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A brief guide to electric conversions for classic cars

A brief guide to electric conversions for classic cars

Getty Images | Aurich Lawson

Earth Day is April 22, and its usual message—take care of our planet—has been given added urgency by the challenges highlighted in the latest IPCC report. This year, Ars is taking a look at the technologies we normally cover, from cars to chipmaking, and finding out how we can boost their sustainability and minimize their climate impact.

The term “restomod” first started gaining traction back in the 1990s. As muscle car enthusiasts searched for ways to improve the performance and reliability of their vintage machines, a cottage industry of folks adapting late-model powertrain and chassis components soon began to emerge. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a restored late-’60s Mustang or Camaro on the road that hasn’t been modified with some kind of modern tech—be it a computer-controlled fuel injection system, an updated brake and suspension system, or even a modern V8 engine.

To some, that might be sacrilege. To others, it’s simply about getting with the times.

Over the past decade or so, a similar trend in restomodding has begun to develop around electric vehicle technology, though the focus early on was less about melting tires and more about pragmatism and engineering curiosity.

“I got involved in restomodding back in 2009, and that was an odd time because it was on the heels of the recession,” said Michael Bream of EV West, an EV conversion shop in San Marcos, California. “I’d read an article about the Roadster that Tesla was developing, and as a computer engineer and hot-rodder, I was kind of enamored with the technology involved. I wanted to see what was possible with electric performance.”

“But while I was doing the research, I found myself getting a bit dissuaded,” Bream told Ars. “I would call up these shops that were working with the tech wanting to talk about horsepower, continuous duty, and stuff like that, but all they wanted to talk about was how much money I was going to save by sticking it to OPEC. At the end of the day, nobody in performance is really worried about gas that’s five or six dollars a gallon.”

With EV development still amounting to a rounding error in most major automakers’ budgets at the time, Bream also faced significant difficulty in finding components in the aftermarket, but he said the situation has changed significantly in the years since.

“Not only as far as what’s available for the drivetrain and batteries, but also a lot of other things that builders in the early days just had to put up with. Back then there weren’t well-developed systems to add power-assisted brakes, for instance,” Bream said. “The solution was to put in a vacuum pump to mimic the way it would work with a combustion engine, and we similarly used belt-driven hydraulic pumps for the steering assistance. But now, because of cars like the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Bolt, and the EVs that Tesla is producing, purpose-built solutions [like electrically driven hydraulic pumps] have been developed at the OE [original equipment] level. That has helped to refine the EV experience a lot. It has also brought in higher-quality parts at lower costs, and that in turn has brought more affordability to the EV restomod market.”

Ford built the F-100 Eluminator to show off its new Mustang Mach-E-derived electric crate motors.
Enlarge / Ford built the F-100 Eluminator to show off its new Mustang Mach-E-derived electric crate motors.


And the OEMs are noticing. At last year’s Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show—a massive convention for aftermarket performance suppliers that is held annually in Las Vegas—Ford showed off the F-100 Eluminator concept, a one-off custom build that utilizes powertrain components from the automaker’s Mustang Mach-E GT production EV in a vintage F-Series pickup. It’s the latest entry in a succession of performance-focused EV builds from the automaker that include the all-electric Mustang Cobra Jet 1400 dragster and the Mach-E 1400 drift car prototypes.

“I think this is just the beginning,” said Mark Wilson, Ford’s vehicle personalization business operations manager. “If you look at the life cycle of ICE [internal combustion engine] products in the long term, there appears to be an end date on the horizon—a point at which they’ll be phased out. And when that happens, it’s only a matter of time before existing ICE products will become obsolete, so to speak.”

“And for products where the engine isn’t really the core focal point of the vehicle, that’s going to take on greater importance, Wilson said. “This 1978 F-100 is a great example of that—the truck itself is cool, but the inline six-cylinder engine that originally powered it is less so. So in a case like this, swapping over the powertrain is potentially less of a detriment to the value, nostalgia, and overall desirability of the vehicle.”

And the Eluminator concept isn’t just lip service—the two electric traction motors that drive the F-100’s front and rear wheels (which amount to a total system output of 480 horsepower and 634 lb.-ft. of torque) are now available for purchase by the general public through Ford Performance.

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