In the future, so we’re told, the world will be filled with silent electric vehicles, ghosting along without emissions, without sound, without fuss, without personality. Nuts to that.
Instead, let’s recognize electric propulsion for its true potential. Strap the powertrain out of a wrecked Tesla into the back of a Volkswagen microbus and you can roast up the tires around corners, adding in a healthy dollop of opposite lock on the enormous, totally horizontal steering wheel.
We're going to need a new term for these sort of shenanigans, because hot rodding doesn't quite fit. Resto-mods? Electro-rods? Juicers? Whatever the nomenclature ends up being, one thing is clearly evident. Technology is changing. What gearheads do with it isn't.
Tucked in an industrial park in San Marcos, Calif., a small speed shop called EV West is hard at work saving the environment. Actually, if you spend five minutes talking to chief executive officer Mike Bream, you realize that EV West is more about green lights on a dragstrip than leaves on a tree. These guys live to make things fast.
Exhibit A: a 1996 BMW M3, converted with an electric powertrain that puts out a whopping thousand horsepower. When a hired pro driver dropped out, Bream himself piloted this car up the challenging and dangerous Pikes Peak hill climb in fewer than 12 minutes, setting a class record that stood for four years. Note that the current Pikes Peak overall record is held by Volkswagen with their all-electric ID R.
Exhibit B: the shop truck Bream commutes in, a 1960s split-window VW Doka, which also boasts Tesla power. Because these guys have a sense of humour, it’s got the “ding-ding” bell out of an ice-cream truck. Because they’re a proper speed shop, it can light up the tires when the two-speed transmission is in low. And, because it’s electric, it literally runs on sunshine, fuelled by the solar panels that sit on top of the EV West building.
“Right now,” Bream says, “We’re building cars mostly for the ultrawealthy. It’s a cost-no-object business.”
EV West recently delivered an electrified VW Beetle to Star Wars actor Ewan McGregor, and has a long list of six figure conversions on the go, including an electrified DeLorean DMC-12. Most of these builds are impeccably restored, concours-quality vintage stuff, just with ultramodern running gear underneath.
Purists might fret about butchering classics, but the crew here doesn’t cut sheet metal. The unwritten rule is that any build must be able to be converted back to full originality, something Bream says can be done in a day or less. Battery packs are modular, mounted in the trunk. The electric motor goes where the old combustion unit would. Then there’s the best part: Most of these machines retain their manual transmission.
Take ex-Vancouverite Ian Corlett’s 1966 Porsche 912 as an example. Frustrated with the unreliability of a classic Vespa scooter he had, Corlett converted it to battery power. The solution worked so well, why not a car? He began the long process of restoring a basket-case 912, figuring an EV conversion of the four-cylinder cousin to the Porsche 911 wouldn’t upset too many Porsche purists.
He needn’t have worried. The completed project is the best of both worlds, with svelte, narrow-bodied 1960s looks and far more power than the original ever had. It retains the dogleg five-speed transmission and clutch, and rowing through the gears on the Angeles Crest highway provides all the delight you expect from a classic Porsche.
For those who’d miss the blatting beat of an internal combustion engine, don’t worry, because’ Corlett’s 912 isn’t entirely silent. Without modern sound deadening, you hear the rush of the wind and a surprisingly loud whirring from the electric motor. It’s far more engaging than any Nissan Leaf or Tesla Model S, far quicker than even turbocharged classic Porsches and drop-dead gorgeous.
Not gorgeous: Jim Belosic’s 1981 Honda Accord. Featured in this month’s issue of Road & Track, the Teslonda is a home-built monstrosity that resembles nothing so much as a “gasser” hot rod from the 1950s, with cartoonish raised suspension and outsized tires.
A salvaged Tesla P85 provided the propulsion, and a tiny Raspberry Pi computer provided the software control. Belosic did all his own fabrication, grafting in the T-shaped battery back from a Chevy Volt, then programming everything to work.
The Teslonda has a whopping 538 horsepower, nearly nine times what it left the factory with, and will rip from zero to 100 kilometres an hour in 2.5 seconds. That’s quick enough to obliterate any Civic Type-R at the dragstrip, and built on a budget.
EV West has a warehouse filled with wrecked Tesla parts, and is in talks with aftermarket supply chains to provide a full drop-in kit. Do-it-yourselfers will soon be able to buy the EV equivalent of a Chevrolet LS crate engine, capable of turning anything into an electron burner.
All the classic hot-rodder skills will be needed. Metal will need welding, suspension reinforced to take the power and handle better, paintwork refinished to catch the eye. It's just that the hand-sketched build instructions will now feature ohms and amps and wiring instructions.
There are those who will mourn our fire-breathing hot-rod past, and there are those cars that are so rare that they need to be preserved. However, for those who grew up with speed in their veins, be of good cheer. Our future highways might be filled with boring little commuter pods. There’ll still be room on the roads for something with a little more passion.
Stay on top of all our Drive stories. We have a Drive newsletter covering car reviews, innovative new cars and the ups and downs of everyday driving. Sign up for the weekly Drive newsletter, delivered to your inbox for free. Follow us on Instagram, @globedrive.