Electric Dreams

Innovators are converting vintage cars from gas to electric power, giving these charming oldsters new life

WORDS John Pearley Huffman
December 2018

“They get smaller every time you look at one,” says Jonathan Ward, who isn’t a particularly tall man, but who towers over the blue 1966 Fiat 600 standing before him. It’s a small car in a big shop: Ward’s company, Icon, occupies a 80,000- square-foot facility in Chatsworth, California, and most of that space is devoted to refurbishing classic cars. This one’s a little different, however. Ward has converted it to electric power.

A former actor who once starred in the 1980s Fox sitcom The New Adventures of Beans Baxter, Ward is clearly enjoying his career turn. “Test- driving it this week, I pulled up next to a current Fiat 500. I left him in the dust and he eventually caught up in traffic. ‘Wait a minute,’ he yelled. ‘Your exhaust wasn’t smoking and you … What? Why?’”

No matter how forward-looking you may be, old cars bring joy and romance with them. There’s chrome on the bumpers, the round headlights frame an inviting face up front, and the interiors are mostly painted steel, rubbed leather and Bakelite knobs operating real levers and mechanical switches. But they also carry with them less charming things like carburetors that leak stinky fuel, leaden steering, and manual transmissions that require a sledgehammer to shift. And, of course, rust.

The 1958 Beetle

But all this is changing. For a committed core of enthusiasts, it’s not enough to simply restore a classic car to its original condition. It has to be re-engineered around more environmentally friendly, all-electric technology—transforming gas burners to amperage slurpers. It’s happening in shops around the world, but Southern California is where the trend has become most prominent, which makes sense. It was here, after all, that both the hot rod and environmentalist movements found fertile ground.

The development of this automotive offshoot, meanwhile, has been aided by the big electric car makers—various Teslas, the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf—which have pioneered more efficient electric motors, more capable computer controls, regenerative braking systems and, most importantly, higher capacity lithium-ion battery packs. These are sophisticated, satisfying conversions, not lone hobbyists wiring batteries to golf cart motors.

Among SoCal’s electric-classic startups is Zelectric Motors, in San Diego, founded almost seven years ago by the husband-and-wife team David Benardo and Bonnie Rodgers.  “We did this because we love spending time with these cars,” says Benardo. “I don’t have any legacy plans. We just decided that this would be a good way to spend the next 15 years orbiting around these classic cars.”

Zelectric is more of a curation and brokerage service than a conversion shop. The couple works out of their home and are always on the lookout for old Porsches and VWs, which they see as perfect candidates for electrification. Besides being beautiful and relatively abundant, these rear-engine German oldsters were powered by air-cooled engines, so there’s no plumbing to rip out. It’s a neatly executed conversion with the electric motor still in back and the battery pack stowed under the front hood.

David Benardo inside the '58 Beetle

Benardo, like Ward, has an emotional attachment to these vehicles—his family has driven classic VWs for the last three decades. “When you drive an old VW, all of a sudden you’re a good guy,” he says. “You’re approachable. If we had started out with Triumphs or MGs or another equally fine little vehicle that we could cram a lot of batteries into, I don’t think there’d be the level of interest there is with the Beetle.”

While drivers are often concerned with how far an electric vehicle can travel on a single charge, Benardo sees it differently. “Honestly, the only anxiety I get is from our older, gasoline-powered Volkswagens,” he says. “I’ve run out of gas with them so many times, because you either don’t have a gas gauge or you have one that’s really, well, useless. I’ve never once run out of charge on an electric car.”

Much of Zelectric’s conversion work is done by EV West, another small company, located in an industrial park in the city of San Marcos, just north of San Diego. Benardo and I head there to test-drive a recent Zelectric conversion: an anthracite gray 1958 Beetle. There’s nothing about its external design to suggest it runs on zap instead of gas—unless you look for an exhaust pipe.

As you turn the key to switch the car on, there’s a low whir from the 85-horsepower motor, which is more than double the power of the original, gas-driven engine—a fact that, for Benardo, helps dispel the notion that electric is great for environmentalists, but not so much for thrill seekers. “We had a German race-car driver drive a Porsche 911 we built last year,” he says. “He’s driven race cars for 40 years, and he thought it was super cool.”

The Beetle’s accelerator pedal is swiped from a Toyota Prius, a battery gauge fills in where the fuel gauge once was, and the seats are covered in a leather no Beetle wore way back when. But otherwise the interior is pure ’50s down to the rattan floor mats and a gorgeous aftermarket wicker parcel shelf.

I drove it through San Marcos’ sparsely populated industrial areas, where it seemed unlikely that the Beetle would attract much attention. But at a light, a Hyundai Accent pulled up alongside and the passenger window dropped. “What year is it?” the driver asked. “It’s a ’58,” Benardo shouted past me from the passenger seat. “And it’s electric! No gas.” The other driver nodded, pondered the VW a bit and yelled back, “That’s so cool. I have a ’64 Ford Ranchero. It would be really cool to run that on electricity!”

Ward’s company, Icon, started off restoring Toyota Land Cruisers back in the 1990s and has since become a high-profile supplier of all sorts of highly finished, highly modified classics. His shop is mostly busy working on things like old Ford Broncos and ancient Chevy pickups. The aforementioned Fiat 600 is the company’s first foray into the electric-conversion field, and Ward would like to find his own niche within it. “You take a 1950s engineered Italian car and now it doesn’t stink or leak,” he says. “I’d love to build an all-electric Toyota FJ Land Cruiser that could really work well on- and off-road.”

The electric Fiat 600 was built at his customer’s request and uses six Tesla batteries spread out front and rear to feed an 80-horsepower electric motor in back. Fiat originally equipped the 600 with a small 22-horsepower engine, so 80-horsepower is a massive bump up. “This is still pretty conservative in output. We could be much more radical. It could have been crazier.”

Ward's 1966 Fiat 600

As with Zelectric’s Beetle, the Icon’s Fiat 600 electric motor feeds into the stock transmission, which is permanently locked into third gear. The Tesla modules are, claims Ward, good for 120 miles of range. Introduced in 1955, Fiat exported only a few 600s to the United States. But finished in leather and Mercedes-quality carpets, and fitted with Abarth racing suspension components, the Icon’s Fiat 600 feels and drives unlike any other old Fiat. It is, however, incredibly tiny. Much smaller than any VW and at only about 54-inches wide, it’s more than a foot narrower than a 2019 Mini Cooper. I’m not sure I’ll fit in it when Ward invites me to drive. But the Fiat’s rear-hinged “suicide” doors make it easy for me to enter and fold myself inside. The car is so narrow I have to keep the side window open so my arm can poke out into the open air.

Back when it was new, the 600 needed more than 30 seconds to reach 60 mph and topped out, on a good day, at 70 mph. With 80-horsepower aboard, however, it feels downright athletic. It scooted up onto the 134 Freeway and had no problem keeping up. Driving next to a large truck can be intimidating (or terrifying), but away from the big rigs, the itty-bitty size is part of the charm. In a region where automotive cynicism is rampant and Lamborghinis don’t draw a glance, pedestrians waved, smiled and pulled out their phones to snap photos of the Fiat.

Jonathan Ward at the Icon shop

Icon is working on an all-electric 1956 Continental as part of its “Derelict” series that preserves the weathered exteriors of older vehicles but rejuvenates everything else. It should be glorious. “This is California,” Ward says. “Of course electrics are part of our future. Probably a big part. Our customers want it. The hard part is going to be keeping up with the technology.”

While small outfits like Zelectric and Icon will continue converting classics in the immediate future, the original manufacturers have noticed the trend. The first to do something about it is Jaguar. Back in 1961, Jag introduced the E-Type sports car, which was instantly hailed as the most beautiful car in the world by, legend has it, Enzo Ferrari himself. That long, glamorous hood originally covered a 3.8-liter, six-cylinder engine. Now, through its Classic Works restoration facilities in Britain and Germany, Jaguar is offering E-Type electric conversions, and in August announced it will be opening a third Classic Works shop in Savannah, Georgia, next year.

The “E-Type Zero” system directly replaces the original six cylinders with a 295-horsepower electric motor and a battery pack that, under ideal conditions, should deliver 170 miles of range. A fully restored E-Type will cost you, oh, $500,000. That price tag gets you a beautiful car, but also the satisfaction of knowing you’re driving an auto just like the one in which Prince Harry and his new bride, Meghan Markle, drove away from their wedding ceremony.

To get a Zelectric VW it takes a $7,500 non-refundable deposit to reserve a place in line and then maybe another $50,000 after that. Icon isn’t known for restraint in its pricing, either. And for that money, you don’t get airbags or power windows or air conditioning or back-up cameras. Most of the limitations of these vehicles were built into them when they were new all those decades ago.

Every current vehicle manufacturer is working on electric vehicles of one sort or another. In California, the state’s Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate means that every maker must sell more electric vehicles every year. As the infrastructure to support these electrics grows and improves, converting familiar classics from gas to amperage will only grow more attractive. It’s how they will stay out of museums and on the road. “It’s kind of like the ultimate recycling,” says Ward. “We take something that spewed tons of C02 and keep it on the road for another lifetime.”


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