DENVER, Colo. (AP) — When Kevin Erickson cranks the engine in his 1972 Plymouth Satellite sports sedan, a low hum is heard instead of its regular sounds of pistons moving the crankshaft, gasoline rushing through the carburetor and the thud of the exhaust.
Although it’s nearly silent, the classic American muscle car isn’t broken: it’s now electric
Erickson is part of a small but growing group of hobbyists, racers, engineers and entrepreneurs across the United States who are turning vintage trucks and cars into electric vehicles that are not only greener but faster.
Despite derision from some purists who attack retrofits as looking more like golf carts or remote-controlled cars, modifications to electric powertrains are becoming more common as battery technology advances and the world seeks cleaner energy to combat climate change.
“Remote-controlled cars are fast, so to say that is really a compliment,” says Erickson, whose renamed “Electrollite” accelerates from 0 to 60 mph (0 to 97 km/h) in three seconds and tops out in about 155 mph (249 km/h). Curious looks are also increasing at public electric charging stations, which are becoming more common across the country.
Erickson — a truck driver who lives in suburban Denver — bought the car in late 2019 for $6,500. He then embarked on a year-and-a-half job to convert the car into a 636 horsepower (475 kW) electric sedan, using battery packs, a motor, and the entire rear subframe from a crashed Tesla Model S.
“This was my way of taking the car I love—my favorite bodywork—and then taking modern technology and performance, mixing it all up,” explains Erickson, who invested about $60,000 in the entire project.
Jonathan Klinger, vice president of car culture at Hagerty, an insurance company and automotive lifestyle brand that specializes in collectible vehicles, says converting classic cars to electric is “definitely a trend,” though research on the practice it is limited.
In May, the Michigan-based company conducted a web survey of some 25,000 self-identified car enthusiasts in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. About 1% had partially or fully converted their classic car to run some form of electrified drivetrain.
Respondents’ top reasons for converting their vehicles were to improve acceleration and performance, embrace a project that sounded fun and challenging, but also address environmental and emissions concerns. About 25% of those polled said they approve of classic vehicles being partially or fully converted to electric cars.
“Electric vehicles provide quite a lot of performance just by the nature of the mechanics of their operation,” Klinger says. So it should come as no surprise that a small percentage of people who convert classic cars to electric are interested in improving performance. He compared the current trend to the hot-rod car movement of the 1950s.
But Klinger, who owns several vintage vehicles, doesn’t think electric motors will replace all internal combustion engines, especially when considering keeping historically significant vehicles.
“There’s something satisfying about having an old car with a carburetor,” he explains, because the car looks like it did when it was new. Some enthusiasts want to preserve the rumble of the original gasoline engines.
Other barriers to car conversion include the knowledge required to tackle such a complicated project, as well as safety concerns about handling high-voltage components, parts availability, and the time it takes to demonstrate a positive environmental impact.
Because classic vehicles are driven less than 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) a year on average, it takes longer to offset the initial carbon footprint of battery manufacturing, Klinger says.
And then there is the problem of price.
Sean Moudry, co-owner of Inspire EV, a small conversion company in suburban Denver, recently modified a 1965 Ford Mustang that was destined for scrap. His project took a year and a half, cost more than $100,000, and revealed several other hurdles that underscore why conversions aren’t just plug-and-play projects.
Moudry and his partners tried to put enough power into the car that it would burn its tires when starting on a race track. They replaced the underpowered six-cylinder gasoline engine with an engine from a crashed Tesla Model S. They also installed 16 Tesla battery packs with a total weight of approximately 360 kilograms (800 pounds).
Most classic vehicles, including the Mustang, weren’t designed to handle that much weight or the high output of a powerful electric motor. So the team had to beef up the car’s suspension, steering, driveshaft and brakes.
The result is a Frankenstein-esque vehicle that includes the rear axle from a Ford F-150 pickup and rotors from a Dodge Durango SUV, as well as stronger disc brakes and coil-over shocks, both front and rear.
Although Ford and General Motors have or plan to produce stand-alone electric motors that are marketed to classic vehicle owners, Moudry says it’s still unrealistic that a casual auto mechanic would have the resources to take on such a complicated project. Because of this, he believes it will take time for conversions to electric vehicles to become widespread.
“I think it will take 20 years,” he conjectures. “It’s going to be 20 years before you go to a car show and 50 to 60% of the cars have some variant of an electric motor.”
But that reality could come sooner than expected, according to Mike Spagnola, president and CEO of the Specialty Equipment Market Association, an industry association dedicated to vehicle replacement parts.
He notes that during the annual SEMA show in Las Vegas this fall, some 21,000 square feet of space was dedicated to electric vehicles and their parts. That was an increase of just 2,500 square feet (232 square meters) compared to the 2021 fair.
Companies are developing universal parts as well as lighter, smaller and more powerful batteries. They are also creating cabling components that are easier to install and many other innovations. Some are even building vehicle frames with the electric motor, batteries and components already installed. Buyers can simply install a classic vehicle body on top of the chassis.
“Early adopters of this would take a crashed Tesla and take the engine, harnesses, batteries and all of that out of the vehicle to find a way to fit them into whatever vehicle they wanted to build,” Spagnola says. “But today there are a lot of manufacturers starting to make the components… We’re very excited about that.”