Meet some of the 'hot rodders' making classic gas-powered cars run on electric motors and batteries — see their coolest conversions
- A growing group of enthusiasts are transforming their classic hot rods to EVs.
- Some pull parts from crashed Teslas to do it.
There's a growing group of enthusiasts transforming their classic hot rods and vintage muscle cars into fast-moving electric vehicles.
"It used to be that it was really just a backyard hobby and guys were taking crashed Teslas and taking the guts out of them and putting them into a conversion hot rod of some sort, whether it's a '69 Camaro or whatever it might be," Mike Spagnola, CEO of the Specialty Equipment Market Association, told Insider. "We're seeing that more and more, as the next generation of hot rodders come up, that they do want to do an EV conversion. That's a huge burgeoning market."
The proof? Spagnola's organization needed a massive 20,000 square feet at its annual conference this past year to accommodate the companies showing off battery packs, electric motors, harnesses, and other components needed to retrofit vehicles. (See things like Volkswagen's conversion kit.) Auction platform Bring a Trailer has started to sell classic rides converted to EV, like a 1975 Porsche and 1974 BMW. And two well-known hot rodders who work on these projects told Insider that business is booming.
Converting gas-powered vehicles to electric isn't a new concept, but it has been gaining traction, especially as EV tech has advanced.
"The real shift was really, Tesla," Greg Abbott, who goes by the name Reverend Gadget, and is CEO of conversion shop Left Coast EV, told Insider.
So how do you convert a gas-car to an EV?
An EV conversion requires removing a car's engine and adding a battery pack, electric motors, high-voltage cables, and instrumentation, according to the Alternative Fuels Data Center — all while making sure there's enough space to accommodate these parts, and ensuring the original chassis can support the additional weight.
Gadget, who was featured in the "Revenge of the Electric Car" documentary, starts by taking batteries out of crashed Teslas. He started with two or three conversions per year; he has since been working up to converting a dozen.
"If it's a freshwater flood car, no big deal. Saltwater flood car, probably junk," Gadget explained. "If it's been in an accident like a head-on or a rear-ender, it's fine. If it's been in a side crash, you might have some battery damage, so you must be taking a risk. But the cars are built so well that I'd say 95% of the time, the battery packs have nothing wrong with it."
Then, there are plenty of structural, electronics, electrical, and engineering tasks beyond that.
"We can't just pull the parts out of a Tesla and use them," Gadget said. "It's not just a cut and paste, there's a lot of work. Part of that is getting the systems down."
Converters won't just rework any car
Gadget jokes that his cutoff is if a vehicle has plastic parts, like bumpers — in all seriousness, he prefers classics from the 1960s and 1970s.
Certain vehicles make more sense to convert than others, like those with cult-followings and whose values are appreciative, or those that have no other alternative for staying on the road, said Michael Bream, CEO of EV West.
He started it in 2008, has built electric hot rods, project cars, and race cars, taken them to events and shows, and uses that experience to develop products for conversions. Bream has worked with collectors like Jay Leno and Tony Hawk.
"No amount of money could make a modern equivalent of a 1965 Porsche. So if you want to continue with that experience, one of the only alternatives available to you is electrification," Bream said. "In other cases, I think financially it does make sense. If you try to maintain a vintage Porsche, that's going to be far more expensive than putting a Tesla drivetrain in it."
A conversion might be an enthusiast's second vehicle. Despite misconceptions about EVs, speed, and weight, these have substantial horsepower and huge amounts of torque.
Either way, it'll cost you: The two experts estimate the cost being anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 on parts, and a similar amount in time and labor, for as much as $50,000 or more. It depends on the vehicle's performance, speed, how sophisticated, and how updated customers want their vehicles to be.
They're car guys
Not all enthusiasts are on board with all-electric conversions. Rick Drewry, who restores classic cars and oversees the collector car and motorcycle claims division at American Modern Insurance Group, says he expects more buy-in for hybrid conversions.
"You'll see electric cars actually beat gasoline cars with the same horsepower out of the gate, but when they're absolutely quiet, you'll lose some people," Drewry said. "That's really kind of the nuts and bolts of it: People love the sound and the roar of the engine, and it's hard for them to get away from it."
For Bream, it's actually about prolonging legacy.
"I think what people miss is that we're car guys. We are not trying to take gas away from anyone," Bream said. "All of a sudden, I can enjoy hot rodding with my son the way that my father enjoyed hot rodding with me when I was young.
"We're here because we're hot rodders and we like to make slow things go fast," Bream added. "In this quest to make super fast, super fun-to-drive cars," he said, "we inadvertently created cars that are seen as being more environmentally responsible."
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