The Future of Transportation

Meet the Rule-Breaking Mechanics Transforming Classic Cars Into EVs

The future of EVs is starting to look a lot like the gas-guzzling past.

Inverse; Getty Images
The Future of Transportation

The first mass-market electric cars were funny-looking things, amorphous blobs only visually charming if you had an odd affinity for computational fluid dynamics. Their aerodynamic shapes delivered maximal range from tiny batteries and inefficient motors. They pushed the industry forward but did little to tug at your heartstrings.

Decades later, it's still hard to get excited about today's most popular EVs. Though recently facelifted, the Tesla Model 3 looks little changed from when it entered the scene over six years ago — and it wasn't a head-turner then.

While myriad brands are creating EVs that look as good as they drive, an increasing cadre of talented engineers and tinkerers have offered up an altogether different vibe. By applying modern technology to some of the greatest cars of all time, EV conversions honor the past, celebrate the future, and, most importantly, stir the soul.

What’s old is now very, very new thanks to a budding community of electric car conversionists.


To be clear, EV conversions are nothing new. When Henry Ford and his BFF Thomas Edison decided to build an electric car in 1914, they turned a Model T chassis into a rolling electric testbed. (Sadly, that project never went anywhere, but it's fun to imagine the state of things if it had.)

Early EV conversions like that typically entailed strapping a few lead-acid batteries onto the frame of a regular car before swapping its engine for a couple of repurposed industrial motors.

Today's modern conversions are far more sophisticated. They fall into the broader trend of taking old cars and applying modern internals to make them drive like new, even if they still look and smell vintage. Part restoration, part modification, these so-called restomods increasingly entail a high-voltage upgrade.

Marc Davis is among today's most experienced EV conversion gurus. His company, Moment Motors, has turned many lovely vintage machines into EV powerhouses — everything from Chevrolet C10 pickups to Porsche 911s, all stunning machines modernized with meticulous attention to detail.

Moment Motors conversion of this classic Mercedes 280 SL is true to its original form in almost everything but a gas engine.

Moment Motors

Davis, a former software guy, started his first conversion in 2016, a neighbor's 1968 Porsche 912. "Lots of mistakes were made," Davis tells Inverse. "But in the end, when we both sat in the car and drove it, we kind of looked at each other and smiled and said, 'There's something here!'"

And so Moment was born to create EVs that offer modern car conveniences and thrills with vintage car vibes.

"You get all the power and the simplicity and the beauty of an electric drivetrain, but all in a gorgeous classic car," Davis says.

A similar desire led to the founding of another EV restomod company, Connecticut-based Sacrilege Motors. Specifically, it was the desire to keep founder Phil Wagenheim's Porsche 993 Turbo from leaking oil all over his garage floor.

"I think there's 14 quarts of oil circulating around this thing every minute of every day, trying to escape. People don't realize the amount of care it takes to maintain an air-cooled 911. It's a labor of love," Wagenheim says. "All I want to do is enjoy the car. All I want to do is take it out and have some fun."

Sacrilege Motors may be aptly named for anyone who’s hung up on ICE-only versions of their favorite classic cars.

Sacrilege Motors

Wagenheim and Sacrilege co-founder Bobby Singh looked into conversion options on the market, various supposedly comprehensive kits from companies around the world, and settled on one from U.K.-based Fellten.

That kit, plus many bespoke upgrades, form the basis of Sacrilege's first car, the SR001 Blackbird, a 500-horsepower take on a 1992 Porsche 911 America Roadster. That's double the car's original power, but Wagenheim says the upgraded brakes, suspension, and other tweaks ensure it's still very drivable.

"The most important aspect to us doing this project was we had to maintain the driving dynamics and familiarity," he says. "I use the term familiarity because if you're a Porsche driver, a 911 driver, absolutely you know what I'm talking about."

Performance is the name of the game for Sacrilege, but for Jonathan Ward, one of the greatest car builders of the moment, the priorities are a little different. His company, Icon, is among the top restomod houses on the planet, famous for its bespoke builds of vintage Toyota Land Cruisers and Ford Broncos.

Lately, though, Ward's passions have been electric.

He started with a VW Thing, a one-off project with "predominantly Tesla components." But Icon's biggest EV build, literally and figuratively, is a 1949 Mercury Eight coupe that Ward simply calls "The Merc."

A little patina makes the Merc perfectly camouflaged as a gas car.

The Icon Merc EV conversion

The Mercury Eight's elegant lines have long made it a target of customizers, but most of those efforts focused on chopping bodywork to create gorgeous, gleaming sleds. Icon's Merc, on the other hand, looks like it just rolled out of the barn where it's sat for the past 50 years.

The patina is strong with this one, but that hides a radical reinvention of everything mechanical beneath the skin, plus a full in-vehicle network, or CAN bus.

Ward said this enabled adding the "little subtle perversions of modernity" like auto-dimming interior lights and allowed for much finer control of the 400-horsepower dual electric motor setup. That's paired with a Tesla-sourced 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack with dual chargers, one hidden behind the license plate and another inside the fuel door.

"That Merc was really a pretty significant evolutionary step in our space of safety and refinement and range and capability," Ward says. The result was good enough to convince him that EVs are the way forward for Icon. "We intend to electrify our whole fleet of the production vehicles we build."

At Moment, Davis and team bring similar attention to detail to their cars, even going so far as to convert analog fuel gauges into battery charge indicators. They design and craft custom housings and brackets to mount the electrical components, 3D scanning the chassis points to ensure everything fits perfectly.

It's an act of preservation. "We're not changing these vehicles. We're not going in there and hacking a bunch of sheet metal out of the way," Davis said. "Our mantra is: first, do no harm."

But maintaining the character and charm of these cars is a close second. "You get into a Tesla Model S or Model 3, and there's a giant screen next to you," he said. "And that is not why you want to drive a 1966 Mercedes SL, right?"

But can you really maintain the character of vintage cars while literally ripping out their guts? "Nostalgia is not what people think it is. It's not a longing for the past; [it’s] misremembrance of it," Adam Roe says. He's CEO at Zero Labs, a California-based company famous for its conversions of off-road classics like Ford Broncos and Land Rovers.

While some converters of ICE cars are only fixated on classics, Zero Labs seems interested in bringing EV conversions to the masses.

Zero Labs

"We think about things in a perfect, sanitized way, forgetting the breakdowns, leaks, noise, and constant problems," Roe continued. He also pointed to other problems just over the horizon, like looming emissions rules that could start to force cars with internal combustion off the road.

That's a terrifying prospect if you have a special something in your garage that you want to drive for decades to come. How much will you need to save for a conversion? If you want it done professionally at Moment, Davis estimated somewhere between $75,000 and $150,000 to start.

That's not cheap, but it is relatively affordable compared to other restomod offerings. Jonathan Ward says Icon's current combustion cars start in the mid $300,000 range. "It'll be substantially more than that to execute a proper electric version,” he says.

The Sacrilege Motors Blackbird starts at about $850,000, while Zero Labs’ completely reengineered cars range from $250,000 to $500,000.

These conversions, then, are for deep-pocketed conservationists with a love for a particular machine but an aversion to mechanical headaches.

But this is still a new pursuit, a branch on the car modification family tree that's barely begun to bud. In the future, these conversions will only get cheaper — and easier — as more plug-and-play kits become available.

Zero Labs is developing what it calls ZLABS Platform conversion kits, intended to cost somewhere between $35,000 and $55,000.

A more affordable conversion kit opens the door to turning more gas cars into electric ones.

Zero Labs

"The goal is to allow car enthusiasts and the industry that supports them a way to enjoy their favorite vehicles without compromising the future for their children. The installation of the ZLABS platform is straightforward, taking only about a day," Roe says. "It does not require installers to have advanced engineering or computer science backgrounds. The platforms are pre-made to fit specific vehicles with minimal modification necessary."

But these kits are still at least a few years out.

"We have entered into a large fundraising campaign to increase our volumes and are confident that once the new ZLABS platform is successfully implemented, Zero Labs Automotive will continue to introduce new scale models and upgrades each year, including muscle cars and coupes," Roe says.

Moment's Davis believes that, in the future, major manufacturers will get in the game, too. However, that's going to take some time.

"I think the [original equipment manufacturers], they genuinely want to provide these kinds of great solutions. I think it's a little more difficult than that sounds," he says. "I would love nothing more than to be able to say, 'Oh, you have a Camaro, a 1973? Perfect. We're going to order the kit from GM. It's going to come here and you'll be in and out of the shop in 200 hours. Donezo. Awesome.'"

It’s not feasible for Ford or General Motors to hop into the EV conversion game... yet.

Moment Motors

Davis says he's had conversations with the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) about how to make these kinds of solutions work, but volume is a big part of the equation that's missing. Right now, there just aren't enough conversions to make it worthwhile for a company like Ford or General Motors. "That is the dream and the Holy Grail at this point.”

For now, if you truly want to do it yourself, Davis says to start small. "If this is going to be your first project, I highly recommend kind of knocking it down and doing something smaller.” He recommends picking up a Volkswagen Beetle kit from EV West, which starts at about $20,000.

"It's a very doable thing," he says. "You do it in your shop, you do it in your garage, whatever. That process is going to teach you all the major components involved."

But before you start, get some proper safety training. Gasoline is dangerous, but since we can see and smell it, we readily respect it. High voltage, on the other hand, isn't so obvious.

"It's deceptive," Davis says. "You don't really know when you're about to get killed."

The best advice he's received is to act like you're in the lion cage at a zoo: "Never take your eye off the big cat."

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