FEATURE: ELECTRIC CLASSIC CARS
Jonathan Musk pays a visit to Wales where a new company is converting old classics to electric power and drives a #1965
ELECTRIC CLASSIC CARS / WORDS & PHOTOS: Jonathan Musk / #2016
I’m in a classic Volkswagen Beetle and it’s raining… in Wales. Surprisingly, the Beetle is powered by an electric motor and is at least twice as powerful as the original car, has a range of 100-miles and has been beautifully restored. I’m driving a classic car, but the experience is strangely modern. There are no fumes, no angry exhaust note and brakes that actually work. It’s definitely classic, but without the usual sensations.
Driving through the Welsh mountains is a joy to behold in most cars. It’s not about going fast, it’s about travelling well. To enhance the experience, I’m in a classic 1965 Volkswagen Beetle. It’s electric, literally.
In mid-Wales, Richard Morgan and Graham Swann have started something special. They converts classic cars to electric power and do so with such passion and skill, it’s hard not to be moved by the beauty of their work. I’m paying a visit to Richard, who’s intriguing past is in the world of Rally, where trees and metal meet with the sound of flying gravel and revving engines. Rally is loud, brash and a petrolhead’s idea of heaven. It’s the rugby of the motoring world and, like rugby, rally is a thug’s sport played by gentlemen so it’s perhaps a surprise that Richard has turned his attention to electric vehicles at all. More surprising is that the cars start out as classics.
Understandably, the key is not to lose the original vehicle’s credibility, sense of nostalgia and classic charm. Electric Classic Cars are not trying to reinvent the original, but rather enhance it with modern tech and for the thrill of creating something new from something old. It’s a careful balance that if done correctly can work astoundingly well, like sweet and sour sauce.
The non-metallic red 1965 Beetle is a stunning example of professional craftsmanship. The car has been restored to near perfect condition, but crucially without over doing it. It’s been stripped back, enhanced, modified and tinkered with so delicately that initially it’s difficult to tell that it’s an electric car at all, save for the massive advertising sticker in the rear window. If subtlety is an art, Richard has it figured.
For those familiar with the original Beetle, it was a car that saved the German automotive industry after the Second World War. Rejuvenated by the Allies, the Beetle was seen as a quick way to provide transport through a devastated landscape. Despite an unsettling Nazi past and antiquated 30’s Ferdinand Porsche design, the Beetle next became the darling of the swinging sixties and an ironic icon of the hippie movement. Many were sadly destroyed through lack of care before being recognised as a true motoring icon. Unable to keep up with modern cars even as far back as the 1950’s, the Beetle was never meant to be a performance car. Only when modified as a beach buggy did the Beetle ever truly find performance from its aged flat-four engine. The performance, or lack thereof, didn’t dissuade Hollywood from portraying the Beetle as the star of the ‘Love Bug’ movies. Since then, the Beetle has attracted a huge global following, with people having tried just about everything with, and in, one. There’s hot-rod Beetles powered by massive tuned Porsche engines and even an incredibly powerful electric drag racer, called Black Current.
The modernising of classics is not entirely unusual and there’s a universal appeal to recreating old classics, as demonstrated by the modern Fiat 500, BMW MINI and even new VW Beetle.
However, there’s a risk that with each modernisation the classic character is lost and this is the exact opposite of what Richard aims to do with his conversions.
Instead, each conversion is kept as original as possible to maintain the patina and ownership experience, but without the typical irritations associated with classic ownership; namely grease, smell, noise, discomfort and unreliability.
Most conversions undertaken are custom orders, so if a customer is on a tight budget Richard won’t look at the bodywork and instead concentrates on the powertrain. For the Beetle, however, it was stripped right back to its bare skin. A fresh coat of striking red paint and a new interior trim later and the car looks factory fresh but it hasn’t lost its aged appeal. Unfortunately, Richard’s the sort of chap who gets stuck into the work so there’s no before-after photo to show.
Things are kept as straightforward as possible for the mechanicals. Richard has spent many years trialling various electric components to reach the point that he’s happy to sell a conversion to a paying customer.
Learning what controller works with what motor and charging unit is all a matter of expensive trial and error and invaluable knowledge he’s enviably learnt. So much so that he is now regularly contacted by others for advice, including well-known setups like EV West in America. It’s not all one way though, as if EV West has completed a conversion on a car that Electric Classic Cars’ has not attempted, there’s mutual benefit in sharing expertise.
Obviously, conversions start with the removal of the oily bits. Engine, exhaust, fuel tank, insulation, oil pipes, cooling paraphernalia etc. are all removed. “The weight saving is significant,” states Richard. He shows me a 1980’s Porsche 911 that’s being stripped down. Interestingly, the assorted items that have been removed weigh nearly as much as the electrical components he plans to install.
Once the engine has been removed, work begins on planning. Using the original gearbox keeps things simpler and a special conversion plate is fabricated using 3D scanning, geometry and CAD to get it spot on. The conversion plate is milled from a single aluminium block to ensure it is strong, light and accurately machined. The electric motor is then mounted to this and attached to the gearbox, just like the engine it replaces.
Consequently, the electric motor powers the car through the same gears and clutch as the original car. Each conversion brings its own complications, for example the electrification of brake servos and power steering that would have been powered by the engine. However, the Volkswagen Beetle is a simple machine with no complex electronics or powered anything to worry about, which makes conversion that much simpler and this is part of the appeal in converting a classic. A modern car to electric conversion has much more to consider.
Once the motor position is sorted, preparation for the power electronics and positioning can begin. Planning is crucial for doing the job properly; there are no half measures here.
Of course, planning where the components fit is more easily achieved if they’re a known quantity and this is where Richard’s knowledge is really called upon. The most space-sensitive item in any EV is the batteries, which Richard sources from around the globe. Lots come from written-off electric cars, like Tesla that have been rear-ended and this is his preferred battery to work with too. “Nissan Leaf batteries just aren’t powerful enough,” he tells me as he shows me a bank of cells recently repurposed from a Tesla Roadster. High energy density is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, the battery takes up less space in the car and secondly it’s lighter too. This is all the more important in a car that was never designed to take the additional weight of an electric powertrain, let alone its additional power. The original Beetle weighed around 725kg – Richard’s electrified version is around 800kg. The difference is small enough not to have to worry about upgrading the original suspension and brakes.
However, the original car was barely able to reach 60mph while the electric version can easily get there within ten seconds. Enhanced anchors are therefore wise and this Beetle now sports new disc brakes at the front. Appearance is kept original though, as they’re handily hidden behind the delightfully gleaming chrome hubcaps. Richard’s rally background ensures he’s more than capable at setting a car up properly and this is important as the weight distribution is now near 50/50. Suspension is original apart from the addition of an anti-roll bar to aid handling.
Most of the batteries are tucked neatly away under the bonnet, but more are to be found hidden under the rear parcel shelf. It’s remarkable to think 22kWh of li-ion cells have somehow been hidden in a car never designed to accept them, when modern car makers still struggle to do the same with a purpose designed vehicle. Even the charge port has been hidden behind the rear number plate that acts as a protective rain flap too. This level of intricate detail and intelligent thinking is repeated throughout the car. The dashboard has been lovingly restored and its clear Richard’s perfectionism has paid off. The one addition that gives the electric game away is a #LinkPRO
battery monitor – but even this has been given a chrome dial and slate grey background to match the original speedo it sits beside.
The level of perfectionism is impressive, but that’s not to say it’s over the top. For instance the steering wheel has a large worn area that only adds to the nostalgia of the car. A fresh one was installed, but Richard felt it was too bright and detracted from the overall classic appeal. Having had a good look around, I was eager to get out on the open road. Would this drive like a Tesla, Jonny’s Flux Capacitor or a classic Beetle?
Turning the car on is undramatic as the ignition key merely illuminates a small green light LED at the base of the speedometer. It’s alien for a classic car, there’s no vibration, no noise, no smoke, no smell. Ignore the clutch and first, select second and accelerate. It’s that simple. Because the motor isn’t spinning at standstill, the clutch is only needed when on the move. Likewise, there’s little point depressing it when coming to a stop. You can drive the Beetle much like a regular automatic, leaving it in third gear will give a good blend of performance and top speed, but Richard’s discovered second gear is great for humiliating the ever-eager Audi behind. Fourth (top) is good for long runs and motorway cruising, which the Beetle will now happily do. As for range, Richard says it will cover 100-miles with ease. The battery monitor shows percentage loss at approximately the same rate as the miles glide by.
Steering is heavy until you get it rolling, no power steering here and the thin-rim wheel is a delight to hold. Manoeuvring the car reminds me of old black & white movies when actors inexplicably exaggerated steering. The experience is definitely classic and not far removed from driving the original car, only without the thumping soundtrack, a lot more speed and – I’m told – better handling. The Beetle accelerates like a modern electric car, although it has a unique whine all of its own, akin to a small turbine. On the return approach, there’s a steep climb to navigate. Richard suggests quickly whipping it into first and I hesitate for a moment. We’re now stopped facing up the hill. I fall into modern driving mode and attempt a classic hill start, only I’ve given it a few too many Amps and have managed to spin the rear wheels. We’re doing a burnout in a 1965 electric Beetle. It’s an accidental thrill I’m hugely apologetic about. However, this nicely demonstrates the torque available from the AC electric motor and would have been an impossibility in the original petrol car. It’s fun and we both return with larger grins than a Cheshire cat.
The big question for many is, did I miss the flat-four engine sound? No, while I can appreciate a classic that’s been restored for originality, a part of me has always wondered why people put all that effort in and not take the opportunity to improve a car if they can. There are countless examples in the classic car world, like Triumph Stags that were built with a design flaw that meant many overheated, ruining the engine. Long after the cars were built, a modification now exists to correct this. Would a purist complain that a modified Stag no longer overheats? I doubt it. Applying the same logic, what Electric Classic Cars has done is take an old obsolete car and make it usable in today’s modern driving conditions. That, surely, is the whole point and the best form of recycling.
And the cost for this? Well, that’s a bit like asking a builder to construct a house without first saying how many rooms it has and what size it will be. However, Richard advises a conversion costs around £25,000. That’s fair considering the effort required, technical know-how and actual cost of components used, which amount to well over £10,000.
The Volkswagen Beetle isn’t the only car Electric Classic Cars convert, although it is the vehicle they have most expertise on. In the workshop while I was there was a Porsche 911 (964) and Range Rover Series 1, as well as another Beetle. Richard told me of more customer cars he’s about to start on too, including a special Jaguar E-Type that will out accelerate a Tesla Model S and have a 200-mile range too. Would I be tempted to have a classic converted to electric power? After my experience in the VW Beetle the answer is a very definite yes.
Wales, wet, mountains, autumn, red, Volkswagen, classic, wind, whirr, electric, smiles.