicle range and the still limited charging infrastructure remain the two primary pinch points for most potential buyers who might be considering an electric car as their next daily driver. So, with big question marks still hanging over the practical use of electric cars as go-anywhere, everyday vehicles, there’s evidently a way to go yet before motorists at large are going to feel completely confident about switching away from fossil fuel.
However, for those wanting a car for short-journey use, or stop/start city work where overall range isn’t so much of an issue, electric power is becoming an increasingly attractive and practical option. Interestingly, a similar option now exists for those enthusiasts looking for a more classic twist to their electric car motoring needs, thanks to the ground-breaking work being done by Richard Morgan, who runs a company called Electric Classic Cars (electricclassiccars.co.uk).
Tucked away in the beautiful mid-Wales countryside, Richard and his team have been designing and producing electrified classic cars for three years, and business is booming. But what drew us to this company was the fact that one of its most recent conversions has been made to a 1975 E9 BMW 3.0 CSi coupé.
Now, I’m sure there will be some among you who simply can’t imagine why anybody would ever want to remove this model’s fuel-injected, straight-six, 200hp engine, and replace it with an electric motor. Surely the petrol engine is the very heart of the car and, without it, you’re left with a characterless shadow of a once vibrant and glorious car. Well, not surprisingly, Richard begs to differ!
His background combines a career in the energy industry and a life-long passion for classic cars. “I’ve been involved with classic cars since I was 16,” he told me as we sat drinking coffee in his warm kitchen on a grey and drizzly November morning. “I’m 45 now and have always owned cars that are older than me. My first car was a VW Beetle and keeping that on the road taught me the mechanical basics.”
“Then I started modifying it and lowering the suspension, and my interest started to broaden into improving other classics; making them look and handle better. As soon as I was old enough, I got involved in historic motorsports, and tried everything from drag racing and hill climbs to circuit racing and rallying; I took part in the British Historic Rally Championship for seven years, driving a classic Porsche 914. But once my young family came along I thought the responsible thing to do was to give up the rallying, which left me with a lot of time for pottering around in the workshop.”
It was at this point that Richard’s interest in electric cars started to develop. “A friend showed me a YouTube video of an electrified Beetle in America, and I was hooked. I reckoned that with my electrical industry background and practical workshop skills, I’d be able to have a crack at doing my own, and that’s exactly what I did.
“That first Beetle was an evenings and weekends project and it took me six months to complete the conversion. In practice, it was quite a simple exercise and the conversion worked well, producing a car with decent performance and a practical, real-world driving range of about 60 miles,” Richard told me.
“Not long after it was finished, somebody stopped me in the car park at our local Tesco, asked me about the car and then offered to buy it. Well, that set me thinking. “I knew that with what I’d learned from the first conversion, I could do a better job with a second one, and the funds from the sale allowed me to do just that. That was three years ago, and I spent more money on the important components, buying better battery technology and a superior electric motor. The first Beetle relied on prismatic battery cells which, as well as being the size of bricks, don’t have a great energy density, which limits both storage and output potential.”
“In comparison, Tesla batteries are physically smaller and have a better power density, so I went with those (sourced from written-off Tesla vehicles) as they’re just about as good as you can get, at the moment. I also opted for a brushless, AC motor instead of a DC unit because it offered zero maintenance and regenerative braking. And now, here we are running as an established classic car conversion business, with the order books looking healthy.”
But before we got into the detail of the E9 conversion, I was interested to find out Richard’s own attitude towards electric vehicles, and the conversions he’s now making to classic cars. “I’m a complete electric vehicle convert now,” he explained, “which is quite a turnaround given that I’d been an enthusiastic petrolhead all my life. My epiphany moment came when I drove that first VW Beetle I’d converted. Within a few seconds of switching on and pressing the accelerator, I’d been blown away by the simple, pure performance. It was a revelation, especially compared to how the car had been with its original motor.
“Now, I fully appreciate the time, effort and expertise it takes to build a racing engine that produces perhaps two or three times the power output of whatever was originally fitted in a car; I’ve been there and done that. I also know, only too well, the input that’s needed to keep those engines in tune and running reliably, and the painstaking hours that have to be devoted to routinely stripping and rebuilding them. So to suddenly have all that swept aside by the simplicity, efficiency and inherent reliability of an electric motor, was staggering.”
“Installing a physically small electric motor that can power any classic car more effectively than its original petrol engine, was a complete game-changer for me. The fact that there are no messy oil changes to do, filters to be changed, distributors to be fiddled with or exhaust systems to be repaired, is just an added bonus!
“Then, of course, there’s the fact that these motors are clean and green – there’s no pollution. It’s a complete win-win situation in my view, with the added benefit that the cars we convert handle immeasurably better than they ever did originally.”
So, it’s clear that Richard is utterly convinced by the electrification concept but, surely, with a car’s engine being such an integral part of its character, he must miss that aspect of the driving experience? “I thought I would miss the noise of an internal combustion engine,” he told me with a smile, “and the changing exhaust note while driving, but I’ve realised that I simply don’t.
“I just find it so much better to be able to drive along and listen to the birds singing instead. The other important fact is that it’s so much easier to drive an electric car; far less stressful and so much more enjoyable.
“In fact, the whole process has renewed my interest in classics cars, and that’s not something I expected to happen. After being so involved with restoring, driving, racing and rallying them for 30-odd years, the constant fettling they required, and the uncertainty that using them brings, does start to wear you down. But the simplicity of what can be created with a good electric conversion sweeps all that negativity aside.”
HAVE YOU TRIED IT?
“Of course there are the critics – especially on social media – and I accept their point of view. I think if I wasn’t where I am now, I’d be feeling the same as they do about what I’m doing. But, until you’ve tried one of our products, you don’t know what you’re missing!”
Richard was also keen to point out that the conversion work he does is all very sympathetic, and as non-invasive as possible. “I think what a lot of people forget is that the only thing I’m replacing is the engine. We’re not cutting chunks out of the bodywork or altering the chassis, and virtually everything we do is easily reversible. We simply replace a dirty, petrol-burning engine with a clean and typically more powerful, electric one.
“With regard to the CSi,” Richard told me, “the first thing we did was to have a long chat with the owner about exactly what he wanted from the conversion, in terms of looks and performance. Then we had to decide on the size of the electric motor needed; I usually ask customers whether they want a good amount of power, or a silly amount of power! In this case, the answer was the former, which I was pleased about, given the style and nature of the E9.”
PLENTY OF POWER
“The output of the electric motor was specified at just above the car’s original 200hp, and then it was simply a case of calculating the number of batteries needed to power that motor and provide the necessary range. Once I knew the size of the battery pack, I could start thinking about how to site them.”
Richard calculated that a 54Kw/h battery pack would be perfectly adequate in this case, and that this could be split in two, with half in the boot (occupying the space in the spare wheel well and that previously occupied by the petrol tank), and half under the bonnet, close to the electric motor.
He explained to me that one of the primary aims with his conversions is always to enhance the vehicle’s handling by not only achieving a desirable 50/50 weight distribution between the front and rear of the car, but also by using the battery packs and motor to lower the car’s centre of gravity.
In another measure intended to minimise the level of change to the E9’s structure, Richard decided to mount the electric motor at the front of the car, and to bolt it directly to the car’s original gearbox. “Having the motor’s power run through the original gearbox is a neat solution that allows the back end to remain unchanged. The motor is fitted with a clutch operated by the original pedal in the footwell, and it’s still possible for the driver to use all the gears in the conventional way.
“This car was the first BMW E9 that we’ve tackled and there’s always a certain amount of heading off into the unknown with any conversion, until you have the vehicle stripped and measured-up in the workshop. In this case, though, by far the biggest aspect of the conversion was the bodyshell restoration.”
“With the car having been off the road for at least the past 30 years, and various efforts made at restoration during that time, there was a lot to be sorted out before we were happy to start thinking about a respray. In fact, the whole project has taken us over a year to complete. The car arrived with us in quite a state; with plenty of rust on show and the stripped interior jumbled together in 20 cardboard boxes!
“So, getting the car back on the road was by far the biggest challenge for us,” Richard said. “Electrifying it was the easy bit, by comparison. Sourcing parts, both here and from the USA, was a constant struggle. Some bits were simply unobtainable, and so we ended up having to fabricate those ourselves.
“The only change to the running gear we made was to lower the front suspension, to compensate for the electric motor and front battery pack being lighter than the original engine. Apart from that, everything was left as standard, with all components being stripped, cleaned and powder-coated as part of the renovation process. We fitted replacement bushes and springs, while the braking system was completely overhauled with new, but standard spec, parts.
“Externally, the only changes made include the loss of the front bumper (I think it spoils the lines), the fitting of a front chin spoiler (for a slightly more aggressive look), and replacing the rear bumper with a cleaner-looking version from a 2000CS (supplied by a company in Vietnam!). We also chromed the front wing side vents, added clear lenses to the front indicators, and fitted a set of BBS alloy wheels.”
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
If there’s one thing that the E9 coupés always had, it’s road presence, and this electric version is no exception. Richard’s done a superb job with the complex, bodywork restoration, and I was pleased to see how little had been changed inside the car. Apart from a small instrument panel with battery condition and motor-related gauges and a discrete radio that now blanks off part of the oddments tray ahead of the gear lever, the rest of the interior appears as standard.
Turning the ignition key switches the car on but, apart from a few LEDs blinking into life, nothing else happens. It’s then simply a matter of selecting 3rd gear and pressing the accelerator to move off; that’s it.
Of course, the silence of the departure is eerie, as is the way the speed builds so effortlessly. But with the Welsh roads slippery with drizzle and dead leaves, and the excited new owner due to collect his new pride and joy the following morning, there was no way I was taking any risks. I had my kid gloves on and contented myself with a very leisurely, 15-minute dawdle. Nevertheless, this was enough to tell me that this is an interesting and engaging car. Despite its high-tech powerplant, it retains the feel and satisfying ambience of a 1970s classic; the character of the car is still present.
But, at the same time, it feels incredibly planted and more sure-footed than a standard CSi. The brakes retain a credibly period feel, and the wind noise leaking in around the frameless door glass is as it should be. But, without a big six purring away under the bonnet, your senses quickly become more attuned to wind whistle, tyre roar, the odd rattle and the creaking of new leather. It’s a strange driving experience and one that feels so different from what your brain thinks should be happening.
I wish I’d had more time – and a sunny day – to really get to know this electric E9, and to develop more of a feel for its road manners. But, even after my short time in the car, I could appreciate Richard’s point of view. Electrification does bring a new dimension to classic car motoring, and would certainly simplify the ownership proposition of one of these cars.
This car has a realistic driving range of 160 miles, and might even touch 180 if driven carefully. But the instant torque characteristics of the electric motor are addictive and, unlike a petrol-powered engine where there’s some ‘wind-up’ time as the power builds, an electric motor delivers its full power instantly, regardless of the speed it’s spinning at. So I think that driving it carefully would demand a massive amount of self-control!
I can’t imagine what the combined restoration and electrification of this car cost, given the time and expertise that’s been lavished on the project over the past 12 months. However, Richard did mention the car’s recent, independent insurance valuation to me, and it’s been set at a figure that would raise many an eyebrow. But what the new owner will be buying is a unique vehicle which, in its way, is as cutting-edge as the i3. It’s a beautiful-looking, 43-year-old classic coupé that can be driven and enjoyed in ways that its original designers could never have imagined. Outwardly it retains all the visual appeal and clean-lined excitement of a 1970s E9 but, under the bonnet, there beats a new kind of heart; one that’s clean, green and healthy, and which is capable of delivering a driving experience to savour.
Outwardly it retains all the visual appeal and clean-lined excitement of a 1970s E9 coupé but, under the bonnet, there beats a new kind of heart.
Top to bottom: The interior woodwork was brought back to life by a classic boat restoration specialist
- The rear seats are resplendent in new black leather
- This panel, housing the battery and motor gauges plus the radio, is the only non-standard fixture inside the car.
The ‘instant torque’ characteristics of the electric motor mean that you can pull away from rest in third gear and then, at about 60mph, change straight to fifth; those are the only two forward gears you need to use in this beautifully converted, mid-1970s ‘3.0’ CSi.
At the back of the car, eagle-eyed observers might notice the lack of an exhaust tailpipe, but that’s the only clue about what lies beneath. The car weighs just 50kg more than the original.
Left: This is the diminutive electric motor that now powers the E9. It weighs 68kg and is just 20in in length. Right: The front battery pack being test-fitted in the restored but unpainted bodyshell.
Within a few seconds of switching on and pressing the accelerator, I’d been blown away by the simple, pure performance.
There’s no access to the battery packs in this car; they have to be securely protected for health and safety reasons.
Surely the petrol engine is the very heart of the car and, without it, you’re left with a characterless shadow.
The car’s charging port is hidden behind the original fuel filler flap. Plugged into a 13A domestic supply, it’ll take 22 hours to charge from empty to full. However, most electric car owners use dedicated wall pods at home, which run at 7kW and will fill this 54kW battery pack in just over seven hours.
Richard Morgan wants his electric conversions to draw more people into classic cars because he makes them easier to live with than ever before.