Could Electric Motor Conversions Save Classic Cars?

By: Cherise Threewitt  | 

e-Beetle conversion
The range of the e-Beetle, which reaches top speeds of up to 41 miles per hour (150 kilometers per hour) is 124 miles (200 kilometers) a comfortable distance for a relaxing day out in an electrified classic car. Kai-Uwe Knoth/Volkswagen

Crate motors and conversion kits are becoming popular options for breathing new life into classic cars, and the latest options are a little different, as in they're now available in electric. That means if you have a classic car that you'd like to convert to an electric vehicle (EV) you now have choice.

In the United States, such an idea might be a novelty, only for the most serious car collectors. But in Europe, several cities are discussing or implementing plans to reduce or prevent gas- and diesel-powered cars from entering their city centers, so converting a classic diesel vehicle to electric power could be justified as a practical move, rather than an indulgence.

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What Is a Crate Motor?

First, let's back up and take a quick look at exactly what a crate motor is. A crate motor, or crate engine, gets its name because it is a complete, brand-new engine delivered in a crate. It's designed to make swapping out or upgrading an old engine relatively easy. You still need the mechanical skills to perform the work (or the money to pay someone) but you don't need to worry about salvaging the engine from another car. And you won't discover broken or missing parts while you're in the middle of the installation job. Crate motors are especially popular for race cars and hot rods.

If you have a classic or vintage car that you'd like to actually get running so you can drive it, and you have some cash to spare, an electric vehicle conversion might be the way to go. Electric motors and powertrains have simpler designs than gas- and diesel-powered engines, which means installation and maintenance is easier, too. And in the end, the car will run much cleaner.

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Why Swap a Gas Motor for an Electric Motor?

"Providing electric powertrains to classic cars delivers an exhilarating driving experience (EV torque and power) only available through electric drivetrains," explains Eric Hutchison, a founding partner of Electric GT, a California-based provider of EV crate motors. In an email, Hutchison says that Electric GT's system is easy to use because it includes the motor, controller, contactor control unit, battery management system, DC converter, charging system and modular plug-in energy modules, while some competitors' systems provide only the motor and controller.

Some auto manufacturers are so enthusiastic about the possibility of converting their classic cars to electric, they're offering ways to upgrade them. In fall of 2019, for instance, Volkswagen unveiled its factory conversion program and showed off its own project — a converted 1973 Super Beetle — to generate interest.

The Super Beetle was displayed at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show and sported some exterior modifications, as well, including a taillight design from older Beetles specially fitted to conceal the car's electric charging port. The standard cooling vents were also removed, as they're no longer needed. The conversion used an electric drive, 1-speed gearbox and battery system based on the new VW e-up electric car, and was completed by the German specialist company eClassics.

Super Beetle
The Super Beetle displayed at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show included a taillight design from older Beetles specially designed to conceal the car's electric charging port.
Kai-Uwe Knoth/Volkswagen

"The electrified Beetle combines the charm of our classic car with the mobility of the future. Innovative e-components from Volkswagen Group Components are under the bonnet – we work with them to electrify historically important vehicles, in what is an emotional process," Thomas Schmall, member of the board of management of Volkswagen Group Components, said in a press release. "We are also providing Beetle owners with a professional conversion solution, using production parts of the highest quality." For now, though, that's available only in Germany, as the conversion is completed by eClassics near Stuttgart.

Aston Martin and Jaguar both announced similar programs in 2018, but VW's program probably has the most mainstream appeal, simply because so many Beetles were built over the car's lifetime. Volkswagen also says that electric microbus conversions are in the works, and the Porsche 356 is also a possibility.

Prices vary widely, and few suppliers of EV conversions are openly willing to disclose prices, since it will often vary by vehicle and complexity of the project. As reported by The Verge, California-based Zelectric and EV West can charge as much as $100,000 for a conversion, and people who join the waiting list now may wait at least a couple of years until their car is completed.

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Does It Affect the Car's Value?

As with anything that affects automotive culture, there are always dissenters. The Fédération Internationale des Véhicules Anciens (FIVA) weighed in on the trend and said that any gas- or diesel-powered vehicle upgraded to electric is no longer considered historic because it's been significantly altered. FIVA prefers vehicles as original as possible.

Though this stance makes sense on the surface, there are some well-reasoned counterpoints. For example, if a classic Beetle is reworked as an EV using a kit designed and supplied by Volkswagen, shouldn't the fact that the original automaker had a hand in the project count for something? What about cases in which an EV conversion is the only possible or practical way to get a car back on the road; isn't that better for car culture than letting it rot in a field?

"Certainly there are collectibles that should remain preserved, collectible and untouched," Hutchison says. "But of all the vehicles produced from the 1920s to 1980s, there is ample opportunity to honor the heritage and keep more on the road well into the future with modern drivability."

Hutchison says many of Electric GT's customers own modern EVs alongside their classic projects and aren't typically worried about the effect on their cars' collector value.

"They are investing more into the actual restoration and upgrades to complement the investment of the EV conversion," he says. "There is big value on usability and drivability."

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