Luxury is influenced as much by the past as the present. This continuity of tradition and design is present in everything from watches to hotels and in the world of fashion, the past often makes a comeback to become the present. Equally car companies such as Bentley and Rolls-Royce still thrive on the romance and nostalgia of their history, of the days when their cars would gently waft through exclusive parts of the world. Designers pay homage to those days in elements of the exterior and interior of their latest models, the materials they use and even the naming strategies.
These links between past and present will always exist, but one of the ways some are choosing to give the past a future is to convert their classic cars to electric power. It’s a topic that causes heated debate among everyone from casual enthusiasts to the greatest car collectors. It’s one thing to convert a 1970s Volkswagen Beetle or an original Mini to electric power, quite another to replace a hand-built V12 engine in a Ferrari. The engine is the heart of a car like a Ferrari Testarossa, so ripping it out and replacing it with a bunch of batteries makes it no more than an expensive kit car.
Even so, while the business is yet to really arrive in SA, around the world icons of more than a century of the internal combustion engine are being given new life through conversions to electric.
It’s become big business in the UK particularly and one company at the forefront is Everrati which takes replicas of the famous Ford GT40 made in Gqeberha and gives them electric power. On the outside it looks just like a GT40 but inside it is an electric motor paired with a 62.5kWh battery pack. This gives the electrified GT40 596kW and 800Nm of torque together with spring time to 100km/h of under four seconds.
Admittedly that’s not the same as converting an existing classic, although the company does convert other models including the famous Porsche 911 and the original Land Rover among others.
Then there’s Lunaz, a business that grabbed the attention when David Beckham was announced as an investor, he even gifted his son a converted Jaguar XK140 for his wedding. Lunaz is going big on the technology, using it to convert existing trucks to electric power, but it’s the classic car conversions that are often the subject of discussion. Recently it announced it has converted one of only four 1961 Bentley S2 Continental models to run on electric. Originally fitted with a hand-built 6.2-litre V8 engine, it is a highly desirable car. It’s not just the switch to electric though, the car underwent a full restoration with changes in materials, some discreetly hidden technology and a few modern safety features.
That all pushed the price to around £750,000 (R17m) but is it worth it? The Bentley is definitely no longer original and the conversion will instantly see it struck off the main international classic car registers, so what’s the point? You could ask the same question of many current hypercars, or the bespoke coach-built models from Rolls-Royce costing hundreds of millions of rand.
One company in the UK, Electric Classic Cars spent the last few years restoring and converting a BMW 3.0 CSL, the car popularly known as the “Batmobile” because of its deep front spoiler and large rear wing. This conversion is also regarded by some as sacrilege, but the owner has two and he’s keeping the petrol engine in the other one. The project cost ran into the millions of rand, but it didn’t sell at a well known classic car auction. That could be because buyers disagree or aren’t yet convinced by the conversion to electric, or it could simply be that the costs involved are too high to be able to recoup when it comes to selling. That was most likely the case with a VW Beetle conversion where the owner thought they would get the costs back. The problem is that no-one wanted to pay more for an electric one than they would for a regular petrol Beetle, even though a conversion often means not just an increase in power and improved handling, but lower maintenance and running costs too.
Electrogenic is another company plugged in to this new market. It has converted some special models including a 1929 Rolls-Royce Phantom II. It is also offering DIY drop-in kits for Porsche 911 models and recently showcased this by fitting a 160kW electric motor to a 1985 911 with styling reminiscent of the famous 2.7 RS. In Irish Green it looks stunning and as well as having lots of performance, it has a driving range of up to around 320km.
Another company that does drop-in kits for the 911 is Fellten, which supplies its kits to installers in the UK, US and Australia. Where electric conversions make even more sense though is in the classic Mini and while the costs of going electric still aren’t cheap, it transforms the Mini into something even more fun and cheap to run.
It is unlikely that we will ever reach a point when occasional use classic cars are banned, so it’s not about future-proofing. Some owners view it as a good thing to do for the environment and when it comes to sustainability and the circular economy, keeping existing cars on the road for longer is undoubtedly a good thing. Not everyone will agree with the idea of converting a classic to electric and there are clearly cases where it does seem the wrong thing to do. However, just as some people will put an M badge on a standard BMW, it’s all about personal choice and just like watches and fashion, cars have always been about that.