Classic American cars line the parking lot of a Foster’s Freeze restaurant with their hoods open and their engines roaring for a meeting of the San Diego Association of Car Clubs on the first Monday of the month.
There are a few dozen American classics: a 1969 Pontiac Firebird, a ’67 Chevy Camaro, and a coupe that Paul Alvarado has been bringing to auto shows for years.
“I’ve had this 1940 Mercury since 1965,” he said. “I drove it in high school. It was gifted to me by the original owner and it didn’t look like it.”
The restoration took about 10 years and cost more than $70,000. For Alvarado, there is something instinctive about this car.
“The sound, the smell, yes,” he said. “A petrol engine, especially one that has been modified in this way, sounds different. You can hear that he has more horsepower. That’s what’s appealing to me.”
It’s a sentiment expressed by many classic car fans: how much they love the roar of a Chrysler Hemi or a Chevy big block engine.
Cars like those on display at Foster’s Freeze are embedded in California culture. But also concern for the environment – solar panels on roofs and nowadays many electric cars. Alvarado doesn’t think it makes sense to combine the two.
“I can see that one day there will be electric cars in my future,” he said. “I don’t know when, but converting a classic car like that just wouldn’t interest me.”
But a lot of people are. Just about a 15 minute drive up Interstate 15, David Benardo’s Hot Rod Shop has just the thing for you. It’s called Zelectric, and it has a two-year wait list for services that start at $68,000. And that when the customer makes the vehicle to be converted available.
He hops into a 1969 Porsche 912 and turns the key.
“So it starts just like your original car, so there’s a little beep,” he said.
Starts the same way… except not at all. There’s just a little beep, no engine trying to crank, no rumble from the tailpipe, no smell of gasoline. But once on the road, this Porsche is even more responsive than it would have been had it rolled off the assembly line.
“I can just get on it and drive like a maniac, or I can kind of go incognito and just drive around in a vintage sports car,” he said.
The body is old, but the guts are fairly new. The engine in this Porsche comes from a totaled Tesla.
The company that supplied this engine to Bernado is another half-hour drive north on the 15 freeway. It’s called EV West, and it’s at the heart of Southern California’s network that electrifies classic cars.
“What we’re really trying to do here is develop all the products and kits and develop it for you guys, guys like David and you know, all the other guys are basically doing that,” said EV West founder and CEO Michael Bream .
A kit for a basic conversion of your own car into an electric vehicle costs about $20,000.
These conversions take a lot of time; It’s not just about removing an internal combustion engine and replacing it with batteries.
EV West laser cuts sample parts, tests them and – if they work – orders them from local manufacturers. According to Bream, the wait time can range from one to five years, depending on the complexity of the project. Right now, its market is mostly made up of celebrities and rich people.
“We’re talking about vintage cars,” he said. “Even leaving aside electrification, classic cars in general are something people with money do, right? So we don’t really change the formula. And we’re not even changing the demographics. We only change the product we sell.”
But a two-hour drive north of south Los Angeles, a company called Zero Labs believes EV conversions don’t have to be just for big-money drivers.
Right now it’s electrifying Ford Broncos and Land Rover, a couple of vehicles that have a passionate user base. And – like everyone else in this space – they can’t convert vehicles fast enough. That’s partly because everything has to be done by hand.
“This is where the display for your radio is housed, as well as some speakers and charging ports for a phone and other accessories,” said technician Garrett Green while welding a console.
There are currently fewer than half a dozen Zero Labs vehicles on the road. But Adam Roe, the company’s CEO, said he wants to convert more to address the waste problem.
He said about 20% of all cars end up in landfill, so converting all types of used vehicles to electric vehicles not only reduces exhaust emissions but also saves a lot of waste.
“Because that’s a lot bigger than just classics,” Roe said. “We start with classics because that appeals to the green premium market. But in five years I want to do school buses and federal fleets and mail trucks and things like that — there’s no reason we can’t.
Roe said he can’t do it now because there aren’t economies of scale. And, he said, these will only come with significant investment and a commitment from the auto industry to no longer view EV conversion as a niche market.
There’s a lot happening in the world. For everything, Marketplace is there for you.
They rely on Marketplace to break down world events and tell you how they affect you in a fact-based and accessible way. In order to continue to make this possible, we depend on your financial support.
Your donation today supports the independent journalism you rely on. For just $5/month you can help keep Marketplace going so we can keep reporting on the things you care about.