Petrol-powered cars are going to hit a wall. There’s no doubt about it. The outlook for carmakers that don’t adapt to non-polluting propulsion technology is, well, the scrapheap of history, really. It was great while it lasted – all that loud, smoky motoring – but the sun is setting. Electric vehicles await us all.
But wait just a minute. Does that mean we’ll never get to relish the curves of Dodge Challengers or Aston Martin DB4s ever again, or any of their rolling ilk from the zenith era of automobile design? Not so fast, say the world’s hobbyist car nuts, who are working to avert such a tragedy by converting fine-looking jalopies of a bygone age into sexy but silent EVs.
It’s happening in Australia in a small way with examples such as Tim Harrison’s Ford Cortina rebirthing and in work by Jaunt, a company that wants to turn elegant old Land Rovers into EVs to entice holidaymakers to explore the fringes of our funny country without sending out a cloud of fumes.
Tim Harrison had a head start on the engineering task from his role as project manager at Brisbane-headquartered Evie Networks, where he works on charging infrastructure planning and design. “It was borne out of an interest in EVs and classic cars and trying to marry the two,” Harrison says. “I wanted to get behind the wheel of one myself and find one that was interesting and to my taste.”
Harrison’s converted 1965 Mk1 Cortina relies on its original brakes, suspension, gearbox and differential but is powered by a NetGain HyPer9 electric motor connected to batteries salvaged from a wrecked Tesla Model X. “They’re very strong cars; the batteries were very well protected,” he says. “It really stepped up the quality of it and allowed a lot more space and energy density.”
The crashed Tesla’s 90kWh battery was deemed big enough to power three conversions, so it was split into packs of about 28kWh with one in the Cortina and Brisbane workshop Traction EV planning to use the other two on VW Beetle projects.
“It’s surprising how many [Teslas] have been written off in Australia,” Harrison says. “They end up on the auction room floor and there are a few people around who are interested in them, sometimes it can be competitive.” Tesla wrecks can go for between $15,000 and $40,000.
In its EV state, the car is about 100kg heavier than its original 900kg and still within the gross vehicle mass of the car’s capacity plates, says Harrison, who previously worked on the Queensland Government’s EV policy and infrastructure, including the charging super highway from Coolangatta to Cairns and out west to Toowoomba.
The Cortina has a range of about 180km and takes up to eight hours to charge at home, on an AC socket under the petrol cap, and about an hour on a DC fast charger, using a socket positioned under the rear chrome bumper, where the exhaust pipe once lurked.
Harrison plans to convert a 1977 VW Kombi next, which will have a full Tesla pack and Tesla motor. “It usually helps to have something that’s small and light,” he says. “That means there is space for batteries.”
The Kombi probably won’t have a gearbox, just direct drive, but the Cortina is a full four-speed manual with a clutch, which you don’t always have to engage. It gets up to more than 100km/h in third gear.
Having a lend
With one completed Land Rover conversion and another handful in the works Dave Budge is not out to upend the automotive market in Australia, but he’s free to shoot straight about where he sees an opportunity for EVs. Big petrol-powered SUVs dominate new-car sales in Australia, but where are the EV equivalents other than Tesla’s Model X? Why not appeal to the reptilian part of the brain that chooses a hefty vehicle and augment that with some nostalgia for classic styling, then offer the product for hire (or sale) so the experience can be shared as widely as possible.
“We can reduce that barrier to entry for EVs and make them cool and fun,” he says. “Get people driving one and finally realizing there are a lot of charge points.” That’s the idea behind Jaunt, a co-venture with business partner Marteen Burger that simply aims to make cool EVs available for curious drivers.
Clean energy is indisputably a good thing but the technology, let’s face it, is unattractive. Wind turbines and solar panels are not beautiful. It must also be said that EVs aren’t exactly breaking new ground in the fashion stakes. Conversions, however, may prove to be a powerful lure to early adopters.
“Modern mass production results in some incredible stuff but it often lacks a lot in personality,” Budge says, and he’s right. Much of the impetus for Jaunt vehicles, however, is captured in its name: these wagons are made to get you to parts of the country Uber won’t reach, and made to it cleanly and quietly. “If we can get people trying an EV, that is a huge step.”
Sheds around the countryside are groaning with old Land Rovers, he says, as Australia was a huge market for the vehicles until Toyota’s Land Cruiser put them out to pasture. “Because they’re made of aluminium, those old Land Rovers didn’t rust.”
The motors for Jaunt’s conversion come from US suppliers NetGain or HPEVS and are connected to salvaged Tesla battery packs or CALB lithium-ion phosphate cells. The brick-like CALB units allow plenty of flexibility in positioning throughout the chassis. “Everything beyond that becomes more about the experience,” Budge says, such as making the fuel gauge run like a battery gauge and integrating the original transmission while including the option of driving as though it’s an automatic. It’s about “making the driving experience as simple and as approachable as possible.”
It all adds to the romance – but it ain’t cheap. Customers might expect to pay more than $100,000, until Jaunt establishes a network of engineers and suppliers to help it “achieve scale”, as they say in the world of startups. It’s very early days.
Budge admits to not being an engineer or mechanic, with a background in emerging technology, film and communications. “My business partner is from similar industries and we felt, maybe naively, maybe optimistically, that we could apply those skills to this project,” he says. “The challenge is no longer solely an engineering challenge; it is a usability and experience challenge.”
Nostalgic motorists needn’t fear the end is upon them, says Harrison. “I don’t think a concourse classic car that is valuable and collectible in its own right should be tampered with too much,” he says. “A classic with its original petrol engine should stay that way, in terms of keeping its value.”
But it will probably be parked in a museum. Permanently.