DENVER (AP) — When Kevin Erickson fires up his 1972 Plymouth Satellite, a faint hum replaces the sound of pistons pumping, gas flowing through the carburetor and the low rumble of the exhaust.
Even though it’s almost silent, the classic American muscle car is not broken. It’s electric.
Erickson is one of a small but growing group of tinkerers, racers, engineers and entrepreneurs across the country who are converting vintage cars and trucks into greener, and often much faster, electric vehicles.
Despite the derision of some purists about the converted cars resembling golf carts or remote-controlled cars, electric powertrain conversions are becoming more mainstream as battery technology advances and the world turns to cleaner energy to combat climate change.
“RC cars are fast, so that’s kind of a compliment,” says Erickson, whose name “Electrollite” accelerates from 0-60 mph (0-97 kph) in three seconds and tops out at about 155 mph ( 249 km/h). It also invites prying eyes to public charging stations, which are becoming more common across the country.
In late 2019, Erickson, a cargo pilot who lives in suburban Denver, bought the car for $6,500. He then embarked on a year-and-a-half project to convert the car into a 636 horsepower (475 kW) electric vehicle, using battery packs, a motor and the entire rear subframe of a crashed Tesla Model S.
“This was my way of taking the car I like — my favorite bodyshell — and then taking the modern technology and performance and putting them together,” said Erickson, who poured about $60,000 into the project.
Jonathan Klinger, vice president of car culture for Hagerty Insurance, which specializes in collector vehicles, said converting classic cars to electric cars is “definitely a trend,” though research on the practice is limited.
In May, the Michigan-based company conducted a web survey of about 25,000 self-identified car enthusiasts in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. About 1% had completely or partially converted their classic car to run on some kind of electrified powertrain.
Respondents’ top three reasons for converting their vehicles were faster acceleration and better performance, a fun and challenging project, and environmental and emissions considerations. About 25% of respondents said they approve of classic vehicles being partially or fully converted into electric cars.
“Electric vehicles are pretty amazing feats just by the nature of the mechanics of how they operate,” Klinger said. current trend to the hot-rod movement of the 1950s.
But Klinger, who owns several vintage cars, said he doesn’t think electric motors will replace all internal combustion engines, especially when it comes to historically significant vehicles.
“There’s something satisfying about having a vintage car with a carburetor,” he said, because it’s the same as when the car was new. Some enthusiasts want to keep the sound and rumble of the original engines of older cars.
Other barriers to car conversions include the knowledge it takes to delve into such a complicated project, as well as concerns about the safety of tinkering with high-voltage components, parts availability, and the time it takes to get a . to have a positive impact on the environment. Because classic vehicles drive less than 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) per year on average, 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 remodeling company in suburban Denver, recently modified a 1965 Ford Mustang destined for the landfill. The year-and-a-half project cost more than $100,000 and revealed several other obstacles that underscore why conversions aren’t “plug-and-play” endeavors.
Trying to put enough power into the pony car to “smoke the tires off” on a drag strip, Moudry and his partners replaced the underpowered six-cylinder gasoline engine with one from a crashed Tesla Model S. They also installed 16 Tesla battery packs totaling about weigh 363 kilograms.
Most classic vehicles, including the Mustang, aren’t designed to handle that much weight—or the increased performance that comes with a powerful electric motor. So the team had to strengthen the car’s suspension, steering, driveshaft and brakes.
The result is a Frankenstein-esque vehicle with a rear axle from a Ford F-150 pickup and rotors from a Dodge Durango SUV, as well as disc brakes and beefier front and rear shocks.
While Ford and General Motors have or plan to produce standalone electric “crate” motors that will be marketed to owners of classic vehicles, Moudry says it’s still unrealistic for an accidental car tinkerer to use the resources to tackle such a complex project. Because of this, he thinks it will take some time for EV conversions to become mainstream.
“I think it will take 20 years,” he said. “It will be 20 years before you go to an auto show and 50 to 60% of the cars run with 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, a trade group focused on aftermarket auto parts.
He said some 21,000 square feet (1,951 square meters) of convention space was devoted to electric vehicles and their components at SEMA’s annual show in Las Vegas this fall. That was more than just 232 square feet at the 2021 show.
Companies develop universal parts, but also lighter, smaller and more powerful battery packs. They also create wiring components that are easier to install and countless other innovations. Some even build vehicle frames with the electric motor, batteries and components already installed. Buyers can simply install the bodywork of a classic vehicle on top of the platform.
“The early adopters of this would take a crashed Tesla and take the motor and harnesses and batteries and stuff out of the vehicle and find a way to fit it into whatever vehicle they wanted to build,” Spagnola said. “But nowadays there are many manufacturers who are starting to make components. … We are very excited about it.”