DENVER (AP) – When Kevin Erickson fires up his 1972 Plymouth Satellite, a faint hum replaces what’s usually the sound of pistons pumping, gas coming through the carburetor and the low throb of the exhaust.
Even though it’s nearly silent, the classic American muscle car isn’t broken. This is electricity.
Erickson is one of a small but expanding group of tinkerers, racers, engineers and entrepreneurs across the country who are converting old cars and trucks into green, and often very fast, electric vehicles.
Despite some purists’ scoffs about converted cars like golf carts or remote-controlled cars, electric powertrain conversions are becoming more mainstream as battery technology advances and the world turns to clean energy to combat climate change.
“RC cars are fast, so it’s actually kind of a compliment,” said Erickson, whose renamed “Electrolite” reaches 0-60 mph (0-97 kph) in three seconds and is nearly gets above 155 mph (249 kph). It also invites curious stares at public charging stations, which are becoming increasingly common across the country.
In late 2019, Erickson, a cargo pilot living in suburban Denver, bought the car for $6,500. He then began a year and a half long project to convert the car into a 636-horsepower (475 kW) electric vehicle using a battery pack, a motor and the entire rear subframe from a crashed Tesla Model S.
Eriksson said, “It was my way of taking a car that I love – my favorite body – and then taking modern technology and performance and mixing them together.”
Jonathan Klinger, vice president of car culture for Haggerty Insurance, which specializes in collector vehicles, said converting classic cars to EVs is “definitely a trend,” though research on the practice is limited.
In May, the Michigan-based company conducted a web-based survey of nearly 25,000 self-identified automobile enthusiasts in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. About 1% had either partially or completely converted their Classic to run on some sort of electrified drivetrain.
Respondents’ top three reasons for converting their vehicles were for faster acceleration and better performance, for a fun and challenging project, and for environmental and emissions concerns. Nearly 25% of respondents said they approve of classic vehicles being partially or fully converted to EVs.
“Electric vehicles provide some surprising demonstrations of the nature of the mechanics of how they work,” Klinger said. Current trend of the 1950s hot-rod movement.
But Klinger, who owns several older vehicles, said he doesn’t think electric motors will replace all internal combustion engines — especially when considering historically significant vehicles.
“There’s something satisfying about having an old car with a carburetor,” he said, “because it’s what it was when the car was new.” Some enthusiasts want to preserve the sound and rumble of the original engines from older cars.
Other barriers to converting cars include the knowledge it takes to undertake such a complex project as well as tinkering with high-voltage components, the availability of parts, and the time it takes to realize a positive, environmental impact. Because classic vehicles drive an average of less than 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) per year, it takes longer to offset the initial carbon footprint of manufacturing the batteries, Klinger said.
And then there’s the price.
Sean Moudry, co-owner of Inspire EV, a small conversion business in suburban Denver, recently modified a 1965 Ford Mustang that was destined for the landfill. The one-and-a-half-year-long project cost more than $100,000 and revealed several other obstacles that underscore why the conversion is not a “plug-and-play” endeavor.
To try to pack enough power into the pony car to “smoke its tires” at a drag strip, Moudry and his colleagues replaced the low-powered six-cylinder gas engine with the motor from a crashed Tesla Model S. . They also installed 16 Tesla battery packs with a total weight of about 800 pounds (363 kg).
Most classic vehicles, including the Mustang, weren’t designed to handle that much weight – or the increased performance that comes with a powerful electric motor. The team therefore had to strengthen the car’s suspension, steering, driveshaft and brakes.
The result is a Frankenstein-like vehicle that includes a rear axle from a Ford F-150 pickup and rotors from a Dodge Durango SUV, as well as front and rear disc brakes and sturdier coil-over shocks.
Although Ford and General Motors have plans to produce standalone electric “crate” motors marketed to classic vehicle owners, Moudry says it’s still too complex a project for a casual car tinkerer like this. Don’t have the resources to take over. Because of this, he thinks it will take some time for EV conversions to become mainstream.
“I think it’s going to be 20 years,” he said. ,
But that reality may come sooner than expected, according to Mike Spagnola, president and CEO of the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a trade group that focuses on aftermarket vehicle parts.
About 21,000 square feet (1,951 square meters) of convention space during SEMA’s annual show in Las Vegas this fall was dedicated to electric vehicles and their parts, he said. This was up from just 2,500 sq ft (232 sq m) at the 2021 show.
Companies are developing universal parts as well as lighter, smaller and more powerful battery packs. They’re also making wiring components that are easier to install and a myriad of other innovations. Some are even building vehicle frames with electric motors, batteries and components already installed. Buyers can install the body of a classic vehicle on top of the platform.
“Early adopters of this will take the crashed Tesla and find a way to take the motor and the harness and the battery and the battery out of the vehicle and shoehorn it into whatever vehicle they want to build,” Spagnola said. “But there are a number of manufacturers today that are now starting to make components. … We’re really excited about that.