Why you should electrify a Classic Car. Part I

The 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air.

Blasphemy! How could you replace the engine of an original factory car with a modern electric motor and power electronics and still consider it a “classic”? The sound of combustion and the smell of gasoline are intricately connected to the joy of owning an antique or classic car. The feeling of explosive power. Originality counts.

Or does it?

Is electrification physically practical?

Ten years ago, one-off conversions from combustion engines to electric motors still utilized lead acid or early lithium-ion batteries and a limited selection of motors and power electronics. While viable, the resulting range and power of those early conversions was limited and unimpressive.

Roll forward to the present where all major OEMs are scrambling to transition to electric. The supply chain has radically changed for the better. Battery chemistry has improved reliability, and energy density is continuing to improve at about 3–5% per year. More component supplier options have become available to the point that a conversion does not have to take a back seat to original car performance.

In fact, electrifying can provide impressive power acceleration gains never before possible. With a conversion you can have custom features not readily available from automakers, and range — equal or greater than the original range of most antique cars. At the time, if you were old enough to experience those cars when they were fresh from the showroom, range and efficiency was not even a consideration.

Classics often don’t range far from home. But if you wanted to make that iconic Route 66 trip, today we have the EV charging network pretty well laid out in North America. On average 75 miles range will get you to the next EV charging station[1] and that range is well within the abilities of current components and conversion limitations.

What makes cars classic and collectable?

Many owners of classic cars bought them to bring them back to the feeling they experienced in their formative years. Today some of the hottest collectables are 60’s and 70’s cars because the Boomers who grew up with them have the resources to collect and keep them.

It has been noted that as the population ages the demand for older cars diminishes. The oldest antique cars are now simply out of living memory, and the demand for them has dropped off. As one of my car collector friends noted “nobody wants ’30s cars anymore”.

But classics will always be classics. The ordinary business coupe or family sedan may not have the same cachet as concourse luxury cars of the day. But they still have immense appeal for style, ride, and the luxury of largess simply not available from modern cars. Back then most engines were under-powered, had limited acceleration, brakes where horribly weak drum brakes and of course, seat belts hadn’t been mandated, until at least the 1964 model year.

No one has ever purchased cars for their exhaust and smoke, so that tradition is one we can leave behind. When GM was buying up and shutting down streetcar lines in the early 50’s their entire marketing pitch was to “drive down smooth asphalt roads on silent rubber tires”. When we look at electrification of older vehicles cars is smell, smoke and vibration really what people are looking for? And smoke of antique cars is much dirtier than modern car exhaust. Remember, catalytic converters and unleaded fuels did not come in until the 1980s. Prior to that it was raw combustion, literally toxic fumes and particulates. Most cars were closer to 10 to 15 MPG, or less in fuel efficiency.

At the end of the day, styling, cabin feel, and curb appeal will win out. Not a difficult to maintain, noisy and expensive engine.

Who will be buying Classic Cars in the future?

As heat domes, wildfires, floods and hurricanes pick up, the internal combustion engine is taking a lot of heat for what it represents. In the last twenty years a significant trend of millennials has been to not purchase a car at all. Grandpa will be selling his collection eventually and that begs the question: who will purchase antique and classic cars in the future? and, who will care that it has the original engine?

Roll forward 10 years and most of us will be driving electric cars. It might be a novelty to drive an old ICE machine, but given the cache associated with climate change, maybe not. In this electric car majority world, you will have to find an engine mechanic to fix and maintain it, and the 7 year parts availability standard for car parts replacement will have run out decades before. In the electric age of autos, electrification may be exactly the solution to make an antique viable well into the future.

An analogy. Many Victorian homes originally were heated with coal, 20th Century homes with oil, but today modern heat pump heating and cooling systems keep them clean, comfortable, efficient and economical. I believe this will happen for the surviving classic and collectible automobile. Most people will demand modern technology and performance as an enabling component of a heritage vehicle.

What cars are best?

Cars worth keeping and re-powering have changed over time. When I had my own foray with classic cars forty years ago, top of the line models were hard-tops (no four-door posts), or convertibles, or they were the automaker’s showcase sports or luxury models. It has been said (in the stereotypes of the day) that a Corvette would get the husband in to a dealership, but the more sensible wife would ensure they leave with a family station wagon. Back then, as today there are cars that are more desirable than others. Those station wagons — unheard in today’s car line-up (replaced by mini-vans or SUVs) — were not restoration candidates decades ago and are now a coveted, rare find.

Just about any vintage car offers something long gone in modern cars. Sculpted curves, an abundance of chrome trim and ornaments, fender skirts and fancy wheel covers, white wall tires, illuminated metal dials, knobs and gauges. A large cabin of upholstered couch sized furniture, chrome window handles and wrap-around glass. These extravagances have all disappeared leaving us with the essential mono-form, aerodynamic, safety impact resistant A, B, C pillared cabin and featureless sides, bumpers and wheel openings. Will any of today’s mainstream commodity cars ever be coveted in the future?

Another example of how things change: small cars were generally unattractive in the 1980’s — such as the Nash Metropolitan, or three-wheeled bubble cars. Today, smallness is in! Practical for urban enthusiasts with limited garage space. Small vintage cars command big prices and have less issues when converting to electric, and go much further on smaller battery packs.

Rat rods and hot rods never have original engines, so there is no violation of original equipment with them. Many very good candidates for electric conversion are higher trim models of family sedans and business coupes from the 1930’s through 70’s. They are simply not making these types of cars anymore, and electrification provides a solid base for longevity and desirability of these usable museum pieces. Earlier cars had much lower horsepower and torque making them even easier to convert to electric while matching original specifications. Vintage commercial trucks with classic rounded fenders and grills are prime for businesses marketing that comfortable, nostalgic feeling of days’ gone by. Such vehicles make the perfect promotional vehicle for restaurants, craft breweries, public houses or wineries — head turners — and clean, green and healthy at the same time.

Cars that are not candidates for electrification today include those newer than the mid 1990’s. That’s when two things happened: Electronic signalling (aka Controller Area Network wiring in your automobile, or CAN bus) and the pervasive switch to automatic transmissions. Electronic signalling has been used by OEMs to lock down their systems to prevent replacement or re-use of components without an authorized dealer doing the work. Automatic transmissions, generally not used with electric motors, are just inefficient and waste energy — up to 15%.

Generally, a sound vehicle that you adore makes a great candidate if the value to you is important enough to keep for the foreseeable future.

The ultra-light and legendary Citroën 2CV - Deux Chevaux at the National Automobile Museum, Torino, IT

A potential EV conversion must have appeal to you to current owner, as well as to the next. The future owner from younger generations will likely want, or demand, an electric drive vehicle. It won’t be long before internal combustion engines are simply relegated to history like CDs and Blackberry cell phones. When markets turn, it’s amazing how fast businesses will drop product lines, along with service, support and replacement parts. It’s fascinating to watch this happen with automakers right now, and it’s only just begun.

Do you lose appeal by electrifying the factory installed engine?

I have surveyed both friends and strangers and my non-statistically significant results suggest two answers. Among those over 60, most think you should maintain the original equipment. To anyone under 60, electric drives are best.

Purists might be appalled, but even they are coming around. What is the key experience people want to have with their antique and vintage cars? Most cars were built for family and touring, and electric drive enhances this activity by creating a quieter, cleaner ride. You can look forward to better acceleration and better braking than the original equipment through powerful torque motors regenerative braking. Side of the highway breakdowns, common in older cars, are virtually eliminated, as with annual tune-ups, oil changes, spark plug changes, muffler replacement and frequent servicing of vintage drum brakes. You lose the noise and vibration of an engine and exchange it for precisely controlled silent power of electric.

1969 Camaro Z/28 muscle car extraordinaire. What will an electric drive provide in power performance?

Muscle cars of the late 1960’s may be in a different league, but even then, the amount of revving required to keep a racing cam large V-8 engine from stalling becomes ridiculous, as I realized when repositioning a ’69 Chevrolet Z/28 that we are converting in our facility. Yes, what a power buzz, but the smoke, smell, noise and volatility of the engine is crazy. I could envision my grandchildren looking at me in despair — Grandpa, really?

I hopped in a ’57 Chev Bel Air we are also converting in our shop. It had been 40 years since I last drove a GM car with that octagonal ignition key. A 1958 Chevrolet financed my final year of university, swapping my much more expensive British sports car for a $300 beater. But that ’58 was the most enjoyable car I ever owned. I had it for 3 years and drove it everywhere.

My 1958 Chevrolet Del Ray was the bottom of the line model, but cool none the less.

Roll forward to today turning the ignition key of the ’57 was an instant flashback. The sound of the engine, and yes, the sound of that engine. Difficult to start — pumping the gas pedal strategically — not firing — will I have to jump start the battery? Stalling until warmed up, and then the sound of valve clatter. Hmmm, my memories of gliding down city and country roads had faded the realities of internal combustion. What I do recall about the engine is all the work I did on it to keep it running. Now I know there’s an alternative.

The best memories were definitely the style, the ride, the friends who enjoyed the ride with me and the attention I received driving an antique, if not classic car. All those factors will be enhanced, by reliable, powerful, silent and zero emission electric drive.

Watch for Part II — I’ll get into the details of classic car conversions.

[1] https://www.solarreviews.com/blog/where-to-find-electric-car-charging-stations-and-more

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Entrepreneur and advocate for sustainable economy and ending the fossil fuel age before it’s too late.

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John Stonier

John Stonier

Entrepreneur and advocate for sustainable economy and ending the fossil fuel age before it’s too late.

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