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Racers, mechanics, DIYers converting classic cars into electric vehicles

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DENVER (AP) — When Kevin Erickson fires up his 1972 Plymouth Satellite, a faint hum replaces what is normally the sound of pistons pumping, gas flowing through the carburetor and faint rumble from the exhaust.

Although almost silent, the classic American muscle car is not broken. It’s electric.

Erickson is part of a small but growing group of do-it-yourselfers, racers, engineers and entrepreneurs across the country who are converting vintage cars and trucks into greener, and often much faster, vehicles. electric vehicles.

Despite the derision of some purists about converted cars resembling golf carts or remote control cars, electric powertrain conversions are becoming more mainstream as battery technology advances and the world shifts to cleaner energy. to combat climate change.

“RC cars are fast, so that’s really a compliment,” said Erickson, whose new name “Electrolite” accelerates from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in three seconds and tops out at around 155 mph. (249 km/h). It also invites curious stars to public charging stations, which are becoming increasingly common across the country.

In late 2019, Erickson, a cargo driver 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 batteries, a motor and the entire rear subframe from a Tesla Model. S damaged.

“It was my way of taking the car that I love — my favorite body — and then taking modern technology and performance and mixing it up,” said Erickson, who invested around $60,000 in the project.

Jonathan Klinger, vice president of car culture at Hagerty Insurance, which specializes in collector vehicles, said converting classic cars to electric vehicles is “definitely a trend”, although research into the practice is limited.

In May, the Michigan-based company conducted an online survey of approximately 25,000 self-identified car enthusiasts in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. About 1% had partially or fully converted their classic to run on some sort of electrified drivetrain.

The top three reasons respondents converted their vehicles were faster acceleration and improved performance, a fun and challenging project, and environmental and emissions concerns. About 25% of respondents said they approve of the partial or total conversion of conventional vehicles to electric vehicles.

“Electric vehicles deliver pretty amazing performance simply by the nature of the mechanics of how they work,” Klinger said. It is therefore not surprising for him that a small percentage of people converting classic cars into electric vehicles are interested in improving performance. He compared the current trend to the hot rod movement of the 1950s.

But Klinger, who owns several vintage 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 a vintage car that has a carburetor,” he said, because it’s the same as when the car was new. Some enthusiasts want to preserve the sound and rumble of the original engines of older cars.

Other barriers to converting cars include the knowledge needed to dive into such a complicated project, as well as the safety issues of tinkering with high-voltage components, parts availability, and the time required to achieve a positive impact. on the environment. Since conventional vehicles travel less than 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) per year on average, it takes longer to offset the initial carbon footprint of battery manufacturing, Klinger said.

And then there is the price.

Sean Moudry, co-owner of Inspire EV, a small conversion company in suburban Denver, recently modified a 1965 Ford Mustang destined for landfill. The year-and-a-half project cost over $100,000 and revealed several other hurdles that underscore why conversions aren’t a “plug-and-play” effort.

Trying to put enough power into the pony car to “smoke the tires” 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 Teslas. batteries weighing a total of about 800 pounds (363 kilograms).

Most classic vehicles, including the Mustang, weren’t designed to support that much weight or the increased performance of a powerful electric motor. The team therefore had to reinforce the car’s suspension, steering, driveshaft and brakes.

The result is a Frankenstein-like vehicle that features a rear axle from a Ford F-150 pickup and rotors from a Dodge Durango SUV, plus heavier-duty disc brakes and coil-over shocks. front and back.

Although Ford and General Motors have or plan to produce self-contained “crate” electric motors that are marketed to owners of classic vehicles, Moudry says it’s still not realistic for a casual auto-do-it-yourselfer to have the resources necessary to undertake such a complicated project. Because of this, he thinks it will take some time for electric vehicle conversions to become mainstream.

“I think it’s going to be 20 years,” he said. “It’s going to be 20 years before you go to a car show and 50-60% of cars use some variation 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 that focuses on aftermarket vehicle parts.

He said at the annual SEMA show in Las Vegas this fall, some 21,000 square feet (1,951 square meters) of convention space was dedicated to electric vehicles and their parts. That was up from just 2,500 square feet (232 square meters) at the 2021 show.

Companies are developing universal parts, as well as lighter, smaller and more powerful batteries. They also create easier-to-install wiring components and a myriad of other innovations. Some even build vehicle frames with the electric motor, batteries and components already installed. Buyers can simply fit a classic vehicle body on top of the platform.

“Early adopters of this would take a wrecked Tesla and remove the motor and harnesses and batteries and all that from the vehicle and figure out a way to fit it into whatever vehicle they wanted to build,” Spagnola said. But today, many manufacturers are beginning to manufacture components. … We’re really excited about it.

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