Classic American cars are lined up with their hoods raised and engines rumbling in the parking lot of a Foster’s Freeze restaurant on the first Monday of the month for a meeting of the San Diego Association of Car Clubs.
There are a couple of dozen American classics: a 1969 Pontiac Firebird, a ‘67 Chevy Camaro and a coupe Paul Alvarado’s been bringing to car shows for years.
“I’ve had this 1940 Mercury since 1965,” he said. “I used to drive it in high school. It was given to me by the original owner, and it didn’t look like this.”
The restoration took about 10 years and more than $70,000. For Alvarado, there’s something visceral about this car.
“The sound, the smell, yeah,” he said. “A gasoline engine, especially one that has been modified like this, that, you know, it sounds different. You can hear it’s got more horsepower. To me, that’s kind of the attraction to it.”
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It’s a sentiment a lot of classic car fans express: how much they love the rumble of a Chrysler Hemi or a Chevy big block engine.
Cars like the ones on display at Foster’s Freeze are embedded in California culture. But so is caring about the environment — solar panels on rooftops and, these days, lots of electric cars. Alvarado doesn’t think it makes sense to combine the two.
“I can see there’s gonna be electric cars in my future someday,” he said. “I don’t know when, but as far as converting a classic car like this, I just wouldn’t be interested.”
But a lot of folks are. Just about a 15-minute drive up Interstate 15, David Benardo’s hot rod business caters to them. It’s called Zelectric, and it’s got a two-year waiting list for services that start at $68,000. And that’s if customers provide the vehicle being converted.
He hops in a 1969 Porsche 912 and turns the key.
“So it starts up the same way as your original car did, so there’s a little beep,” he said.
Starts up the same way … except not at all. There’s just one little beep, no motor trying to turn over, no rumble from the tailpipe, no smell of gasoline. But once it’s on the road, this Porsche responds even better than it would have when it came off the assembly line.
“I just can step on it and drive like a madman, or I can kind of go incognito and just cruise around in an old sports car,” he said.
The body is old but the guts are pretty new. The motor in this Porsche was taken out of a totaled Tesla.
The company that supplied Bernado with that motor is another half-hour drive north on the 15 freeway. It’s called EV West, and it’s at the heart of the Southern California network that’s electrifying classic cars.
“Really, what we try to do here is develop all the products and the kits and develop it for you know, guys like David and you know, all the other guys basically doing this,” said EV West founder and CEO Michael Bream.
A kit to do a basic conversion of your own car into an EV is about $20,000.
These conversions take a lot of time; it’s not just a matter of taking out a combustion engine and replacing it with batteries.
EV West laser cuts sample parts, test fits them and — if they work — orders them from local manufacturers. Bream said the wait can be anywhere from one to five years, depending on the complexity of the project. Right now, his market is basically celebrities and rich people.
“We are talking about classic cars,” he said. “So even if we left electrification out of it, classic cars, in general, is something that people with means get involved in, right? So we’re not really changing the formula. And we’re not even changing the demographic. We’re just changing the product that we’re selling.”
But a two-hour drive north, in South Los Angeles, a company called Zero Labs is convinced EV conversions don’t have to be just for drivers with lots of money.
Right now, it’s electrifying Ford Broncos and Land Rovers, a couple of vehicles that have a passionate user base. And — like everybody else in this space — they can’t convert vehicles fast enough. In part, that’s because everything has to be done by hand.
“This houses the display for your radio and also some speakers and charge ports for a phone and other accessories,” technician Garrett Green said while welding a console.
Currently, there are fewer than a half dozen Zero Labs vehicles on the road. But Adam Roe, the company’s CEO, said he wants to convert more to tackle the problem of waste.
He said about 20% of all cars eventually end up in landfills, so in addition to cutting exhaust emissions, converting every kind of used vehicle into an EV will cut out a lot of garbage.
“Because this is much bigger than just classics,” Roe said. “We’re starting with classics because that addresses, that’s the green premium market. But five years from now, I want to be doing school buses and federal fleets and mail trucks and things like — there’s no reason why we can’t.”
Roe said he can’t do it now because there are no economies of scale. And, he said, those will only come with substantial investment and a commitment from the automotive industry to stop thinking about EV conversions as a niche market.