Future-Proofing Classic and Collector Cars
A Panel of Experts Weighs in on Breaking the Stigma and Embracing Vehicle Electrification
By Chad Simon
A panel of experts on electric vehicle conversions cited the need for more public education regarding vehicle electrification in order to break down barriers along the path to this newer technology.
They’re more reliable, cleaner, and they pack a punch. So why all the hesitancy surrounding electric vehicles (EVs)? Misconceptions regarding range, V8 growl nostalgia and battery weight are three reasons, according to an expert panel at the 2021 SEMA Show.
“Electrification is coming; the OEMs are going that way,” said Larry Edsall, founding editor of Classiccars.com. “What happens to our old cars that we love and cherish? We can electrify those classic and collector cars. When the prince [England’s Prince Harry] got married, he drove away in an electric-powered, pale-blue Jaguar E-Type. We’ll look back on that 50 years from now as the turning point for electrification of our old cars.”
A 2021 SEMA Show education session entitled “Future-Proofing Classic and Collector Cars” tackled this subject. The session, moderated by Edsall himself, featured panelists Michael Bream, chief executive of EV West; Marc Davis, CEO of Moment Motor Co.; Craig Jackson, CEO of Barrett-Jackson; Kirk Miller, vice president of AEM Performance Electronics; Dave Pericak, director of Ford Future Electric Vehicles; and Adam Roe, CEO of Zero Labs Automotive. Here’s what they had to say about the future of vehicle electrification, edited for length and clarity.
Edsall: Why can’t we just assume that we can drive our petroleum cars forever? Why are you convinced that we have to convert to electric?
Roe: Two reasons. One is reliability. The classics are hard to support. They break down a lot. For some people here, that’s the fun part. But for most people, it’s not fun. If you look at EPA data before there were measured emissions, these cars are 4,000 to 5,000 times worse in many cases than new cars. There’s a consideration to save the car you love but also take the equivalent of thousands of new cars off the road by simply replacing one of those cars.
Bream: There’s a safety aspect as well. The drivability is much improved when you’re adding power steering, power brakes, modern systems and climate control. We’re all up here because we love classic cars, and an electric modification gives them longevity.
Miller: The ability to do an EV conversion without molesting that valuable classic car is impressive. You can look at a lot of the classic cars that these guys here have built. They’ve done an amazing job of preserving the shell, and they’ve made it so that the internal-combustion engine (ICE) components can be preserved, so if at some point they want to revert back to ICE, the opportunity is there.
Davis: If you’re hacking these cars up and making them different than they used to be, you lose the aftermarket. You lose the ability to continue to enhance and build the car for the future. There are a lot of reasons we do this. Yes, ecologically, but we love classic cars and that classic driving experience. The connection we have with these cars is visceral. We can maintain all of that and the love and joy we get while driving these cars by essentially replacing what gets them down the road.
Miller: You can talk about a Volkswagen bus that has 35 hp, which is frightening to get on the freeway. Now you put a 120hp electric motor in it, and it becomes fun to drive.
Edsall: People used to take the old engines out of their classic cars and put in crate motors and upgrade the brakes. The car looked the same, but it was now a restomod. It was controversial. The purists thought it was stupid, but Craig Jackson was a champion of that. Is this the next step?
Jackson: I think it is the next step. When we first started running restomods over the auction block, I got crucified—just as I did when we started running musclecars over the auction block. We have to embrace what the next generation likes. A lot of them love the look of the car but not necessarily how it drives. So restomods came along, and they’ve gone to such a level to make them drive super nice, but they still look stock. I think the next evolution is to build an electric restomod.
Pericak: We just introduced a new electric crate motor. It’s the actual motor that comes out of the Mach-E GT. To show what you can do with it, we put it in an F-100. So you’ve got this beautiful F-100, and it’s got a modern drivetrain in it. I do think this is the next step. We showcased our new motor in a classic car to show people how to future-proof their classics and what they can do. We can still love those classics but just interpret them in a different way. We’re all enthusiasts, and we love the power. The electric motor has 634 lb.-ft. of instantaneous torque. That’s what we all dream about.
Edsall: There’s a hesitancy with some people with new electric vehicles because of range. Are you finding that with your customers who are doing conversions?
Roe: We have to assume that you’re not getting a classic electric car because you’re trying to win the Nürburgring or drive across the country. If that’s your function, then there are a lot of other cars out there for that. When the first highways started opening up 100 years ago, people were trying to determine how far the average car needed to go in a day, and after about 50 years of highways, it was about 25 mi. Here we are today, and it’s still about 25 mi. We’re not going any further than we were on average. For the most part—about 90% of your day—it’s better than you need. You’re never going to need a 6,000-kw, 19-million-mi. battery, so I don’t really think it’s a factor.
Pericak: Range anxiety is a true thing, but there’s an education that has to happen around this because most people don’t drive the kind of miles that they think they drive. Most of the electric vehicles we’re producing now have at least 300 mi. of range. The charging is getting better as the infrastructure continues to get bigger and better. The battery technology is changing all the time, and you’ll be able to charge a lot faster.
Edsall: There’s a perception that this industry is dependent on leftover motors after Teslas crash. Why is that perception wrong? How is it changing?
Bream: The economics of it, you have these cars that are very expensive, they become for the most part undrivable, but a lot of the componentry is still good. We use that and the economics from it, and that drives what we’re doing. We play with componentry that costs millions of dollars to develop, and now we live in an era where you can have a Tesla-powered ’57 Beetle with traction control and all the safety bells and whistles and everything you need. What a time to be alive. The best is yet to come with range. We’re at a time when we can achieve the range we need to drive. But arguably, all electric vehicles are a little heavy. We’d all like to bring that down to be more in line with the ICEs and still preserve a good daily drivable range.
Roe: There are thousands of parts that go into any car, but electric conversion, especially, is a mix of what can you find that’s available and what you have to salvage. There’s no perfect answer. Many shops do a good job of pushing as many parts as you need, but there’s still stuff missing. There’s always going to be a transition. The same thing was happening in the combustion world when everyone was doing restomod conversions. It’s a moving target, and there’s not a lot of available parts. If you’re not an OEM, there’s a closed system of how you get those things, which has changed a lot over the past two years, and we hope it changes more to make it more affordable for everybody else.
Davis: This is hot rodding. You can grumble about it not having the growl of a V8, but if you were to take one of these motors, hand it to someone in the ’40s and ask him what he thought, it would have blown his mind. It is the spirit of hot rodding 100%. You’re dealing with salvage parts in putting everything together, but then you’re creating this entire show where you walk by thousands of manufacturers to make every part you could possibly need to put together your solution. This industry is at the fledgling stage. As companies like AEM bring in control systems, and companies like Cascadia bring motors to the market, we’ll no longer have to dig through the scrap pile and re-engineer Tesla parts. It will be a whole new world.
Miller: With EVs, we’re at the infancy. You want to be at the leading edge. From AEM’s perspective, we’re at the bleeding edge with the resources we’ve pumped into this technology. We are hemorrhaging. We have a huge conviction that this is part of our future.
Roe: It’s all about hooking up an electric motor to a transmission. But what you get when you put a high-output motor coupled to a system that was never designed to handle that, it’s like putting a rocket on a tricycle in some cases. It just can’t handle it. The maximum speed for the first group of Broncos that we did was 65 mph before you thought you were going to die. You have ball-bearing steering and unassisted power brakes. It’s classic, but it’s dangerous. We looked at all the problems and it was consistently balance and interchangeability of the battery. We built solutions to solve those problems.
Edsall: Say you’re at the SEMA Show and you have a customer who wants to electrify his classic car. What do you do?
Bream: I think you should be excited for the future. You’re getting into something that’s going to give your shop a lot of marketing and longevity, and you’re going to seem smart and relevant to your customer base. It’s important to note where we come from. Up to and prior to 2008, this was mostly an environmental thing. People also wanted to save their money and not send it overseas. There were a lot of factors, but none of them were performance-based. In 2010, this became a performance-based industry. That’s why we’re here; we love performance, we love cars. We’re not measuring carbon, we’re just trying to build very fast, high-performance electric vehicles, and the side effect is a cleaner environment.
Pericak: This is one of the reasons it’s so exciting. You always want more performance, but it came with a negative effect to the environment. Now it’s the reverse. You’re getting way more performance than you ever have in the past, and in a way that is responsible to the planet.
Edsall: Won’t people miss the sound of the exhaust?
Bream: Electric actually predates gas. We did a land-speed car this year at Bonneville, and people are surprised to know that the first six land-speed records were electric. Land speed was birthed from electric cars.
Davis: People are concerned that you’re going to lose the soul of the car, but once you take them for a ride in an electric car, they start to understand. It’s just the sound. You instantly forget about it when you get in the car, hit the pedal and that torque hits you.
Roe: From a behavioral perspective, nostalgia isn’t a remembrance of the past; it’s a misremembrance of the past. You’ve glorified and sanitized how you thought about the past and left out all the things you didn’t like. What you think you love in the past is a lie. The sound is more for peer-bonding. Your buddies like it, but you get over it pretty quickly because you tend to think that the sound of the car defines you as the man. Let’s find something else to define that. What you gain is a lovely relationship with your classic car; you get to hear it drive, you hear the road, and that’s magical.
Pericak: The visceral sound was an indicator of power. The louder it was, the more power it had. That’s how we associate it. It’s going to be different for EVs—and we’re just scratching the surface of performance EVs. I don’t want to erase what it was before. Of course I love the sound of a V8, but it’s going to be different, and there will be different cues to determine how powerful something is.
Roe: None of this would be possible if the performance didn’t overcompensate. If we were 20% behind ICEs, people would still make the golf cart jokes. Once we crossed over, we kept crossing over, and shot way past stationary goals. The sound of the motor does not equate to the power that is being output. Because of the performance, we don’t have to hear that stuff anymore. Now we can be taken seriously, and it’s the perfect time to be in this industry.
Bream: There is a performance sound to an electric vehicle. We’ve done 50hp buses to 1,000hp Pikes Peak cars, and when you sit in a couple of different EVs, they all sound different. I miss the sound of an internal-combustion engine, but if we’re
sitting here talking about exhaust and nothing else, that tells you how good EV components are.
Miller: We talk about performance, but the weight is on the battery pack side. That’s our Achilles. Every other day, someone’s invented a chemistry that’s going to extend the range or pull weight. The density of the power and efficiency is more than 90%. You have a 900hp electric motor that weighs 200 lbs. That’s fascinating. As soon as we can get the battery weight out, it’s going to get really fun really fast.
Meet the Panel
Michael Bream became involved in electrification 13 years ago to build EV West’s first electric race car, which competed at Pikes Peak 10 years ago. The company has been developing parts and integrating and engineering systems for conversions ever since.
Marc Davis has been converting cars in Austin, Texas, since 2017. In college, he worked on the hybrid-electric vehicle team for a Ford competition in the ’90s, which initially interested him in the electrification space. He went into the tech industry and decided four or five years ago to tie his classic-car passion to his engineering background.
There was a 10-year gap between Dave Pericak and his older brothers. They always brought home cool cars to wrench on, so he’d join them. His family was loyal to Ford, so it only made sense that he went to work for Ford. Over the last 21 years, he’s spent most of his time on the performance side. He was the chief engineer for the ’15 Ford Mustang and ran Ford’s racing team globally. He was engineering director on the Mach-E, worked on the Bronco, and now he’s in charge of future electric vehicles.
Craig Jackson grew up in an automotive family. He restored his first car at the age of 10. He still restores them, which he says gives him an edge when running an auction company. He believes electrification is the next big push in
Kirk Miller comes from a racing family; he started building engines with his father when he was four years old. AEM Electronics is known for supporting the tuner market, and the company saw the EV segment as an enormous opportunity. The RPM Act not being in place terrifies Miller because, as it stands, it’s a federal offense to turn a street car into a race car. Ninety-nine percent of AEM’s business is business to business, so more than 1,000 factory-trained AEM tuners will have paths to tune cars, promote the cars that they tune, and broadcast on social media without the concerns of the EPA showing up and issuing fines or shutting them down.
Adam Roe’s father was an engineer for Ford when the family lived in England. Roe did not follow in his father’s footsteps; instead, his background was cognitive behavioral psychology and technology. He decided to commit himself to what he believed was a massive problem. He saw the growing gap between the love of classic vehicles and a responsibility for not only their future but also our future, so he built a company that could solve this problem in a better-quality way than what was already available or even scalable. Zero Labs Automotive opened about two years ago, but he’s been working toward his goal for six years.
For more information about SEMA’s education program and to view 2021 SEMA Show education sessions on demand, visit www.sema.org/education.