Cowland on Cars

Convert a classic to electric? It’s assault and battery

by Paul Cowland
4 August 2021 3 min read
Convert a classic to electric? It’s assault and battery
Photo: Matt Howell

I think it’s fairly well documented that I’m an ardent admirer of all classic cars. What’s less well known, is that I’m a huge fan of the latest raft of hybrid, hydrogen and battery electric vehicles, too. Where it all goes a bit ‘meh’ for me though, is when those two worlds collide, and people start mixing the recipes together.

I’m going to preface this piece with my usual car caveats. Firstly, anything that keeps a classic car on the road, rather than languishing in a barn or field is undoubtedly a good thing. Secondly, if it’s your name on the V5, and your cash that’s in the build, you should do what the bloody hell you like. All I would ask though, before you tear that matching numbers engine and box out of your pristine 911, is to have a long hard think about what you’re doing.

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If it’s for environmental reasons, it’s worth remembering that most classics are driven an average of 1200 miles a year. If your car is maintained, serviced and in tip-top condition, it won’t be putting you on the Greenpeace Christmas Card list any time soon, but then even if it’s uncatalysed, it’s not gonna be melting that many icecaps, either. Certainly less than the enormous ship that chugged those battery packs and motors half way across the world’s oceans.

If it’s for performance, sure, I’ll give you that one. Without doubt, the immediate torque and biblical grunt of an electric set-up gives you the kind of tyre-shredding ability that will make you the hero of every cars and coffee exit video compilation, but then, when you stop and think about it, is that what attracts us to classics in the first place? I’ve seen (admittedly beautifully executed) conversions to Ferraris, Porsches and Volkswagens, but, to me, a huge part of the character and soul of these cars comes from their engine note and drivetrain. The smell of an old flat four, the bark of a finely tuned flat six, or the satisfying snick of that iconic Ferrari ‘H’ gate. Sure, your electric version may get you there a minute earlier. But guess who had the more visceral and satisfying drive to get there? Classic cars should thrill all the senses, and at any speed.

Ferrari iconic alloy H-gate gearlever
An intrinsic part of driving pleasure is the interaction with the machine. Photo: Dean Smith

Perhaps it’s usability that you’re looking for? You might want to leave things as they are, then. Most EV-converted classics have a range of 120-150 miles, at best. Compare that to the 400-plus miles that your petrol or diesel tank gives you, and the joy of a touring holiday or pan-European dash becomes ever more compelling if you leave things in their factory state.

While the charging infrastructure improves on an almost daily basis, it’s never going to be as easy as the ‘splash and dash’ of the unleaded pump. Don’t even get me started on which chargers work with which conversions. It’s a fun game even when you DO have an inbuilt satnav and app to guide you. Without one, you may very well soon be on first name terms with your local RAC patrolman.

Chevrolet Blazer electric conversion
Is this what we want under the bonnet of a classic?

Cost is another factor. Converting a mint VW Beetle, for example, can easily tax your wallet way more than the value of the car itself, and by removing the engine that purists want, you’re devaluing the car to many buyers in the future. And what if electric cars are the Betamax motoring or tomorrow? What if hydrogen proves to be the silver VHS bullet we needed all along? The truth is, nobody knows what’s around the corner, with even the big car manufacturers hedging their bets to wait the game out. So, there may come a time when you want to put that engine back in to get top money – and where are you going to keep it until then? And ultimately, what state is it going to be in when you do?

I’m not saying don’t drive electric – or hydrogen. All I’m saying is get one of those as your daily, save the world, and have the glorious symphony of an ICE classic to enjoy on high-days and holidays. If you’re still feeling guilty as you leave a trail of burnt, dead dinosaurs in your wake, remember two things; that the plastics on all of these giant Tamiyas are made of the very same stuff, and secondly, there are myriad firms that will offset emissions and plant a tree or 10 for you to help balance the ying and the yang of driving your fossil-fueled car.

Besides, the last hurrah for ICE hadn’t been sounded yet, Porsche seems to have nailed the formulation of synthetic petrol – read about it here – which reduces the CO2 impact of traditional fuels by around 85%, so for now at least, my advice is keep it as a Volkswagen, rather than a Voltswagen.

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  • James Flourentzou says:

    With Paul all the way on this, it’s tantamount to murder! I have owned a Ferrari 348 since new, I once mentioned to someone that I was thinking of changing the wheels from 348 alloys to 355 alloys. They said if you want the 355 look go buy a 355, so if you want an electric car go buy one, don’t mutilate a petrol car if electric is what you want.

  • Chris Bone says:

    Excellent article, wholeheartedly agree with all that Paul has written.

  • Ray Bunn says:

    Paul is exactly right fingers crossed Hydrogen gets sorted and becomes the front runner, we do seem to have a plentiful supply of water, and there is desalination, history should not be be changed, things happen for a reason, and are we saying that climate change is controlling the jetstream or ir this just a weather phenomenon that we have not seen since we have been able to record or even know about such things !!.

  • Graham Goodwin says:

    Paul has hit the nail on the head with that one. Don’t tear the heart out of your classic. Well not while petrol is readily available anyway. Things are likely to be very different in 10 years, but for now enjoy your pure classic.

  • Peter Lorimer says:

    Very well argued, and nicely written too.

  • IHJ says:

    He is right about the environmental impact of conversion, and about the mutilation angle, especially since the conversions are not being supplied by the original makers. They are appalling lash-ups, made God-knows-where, to get your money before the car makers can. The car makers need to catch up and serve the enthusiasts’ needs properly with genuine parts before E10 gasoline eats every fuel system out there.

  • robert knight says:

    I have just converted a 1911 Ford model T to electric, the engine was sold and virtually paid for the conversion, it is my car and I will do what I want to do with it, it is DVLA recognised, taxed, insured and still MOT exempt, I drive around happy in the knowledge that it is powered by electric

  • David Cole says:

    I like many on here am a Classic fan. I own a 1960 Austin Healey BN7 @ 3 classic Lambretta’s.
    I am hugely confident electric cars are a fad. A friend had a conversation with a guy from our local electricity supply company here in Devon.
    He claimed the recently( 3 years ago) installed cables on pylons were already ” running hot”.
    He reckoned the cost of updating the distribution grid would cost £ billions.
    I’m all for hydrogen.
    Fill your vehicle in the usual manner but instead of gasoline the pump dispenses hydrogen.

  • William Grime says:

    Completely agree. Why would you destroy a classic for the environmental nightmare that is an electric system? They still burn fossil fuels to make electricity, and don’t get me started on the batteries and plastics. Hydrogen is the future.

  • Nigel Baker says:

    I’m with Paul 100% here.
    Would you put your grandmother in a mini skirt and stilettos and then send her out to audition for Love Island … err.. no.
    Putting an electric motor in a classic is the automotive equivalent IMHO.

  • Richard Hawksworth says:

    Putting an electric motor into a classic has to be the apex of irrational thinking in a hobby, let’s face it, that is 99% driven by emotion anyway. How many years must the newly engined vehicle be driven to begin to offset the carbon impact of the new engine – my estimate is that point will never be reached? An utterly pointless exercise in virtue signalling to oneself rather than admitting and living with the fact that we do some harm each time we take the car out but probably a lot less than a flight to Malaga or a year of watching Netflix.

  • Derek Nichols says:

    Absolutely agree with you James and Richard. Don’t get sucked into all the hype, just enjoy your classic for what it is and keep using conventional fuel. That way we’ll all be ready to switch to synthetic fuels in the medium future.

  • George Montgomery says:

    I have 10 classic cars all in original condition and have been collecting for some 50 years.
    The only good reason to see about converting, is the fact that petrol/gasoline may be banned at some point in the next 20 years ? Some cities have already banned vintage cars and are requiring special permits $$$ to exit and enter.
    So if you want to drive your collector car in the future, there may not be any choice, and some people are getting ready as they see it.
    I think they are wasting time and money but then our hobby is full of people doing that already, so a few more ??

  • tim Kingham says:

    I absolutely agree the thing to change is the fuel -non fossil fuel made from renewable energy and recycling CO2 ( in fact perhaps it is what we should have done instead of the electric car diversion ) its available now (see Carbon Engineering Ltd) the classic vehicle movement should get organised and sort out a supply network now while there are plenty of non historic petrol cars around to use it , go green and not scrap them prematurely.

  • John Harris says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Cowlands heartfelt plea not to implant electric powered devices in our beloved classics. But the use of the phrase “The smell of an old flat four, the bark of a finely tuned flat six, or the satisfying snick of that iconic Ferrari ‘H’ gate” along with “your pristine 911” won’t do much I’m afraid to persuade me to abandon any thought of electric propulsion. After all, how many of us have actually been entertained by the Bark, Smell or Snick of pristine 911s or Ferrari 348 or even seen one of them close up. These cars don’t seem to populate my classic car environment, it’s more Austin 7s or 10s accompanied by Devons, Cavaliers, or members of your favourite grouping, the “unexeptional”. There are a few exotics, my 1953 Plus Four being one but it is exceptional amongst our monthly gatherings. The usual sound emitting from the members cars as we set off gingerly to some far off location was crunch, grind, whine and the occasional “b****r” . Bark and snick are non existant but smell can be widely enjoyed! I “enjoy” a 69 yr old Moss box to connect my engine to the rear wheels and a long cross country trip can only be enjoyed by the fitting of industrial quality ear plugs and the CD player, removed from my old Grenada before it left for the scrappy, turned up to max. vol. One of the great joys of my club meetings, some 70 odd miles away on occasion, was upon return reaching my lock-up, securing the Moggie and then jumping into the unashamed luxury of the Granada for the last three miles to home. Particularly in the early hours of a frosty winter’s morning. The Moss box did have one strange side effect though which remains with me to this day; my left arm started to assume the dimensions of Popeye’s and I acquired an unquenchable longing for Spinach!

  • Roger_G says:

    Re Robert Knight comment above: It’s your car – do what you want with it. In my opinion you have just wrecked it, but it’s your choice.
    I am surprised that it has kept it’s Historic status. I thought that changing the drive and transmission from standard made a vehicle ineligible for that status and the few perks that go with it.
    I wait with interest to see how the LEZ charging system will deal with modified ICE vehicles. As electric drive, they should be exempt but I read a couple of weeks ago that London has issued thousands of fines for Teslas. If they can’t get that right, what chance for an electric 1980’s vehicle?

  • Terry says:

    This is just one further step from the “classic” car owners who “upgrade” their car with 5 speed gearboxes, alternators and different engines – albeit from the same Marques. One of the joys of owning and driving an older car is to the experience what it was like to drive it in the day. So what if you are better steering clear of motorways and stick to the more rural roads and are content with cruising at 50-60 mph, that’s all part of the classic car experience. Don’t forget, with older cars. it’s not just the power unit and drive train that need care and attention, if converting to electric with all its performance potential a major overhaul or replacement of chassis parts, suspension, brakes and steering is going to be necessary. I have an MGA 1600 coupe – OK, I have swapped the two 6 volt batteries for a single 12 volt, but it still has its original engine, drive train, suspension and brakes with all the problems of the massive gap between 2nd and 3rd gear and the need to anticipate, as it stops well, but not on a sixpence.

  • Chris Boddington says:

    Wonderful article Paul thanks. I remain interested after reading in converting a ’73 midget to fuel cell at 700bar hydrogen. Lots of reasons. She’s made near 50 yrs, 30 of them with me , still looks great and is a brilliant drive – it would be magic to see the form go on for another 50. The fuel cell/electric combination of power to weight and grunt would make the motor perhaps an even more fun ride. Spent so much defending against corrosion that rational economics went out the window some time ago.

    Have you any ideas for how to keep the manual gearbox/clutch and a suitable electric motor?


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