Electric Engines Give Classic Cars a Recharge

Debora Carley

MOST CLASSIC car aficionados would say that David Lorenz is raising his daughter, Luna, the right way. Mr. Lorenz strapped her car seat into the back of his 1957 Mercedes-Benz 190SL when she was just 3 months old. Now at age 2, she can name many cars she sees in […]

MOST CLASSIC car aficionados would say that David Lorenz is raising his daughter, Luna, the right way.

Mr. Lorenz strapped her car seat into the back of his 1957 Mercedes-Benz 190SL when she was just 3 months old. Now at age 2, she can name many cars she sees in parking lots. He dreamed of passing the SL on to her someday. But when it broke down during one drive, as old cars are wont to do, Mr. Lorenz came to a difficult realization.

EV-conversions gain performance well beyond their original specs and a greater reliability due to far fewer moving parts.

“Luna’s not actually going to want this,” Mr. Lorenz said. Their native London is banning gas and diesel cars in certain areas. Britain will outlaw sales of new internal combustion cars by 2035.

General Motors,


and other automakers plan to go fully electric.

Whether enthusiasts want to admit it or not, the end of the traditional engine is in sight. And Mr. Lorenz feared classic car ownership may die with it.

1968 Porsche 911 customized by Zelectric Motors in San Diego



A certain wedding changed his perspective. After watching Prince Harry and Meghan Markle drive away from their 2018 Windsor Castle ceremony in a Jaguar E-Type that had been converted into an electric vehicle, Mr. Lorenz launched Lunaz Design. Based in Silverstone, their outfit restores vintage British luxury cars and swaps their engines for a battery and a motor.

It has joined the swelling worldwide ranks of EV-conversion shops, businesses that hope to preserve classic car driving, and not just collecting, for the long haul.

In addition to not burning fuel, EV-converted classic cars gain performance well beyond their original specs and, because they have far fewer moving parts, greater reliability. EV drivetrains are much simpler than IC engines. And as the world grapples with climate change, EV conversion is an increasingly popular option for vintage cars, with many shops putting their distinctive spin on the process.

Lunaz Design crafts restored, electric versions of cars like the Jaguar XK120 and 1950s Bentley Continentals. In late August, it announced an expansion into the Rolls-Royce Phantom V line. Cutting-edge technology and intensive restorations don’t come cheap, especially when paired. A modified Jaguar starts at about $455,000; a Phantom commands around $650,000 and up.

Lunaz fully strips its donor cars down and sends them off to a body shop for bare-metal restoration. His team replaces the suspension and braking parts and installs a new electric chassis. Buyers can fully customize their interior colors and materials, often keeping strange quirks unique to the vehicle’s history, like one Phantom with bespoke blue sun visors that clashed with the rest of the interior, Mr. Lorenz said.

1953 Jaguar XK120 and 1960 Bentley S2 Continental Flying Spur customized by Lunaz Design



“I really thought the electric car space was lacking true luxury,” Mr. Lorenz said, by which he means old-world European luxury: cars that convey an air of stratospheric wealth and unparalleled refinement.

The real star of the transformation is the electric powertrain, which is developed entirely in-house, unlike at other EV conversion companies. To do this, Lunaz Design secured talent from across the industry, including Jon Hilton, former technical chief of Renault F1 and an engineer who helped bring hybrid power to Le Mans racing. Other team members came from brands like McLaren and Cosworth. The cars can achieve 250 to 300 miles of range depending on the battery and setup, on par with any Tesla, and are capable of home charging and rapid public charging.

What happens when a classic car loses a gasoline engine? Mr. Lorenz said his goal is to preserve the old-school feel but build his machines with vastly more-potent acceleration. The Rolls-Royces run more silently than ever. “Henry Royce, if he could have, would’ve built electric Rolls-Royces,” Mr. Lorenz said.

1964 Corvette Stingray Convertible customized by EV West in San Marcos, Calif.


EV West

In America, California leads the charge for EV conversions. As green as the state is, it’s also the birthplace of the hot rod, so it’s a natural fit for conversion pioneers.

EV West, in San Marcos, Calif., has been responsible for a number of noteworthy EV projects, like an electric streamliner that recently set a speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Founder Michael Bream said modern EV swaps were initially driven by the high gas prices of the 2000s, but his shop wanted to focus on performance. Tesla’s reputation for neck-snapping 0-60 mph times helped change the conversation, too. Today, buyers are after speed, reliability and ease of use. Owners get the look and feel of daily driving a classic, without having to scavenge for rare parts or perform delicate valve adjustments.

A starter EV West conversion, Mr. Bream said, runs about $20,000. His company’s popularity has grown exponentially, and his calendar is now booked for the next few years. Much of its business today is supplying parts so other shops can do such work. “We became that super-good restaurant,” Mr. Bream said. “People call up for a reservation and we say, ‘How’s 2025 looking for you?’”

Zelectric’s EV Microbus mods are powered by Tesla parts.



David Benardo, CEO of Zelectric Motors, a San Diego company that converts classic Volkswagens and early


s, is also working hard to meet demand. “We have 2021 deposits in hand already for double the number of cars of 2020,” he said.

Zelectric’s modified Beetles, Microbuses and Porsche 356s use refurbished Tesla components to achieve between 100 to 180 miles of range. Mr. Benardo said his swaps start at around $70,000, and buying a modified, “turnkey car” can go for much more. Most of his clients are new to classic car ownership, he said, and more than half are women.

Mr. Bream said his goal is to make driving “guilt-free,” to allow drivers today and tomorrow the ability to go flat out through a chicane without feeling bad because their vintage car was belching smog.

“In my drive home from work, at the end of the day, when I’m just beaten down…I have this one little bit of joy,” he said of taking a drive in his 190SL. “I didn’t want that to be taken away from me.”

All three shop owners described their work as future-proofing: making sure classic cars can be driven and enjoyed after the fossil fuel era is over. “I want to see them on the road 60 years from now,” Mr. Lorenz said. Perhaps Luna has a shot at that ’57 Mercedes after all—just without the gasoline.

POWER PLAYERS / A peak under the hood of two classic EV swaps



Rolls-Royce Phantom V

Lunaz Design in Silverstone, U.K.

Model Year 1961

Price From about $650,000

Drivetrain 120 kWh lithium-ion battery pack, single proprietary electric motor, rear-wheel drive

Power/Torque 375 horsepower, 516 pound-feet of torque

Electric Range 300 miles

Charging Home and public fast charging; from 20 to 80 percent in 30 minutes

Modern updates Infotainment system, WiFi, navigation, climate control



Volkswagen Beetle Ragtop Conversion

Zelectric Motors in San Diego

Model Year 1960

Price From $68,000 for base conversion costs

Drivetrain 27 kWh lithium-ion battery, 3-Phase 65KW AC Motor, rear-wheel drive

Power/Torque 102 horsepower, 100 pound-feet of torque

Electric Range 100-180 miles

Charging 3 hours to full on a 220v Level-2 charger

Modern updates Regen braking, LED headlamps, digital power gauge

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