From Gasoline to Electric: Companies Converting Old Cars Have Long Waiting Lists | From Wire Company

LOS ANGELES — Mark Wagner isn’t sure which he likes more: the look he gets when he pulls his old Volkswagen ragtop into an EV charger parking spot, or the look he he gets it because of what he does next.

Wagner’s car rolled off a VW Beetle assembly line in 1962, the year Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev played a nuclear tightrope with President Kennedy.

But Wagner’s Bug no longer sports an upgraded Cold War-era 40-horsepower engine and 12.5-gallon fuel tank. They were replaced by a Curtis C-50 Brushless electric motor and part of an 85 kWh battery salvaged from a Tesla Model S.

“People see a classic car like this go into a charging space, it’s like, ‘Well, this fool is jamming the charger,'” Wagner, 46, said. ‘back, pulls the charging cord and plugs it in, and then it’s like, ‘Wait – that’s electric? Can I see it?'”

With nosebleed gas prices and worries about climate change and pollution, interest in electric vehicles is higher than ever according to Google search trends. But supply chain issues have led to a shortage of new electric vehicles, driving up prices for used vehicles, said Mike Spagnola, managing director of the Specialty Equipment Market Assn.

As a result, converting internal combustion engine vehicles to electric vehicles “has become increasingly popular,” especially for classic car owners, Spagnola said. “It’s a market that will continue to grow in 2022.”

“These are people who love their cars and want to keep driving them, not worrying about the scarcity of parts for those older cars,” Spagnola said. “It’s about extending their longevity and, sometimes, having less impact on the environment.”

Skateboarding legend Tony Hawk can probably afford any car on the market, and he already owns a Tesla Model S and a Lucid Air, among others. But one of his favorites is the 1964 Chevy Corvette Stingray, black with a red interior, which he acquired in 2004, he says, after retiring from competitive skateboarding.

“It was the first cool sports car I saw when I was young, and it reminded me of the Batmobile,” Hawk said. “I figured I’d buy one when I was older if I could ever afford it.” But lately driving the car had become more of an exercise in frustration, so Hawk decided to make the car electric.

“As much as I love the Mopar transmission, it was always a problem starting and I could never drive it more than 20 miles without fearing it would fail,” he said.

Car enthusiasts like Wagner and Hawk are fueling a boom in electric vehicle conversions, but there aren’t enough companies to keep up with the demand. Waiting lists sometimes last two years.

For EV West, one of the most popular electric and internal combustion vehicle rebuild shops on the West Coast, it’s a lot longer.

“Our store has a five-year waiting list,” said EV West owner Michael Bream, who started his business 13 years ago, inspired in part by — you guessed it — a leap past fuel prices.

“If you call us and say to yourself, ‘Hey, Michael. I absolutely want to convert this car. We can’t get you in, so we’re going to have to send you to one of our partner stores,’ with which EV West is working collaboratively, Bream said.

On a recent afternoon, Hawk’s car was taken to a lift at EV West’s headquarters in San Marcos, outside of San Diego. This is also where Wagner’s 1962 Beetle conversion took place at a cost of $32,000.

Bream said a typical conversion starts at around $18,000. Some of the more expensive versions, for high performance, can exceed $30,000.

For comparison, a 2022 Toyota Prius starts at $24,625; a 2022 Chevrolet Bolt starts at $31,500; a 2022 Tesla Model 3 starts at $41,940. But supply chain issues have led to a shortage of semiconductors, which means new electric vehicles can be hard to find in some markets.

After the conversion, maintenance primarily becomes a matter of maintaining the car’s vintage parts, which can be handled by the car’s regular mechanic, Bream said.

Transforming an electric car is complicated and time-consuming; it’s not just about dropping an electric motor and battery and sending the customer on their way. Each type of car, truck or van requires its own complex solution.

Bream collected a huge amount of parts on site and 3D printers are used to make other parts and for the finishing touches that make everything feel like it belongs. Some analog fuel tank gauges are there, but now the “F” through “E” shows the remaining battery charge.

For example, “this Corvette is fiberglass,” Bream said of Hawk’s car. “You don’t want to cut it. You don’t want to modify it. You want to keep it as original as possible.

Bream said the company’s engineers and technicians used a bolt-on assembly housing a Tesla Model S motor for part of the installation.

“That way you can also convert combustion back,” he said. “It is important that we keep conversions reversible. We therefore took no value from the car.

With shortages still affecting most aspects of the supply chain, it might seem likely that there would be heated competition between converter companies for the most popular batteries, which are made by Tesla. But there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of Tesla owners who have gone out and seriously wrecked their cars, while managing not to damage the batteries.

“There is no competition because everyone is very busy. We’ve helped other stores with their first builds to help them get started in the business,” Bream said. “We are on good terms with most of the other stores. We’re all on the same page, just trying to build fun electric cars.

The appeal of electrification is also strong for owners of commercial vehicles running on diesel, which is still well above the average price of a gallon of regular gasoline.

Ralph Biase, perhaps best known for his work as producer and host of the TV show “Geared Up” on Motor Trend, has more work than he can handle at Titan Car Restoration in Commerce.

“I have a two-year backlog,” Biase said. “I’m not even taking on new clients at the moment, as I already have so many on deck, awaiting restoration.”

Most of the EV conversions his company does are for utility vehicles, with customers including Adidas and Nike.

For a recent conversion of a Canadian mining company’s pickup truck, “they needed the batteries to fit between the frame rails under the bed of the truck, but there were none commercially available,” said Biase. “Everything had to be 3D scanned. I had all the drawings (computer-aided design) for the space between the frame rails, and I had, basically, a battery box made for it.

For his Beetle ragtop, Mark Wagner wanted to mimic the original car as much as possible, and the interior was carefully upgraded.

“The gas gauge is now the battery checker. They also gave me these buttons that have a real vintage feel,” said Wagner, 46. Bream said there’s about a third of the Tesla battery in the VW.

The car’s 100-mile range, when driven conservatively, is enough for him to use as a daily driver, to and from work, and for errands. He even gets driven all the way to Big Bear from his home in Irvine. A load takes him to the base of the mountain, where he stops to eat and relax a bit while his car charges for the final 30 kilometers uphill.

“It’s my car forever,” Wagner said.

Tony Hawk has some pretty definite plans for the first thing he wants to do with his completed Corvette Stingray conversion. When asked where he might take it first, Hawk replied “to and from my half-pipe!”

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