Rich Collectors Are Converting Classic Cars to EVs

When high-end car enthusiasts and collectors gathered for the U.S.’s swankiest car show in Monterey, Calif., last week, there was an unusual addition to the typical lineup of classic coupes and trucks. On the outside, the vehicle, an electric-blue early 1990s-era Porsche 911 sports car, wouldn’t stand out in these surroundings—it was far from being the rarest or most expensive vehicle zipping down 17 Mile Drive that week. But look under engine cover at the back of the 911 and you would find something exceedingly incongruous: the batteries, power electronics, and electric motors of an electric vehicle where a gasoline motor should be.

The idea of converting gasoline-powered cars into electric vehicles (EVs) is nothing new. The modern EV movement, to a large extent, was born in the garages and workshops of early 2000s tinkerers obsessed with slapping batteries and jerry-rigged electric drive systems into old cars. JB Straubel, the co-founder and original head of technology at Tesla, got his start in that electric hobbyist scene, getting his hands on a beat-up 1984 Porsche, cramming it with bulky, heavy lead-acid batteries, and drag racing it in competitions. Even Tesla’s original offering, the Tesla Roadster, was to some extent just a more advanced version of one of those projects: a chassis from a Lotus Elise sports car, redesigned to accommodate lithium-ion batteries and electric motors.

Most car collectors at the time probably would not have been impressed by the sight of JB Straubel’s electric Porsche. But such conversions are starting to catch on in the high-end car collector scene. Actor Robert Downey Jr. made a show about converting his car collection to electric, which premiered on HBO in July (there was also a biodiesel conversion in the mix). And a new generation of companies is hoping to make a business out of converting classic cars into eye-catching, luxury EVs for wealthy enthusiasts.

Stripping a gearbox and gasoline motor out of a sports car and putting an electric drive train in their place is tricky, but it’s not rocket science. Getting that car to feel close to the original when you’re driving it, though, is another story. EVs typically deliver a lot more power than gasoline vehicles, but the batteries also make them heavier, which gives them a different feel on the road. At Everrati, the company behind the electric Porsche in Monterey, its engineers focus on lightening the load, replacing much of the vehicle’s steel paneling with carbon-fiber, resulting in the vehicle actually being lighter than the original. They also distribute that weight to mimic the way the original vehicle grips the road. “What we do is help people who love those cars drive them with a conscience,” says Justin Lunny, the company’s founder and CEO. “It allows them to extend the legacy of those vehicles, but in a cleaner world.”

The service doesn’t come cheap. The typical Everrati order runs about $350,000, Lunny says, though there’s apparently no shortage of interested customers. Lunny says the company is currently rebuilding 12 vehicles in their shop, with many more on order. They also got hundreds of expressions of interest from showing off their cars in Monterey. And there’s plenty of competition, with companies like California-based Kindred Motorworks and U.K.-based Lunez also offering high-end EV conversions of vintage Ford Bronco SUVs, Aston Martin coups, and Jaguar roadsters. (For now, though, each of those companies specializes in restoring particular brands and models—Everrati, for instance, focuses primarily on 1990s-era Porsches and classic Land Rovers.) 

Steve Rimmer, an executive at aircraft leasing company Altavair and avid motorsports fan, is one of the customers awaiting his EV Porsche 911 from Everrati. He says he wanted to drive a classic car with a lower impact on the environment. “We love that era of Porsche,” he says of his family. “We [wanted] to go down a route where you maintain as much of the originality as you can.”

In general, it’s much better for the environment to drive an electric vehicle rather than a gasoline one. But it’s not as if it would necessarily be a good thing for car collectors to spontaneously send in all their V8 playthings for conversion into electric muscle cars. The lithium-ion batteries that go into making a new EV or a converted gasoline vehicle, have a substantial upfront emissions cost. Those manufacturing emissions are usually more than paid off over the driving lifetime of the vehicle—with every mile you drive an electric vehicle instead of a gasoline one, you pay back the emissions that went into making the vehicle’s battery. There’s a problem, though, with converting a classic gasoline car into an EV, and then letting it and its new resource-intensive battery molder in a garage—it would be like building a bunch of solar panels, only to stack them in a basement. To realize the emissions benefits of EVs, you have to actually drive them. 

For Lunny’s part, he says Emerrati’s EV converted Porsches are much more than showpieces—they’re perfectly suited for driving every day. If creature comforts are your desire, the company will happily add heated seats and Apple Airplay to your electric upgrade. That’s the purpose that Rimmer is planning to put his car to when it’s delivered. He has about 50 cars in his collection, but it’s not as if he’s planning to do electric conversions on cars he only takes out of the garage once in a while. The newly electric Porsche, on the other hand, is destined to be a daily workhorse for him and his children. “We talked a lot about this as a family,” he says. “This is something that we see as a bridge to how we may have to look at our enjoyment in the future, but still maintain our passion for motorsport.”

The whole idea of these electric conversions prompts a fundamental question for car lovers in this era’s mass EV transition. Such a changeover, along with increased investment in public transportation, is undoubtedly necessary—we have to eliminate the nearly one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that come from the transportation sector. One might ask, though, if we’re losing something—if we should not perhaps take a moment to appreciate the engineering and emotional legacy of the internal combustion vehicles we’re leaving behind. 

It’s perhaps a premature debate. As of last year, less than 1% of cars in the U.S. were EVs, and the transition is likely progressing slower than what’s needed to meet our climate goals, in part due to conservative political opposition to EVs and the sluggish progress in building out a national charging system. Looking ahead, for those who love the thrill of motion, there’ll be new experiences and new vehicular richness in the electric age. And for the most nostalgic gearheads it’s not so wrong, environmentally-speaking, to keep a couple old gasoline vehicles around, as long as you don’t drive them too much. 

But if, in your heart of hearts, you’re really dead-set on driving a thirty-year-old Porsche 911 to work and back every day, a souped-up electric conversion is going to be the way to go—assuming you have a fair bit of scratch lying around to pay for it.

Among his friends in the car collecting world, Rimmer says that news of his new EV conversion has received mixed responses. Some car enthusiasts listened with interest as he told them about his latest purchase. Others—the petrol purists—called it sacrilege. 

“My answer to that is I want my kids to be able to enjoy things into the future,” he says. “I want us all to have a conscience about what we’re doing to the environment.”

Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com.

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