Converting a classic car to full battery-electric drive is either the best idea or the worst. There’s an argument to be made that without the original powertrain, a classic is no longer the car it was, but merely one that looks like it. On the other hand, installing an electric drivetrain could help keep some classics on the road and out of the museum, or worse, the scrapyard.
A good off-the-shelf electric drive system will almost always be a significant pep upgrade for an old daily driver, even if the original engine is a high-output V-8, thanks the instant-on torque. An electric classic won’t smoke or leak oil, and if it’s charged up, it should start up every time, at least during warmer cruising weather—and what a reduction in pollutants and hydrocarbons, especially if the removed engine was built to run on premium leaded gas.
But an electric conversion is, by definition, not original. It will never come close to earning 100 points at your local concours or meet your purist friend’s approval.
Overall, though, converting a classic (though maybe not collectible) internal combustion-powered model to electric is a great idea, especially as the modern fleet slowly heads in that direction itself. Keep everything else original and you can enjoy the beauty of a car’s classic lines, as Britain’s Prince Harry did when he drove with Meghan Markle to their 2018 wedding in a Jaguar E-Type Concept Zero.
So, what are the best candidates for a new electric lease on life? Here’s a short list of cars that are long on personality, with or without an engine.
Post-Bugeye Austin-Healey Sprite (1962-71)/MG Midget (1962-79)
Last year, we drove one of Bugeye Guy David Silberkeit’s first FrogE models, a Mark 1 Austin-Healey Sprite in which the Connecticut purveyor of the cute British sports car replaced the 43-horsepower, 52-lb-ft, 948-cc dual-carb inline four-cylinder engine with a 20-kWh, 50-cell battery pack. The battery pack weighs 75 lb more than the iron-block Austin engine in the erstwhile 1,440-pound car, but the FrogE’s electric propulsion gives it an additional 80 horsepower and 108 pound-feet of torque.
BMC’s MG assembly plant built just 48,987 Bugeye/Frogeye Sprites for Austin, according to fan site SpridgetMania. I’d be loath to replace the original engine, slow as it is, in my own Bugeye just because of the exhaust note alone, though EV power would potentially transform it from a summer weekend cruiser into a daily commuter.
Here’s my proposal. Why not convert the more prosaic “Square Sprite” and its badge-engineered MG mate, the Midget? According to SpridgetMania, BMC produced 305,177 Spridgets, including the Mark 2 and newer Healey Sprites from 1962 to ’71, and MG Midgets from 1962 to ’79. I have no doubt the survival rate for Spridgets is much lower than for Bugeyes, and there may be even fewer left despite six times as many having been built, but that’s the point. And the Spridgets are a bit heavier and considerably more modern, with roll-up windows in place of side-curtains, so they’d make even better daily commuters as EVs.
This is a nod to alternate-power originality, because Chrysler Corporation designed the first-generation Dodge Charger to be its first production turbine-powered model. Chrysler Corporation’s great turbine experiment of 1964 didn’t work out quite as expected, and so it kept the design and instead dropped in V-8s, from the base 318-cubic-inch engine up to a 426 Hemi.
Even full-size cars of the ’60s were lighter than many modern counterparts, and the first-gen Charger certainly came in under two tons, at least in base trim. With a big, modern battery pack tucked below the hood—and room for more under the rear hatch—the Charger could make for a relatively long-range freeway cruiser.
1972-82 Fiat X1/9, 1982-89 Bertone X1/9
As British car fanatics do for the Spridget, Italian car lovers look past the Fiat X1/9’s lack of reliability; some will go all-out defending this small midengined targa-roof sports car. It’s another lightweight, coming in at 1,933 pounds for the 1974 model and 2,110 pounds for the 1989 model. By the time they came to the U.S. in any numbers in the mid-’70s, they were subject to choking emissions controls and oversized 5-mph bumpers. Perhaps in the spirit of my Spridget suggestion, some enterprising EV converter should start with the Malcolm Bricklin-imported, post-Fiat Bertone X1/9s.
1965-69 Chevrolet Corvair
This is an easy choice because, as with the Dodge Charger, an alternate powertrain makes sense in the Chevrolet Corvair. General Motors built a prototype, the Electrovair I, in 1964, though that car apparently hasn’t survived. Living today in the GM Heritage Center in Michigan is Electrovair II, a 1966 Chevy Corvair four-door hardtop with solid-state controls behind the rear seat, where a flat six normally would live. The Heritage Center says Electrovair II’s silver-zinc battery and electric motor combo makes 115-horsepower, has a 40-to-80-mile range, and takes six hours to fully recharge. Lithium-ion and modern technology certainly can improve on that.
1974-78 Ford Mustang II Mach I
By now you’ve got the score. Electrify the second-tier versions of certain collectible cars and keep the icons original. It would be tempting, in light of the return of the Ford Mustang Mach I for 2021, and the launch of the EV Mustang Mach-E to call for electrification of the 1969-70 Mach I, or even the midsize Torino-based 1971-73 versions. That would have the V-8 Mustang faithful up in arms.
It’s hard to imagine any aficionado of the Pinto-based Mustang II (surely there are some) would object to a handful of their malaise-era cars being converted, and the smaller, lighter bodyshell of the Mustang II makes electrification that much easier. But what to call it? Ford Mustang II Mach I-E?