Cities and villages across the UK are full of shops that repurpose things, from plant pots to parts of washing machines. We’re all into making things last longer, to giving them a new lease on life, but what about the car?
There’s a move towards electric vehicles and more cities are looking at implementing charging zones or even banning some types of car altogether. This is why some owners are going electric, but not in the sense of going to a dealership and buying a shiny new Nissan Leaf or a Tesla. They are keeping their existing car, throwing out the internal combustion engine and replacing it with a bunch of batteries.
That can even mean converting your workhorse family estate if you wish, although the economics don't quite add up (at least not yet), but the cost of electrification can be amortised in the values of Ferraris, rare BMWs, Lancias and even a DeLorean. “Sacrilege!” you may cry. Perhaps, like me, you’re a bit conflicted about this; after all, a large part of a car’s character is its engine, not just the performance, but the sound.
You don’t have to be an enthusiast to be able, even subconsciously, to identify the sound of a Porsche 911 or the wail of a Ferrari V8. But is converting them to electric ripping out their soul?
Not according to Richard “Moggie” Morgan of Electric Classic Cars, nestled in a Welsh valley. He started converting electric vehicles in his garage at home while still wearing a suit and tie in corporate life. The business started to grow and in 2019 he had to invest in an industrial unit and employ 13 people.
When we visited, the workshop was a hive of activity with a dozen cars all in various states of conversion. They ranged from diminutive Fiat 500s to classic BMWs, a couple of Ferraris, a number of Porsches and quite a few Land Rover Defenders.
The company is now the largest classic car electric conversion specialist in the world, having replaced the internal combustion engine in more than 50 models.
Morgan has always been into cars. He’s rallied them and tinkered with them in his garage. He still owns his first car, a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle. His daily driver is a Volkswagen pick-up which started life as a fire tender in South Africa. It’s a very different thing now.
We took a drive and while it looks very different to how it started out, it’s the engineering within that makes it fascinating. It has a Tesla Model X P100D electric motor and batteries and accelerates unlike any VW I have ever experienced. It’s very quick indeed and, like all his conversions, remains sympathetic to the original when it comes to exterior and interior styling.
The old VW was the first vehicle Morgan converted, but today his workshop has 18 cars currently undergoing the change and he even converted a car for Ellie Goulding’s wedding last year. He’s also working on a conversion for actor Dev Patel.
Morgan told us that the most popular conversions are Fiat 500s, followed by Land Rover Defenders and VW Beetles but he will consider any classic up tp the early 1980s. Fifty percent of the batteries come from salvaged Teslas with the rest coming from other models using LG batteries. Half the electric motors are also from Teslas.
Customers can decide if they want “mild or wild” as he puts it. Mild suits the Beetle and Fiat, which can have a range of anything from 60-150 miles. Go for wild and you need to upgrade the gearbox on many models. A Defender conversion can have a complete 100kWh Tesla kit with a range of up to 250 miles.
Peter Brazier, an electronics engineer who has been a petrolhead all his life and whose first project was a Panther Lima, converted his Ferrari 308 GTSi. He says he took the decision to go electric simply to make it a better car.
“It preserves it and makes it better in every way. Except the noise,” he told us. He says Ferraris aren’t that reliable and maintenance is expensive. Now he has a car that costs much less to maintain and is far more reliable.
“If I’d known what I was getting out the other end, converting it would have been a no-brainer,” he says. That’s because not only does it now accelerate from 0-60mph in 3.8 seconds, compared to the 7.8 seconds with a petrol engine, but he says the weight distribution makes a massive difference.
“The 308 GTSi has a weight distribution of 60:40. Now it’s 50:50 and the effect is astounding, even just doing 30mph around a roundabout.”
Morgan sources his batteries and kits from a company in Bristol called Zero EV. Run by Chris Hazell from a discrete countryside location, the company has existed for two years. All development is done in-house and they have engineers from companies like Aston Martin and the abandoned Dyson electric vehicle operation. Like Morgan, Hazell also converts vehicles, but his main business is producing the kits themselves. So who are the customers?
“Wealthy people who want to be seen to be green,” says Hazell. “And classic owners who want reliability.”
He says some owners look at the potential £35,000 cost of a full engine rebuild on a Porsche 964 and instead choose to go with the electric package, costing £47,000. This conversion uses components from the Tesla Model S, including a 53kWh battery pack. It gives some impressive figures, such as 440 bhp, 460Nm of torque, 0-60 mph in under 4.5 seconds and a range of up to 180 miles.
Despite the fact that Hazell admits that it’s basically a “hack” of Tesla components, he says it’s all totally legitimate. The parts are salvaged and electronics are replaced.
“We remove the Tesla hardware and software and put our own in.” He’s referring mainly to the control boards, which have been developed by Zero EV. What you can’t do though, is use Tesla’s Supercharger network. The hardware might be the same, but the handshake that occurs between a Tesla and the charger will not take place. You can charge anywhere else though
EV conversions is a fledgling industry and one which Hazell warns people to do their research on.
“In the next year there will be loads of people saying they can do it. The UK has no regulations, but the European Union has lots. People will take advantage,” he says. Discussions on regulations in the UK are underway and Hazell says his new Porsche electric conversion kit in the final stages of development will be certified by the EU safety standards organisations.
There are people claiming they can convert your car for anything between £500 and £1,000 but Hazell says these companies are “damaging the reputation of the industry.”
“We look at it from a safety perspective,” he says. “Everything has to be by the book.” This means full electro-magnetic testing and shielding. All components are properly encased to match the space available in any particular vehicle and everything is tested.
Zero EV already supplies kits to conversion companies in the US and Europe and the intention is to expand the business to the point where they are supplying hundreds of kits for converters and home DIYers. A basic kit using Tesla batteries, Netgain’s HyPer 9 electric motor and a single-speed gearbox can cost from £18,500. That will use five Tesla batteries and give you 30kWh, but generally he says you need to look at a minimum £25,000 for a DIY kit.
However, Morgan says that prices should start to come down. “Technology is moving at pace,” he said. “Battery technology is evolving and battery prices are already lower than a few years ago.” There’s also the option to sell off the removed engine and components, but Hazell says many owners of cars Zero EV has converted are keeping them. The conversion itself is designed to be swappable, so if for some reason you wanted to put the engine back, you can.
This industry is developing from simply using salvaged electric vehicle components to one where many items are bespoke and batteries are ordered new from China. Morgan admits that the supply chain is an issue at the moment, as it has not been established properly yet. The pace of change is also making it difficult to keep up. But there are innovations that are helping, such as 3D printing, which is especially useful when custom-engineering components to fit different marques.
Should prices come down and as the grey areas regarding regulations are cleared up, the electric conversion industry could start to move beyond the preserve of wealthy classic car owners adding an electric classic to their existing collection. Hazell already says he is working with a number of so-called modern classics, cars of the 1980s and 90s.
All though have one thing in common says Morgan: “They convert their cars to drive,” adding that “Once you go electric, you don’t go back.”
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