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Classics with a plug

It is OK to make an oldtimer electric.

“Classics should not become museum pieces.”


On the road there is no greater contrast than between an electric car and an oldtimer. Electric cars are astonishing by their technology, classic cars by their beauty. Car enthusiasts with a hint of nostalgia fear that classics will disappear from the streets. This is not only due to the electrical revolution. As classic cars become rare and prices are steadily rising, they are increasingly seen as an investment that must remain protected inside. It is therefore not surprising that enthusiasts and experts dream of combining the best of two worlds: a classic car with an electric drivetrain, in which you can hit the road every day.

When Henk Reins drives out the 1971 Citroën DS from his garage, only the grit of gravel under the tires can be heard. In the interior, everything looks and feels as you would expect from a lovingly maintained classic. There is one exception: an LCD display shows the car's battery capacity.

A little later we drive over the deserted dikes of the Zeeland island Tholen. “I use it every day”, says Reins while he is driving quietly. He rebuilt his vintage car himself. The electric drive system increases the already much acclaimed comfort of the DS. Without engine noise, the feeling of floating on the road is stronger than ever before. A revolutionary design from the fifties with 21st-century propulsion feels surprisingly logical.

Reins, who loved Citroën's technology and seating comfort, had previously refurbished a DS stationcar and converted another DS into a pick-up. The idea of making an electric version of his favorite car arose in the plexiglass factory where he worked as Head of Technical Department. The company had to dispose of an emergency power supply of 33 batteries. He thought: would they fit into a car? He bought another DS that was ready for demolition. “The restoration took me two years. Everything I did apart from the upholstery myself, up to and including the welding and spraying work”. The installation of the electric drive system took another three quarters of a year. He could use his wife's farm barn. On their yard he could do to test rides without any problems before the car had been inspected and was allowed to enter the public road.

Much attention at the charging station

There were problems however - the first thing he solved was to keep the famous hypnopneumatic suspension working, which causes the Citroën to rise before departure. Tightly concealed in a plexiglass housing underneath the bonnet and clogged in the rear seat are 60 lithium batteries of a fireproof type. There are three electric chargers in the trunk which make it possible to fully charge the battery pack in three hours. “I draw a lot of attention at the charging station”, says Reins. At the place where the fuel filler cap once was located, behind the original cover, there is now a modern plug connector. Long journeys are achievable with the right planning. The longest distance I have travelled on one single battery charge is 200 kilometers, from Zeeland to Zutphen.

The cost of transforming a classic into an electric car that can be used every day is considerable. Reins spent 25,000 euros on spare parts, in addition to the cost of its restored DS, which was estimated at 46,000 euros. On top of that come all the hours he invested in his project. When you multiply these hours with a realistic wage you arrive at an amount for which you can easily buy a new electric car. “Commercially, car conversions are not attractive. You have to be a bit disturbed to do this. An oldtimer, also an electric one, you shouldn't drive with the expectation that you're driving cheaply. You can't stand up against a Nissan Leaf who comes straight from the factory and for which you also receive a subsidy.”

Vintage cars converted

Is electrification of classic cars really not a viable business? In San Diego in the United States, the company Zelectric Motors has been converting vintage Volkswagen van buses and Volkswagen Kevers into electric cars since 2012. From a small office in the centre of Utrecht, two Dutch entrepreneurs are working on a similar plan.

Martijn van Dijk and Jurgen Moerman van Voitures extravert focus on one undeniable classic: the Porsche 911. Their idea is to set up a production line for electric ‘elfers’ on order. “We have spoken to many classic drivers”, says Van Dijk. “There is a deeply rooted desire to be able to order their favorite classic as if it were a new car. And then with zero kilometers on the counter, for the first time on the road”.

Moerman used to work at Mercedes-Benz and Van Dijk has a background as a marketeer. With an industrial approach, they want to draw electrification of classics away from hobbyism. “Our goal is to let customers choose a car from that era again. With upholstery, counters and meters of the original model. But without the petrol engine. Electric propulsion is superior to internal combustion engines”, says Moerman. “We want to put a car back on the road that can last another fifty years. Classics should not become museum pieces that nobody dares driving in anymore”.

Van Dijk recently made a ride in a Porsche 911 which had already been equipped with electric propulsion in the 1990s. “It was a 1968 donor car that had been drained off on the inside of the car. The operation of the car was very amateurish. We want to do this completely different”. A donor car is a second-hand car whose chassis serves as the basis for converting it into electric. How a car feels and rides must fit its appearance. A Tesla-like' ludicrous mode' in which you accelerate pruning hard may not fit to a model from the sixties. Finding the right balance is an endless series of decisions on every detail: from the choice of the right switches to the stitching of the chairs. What, for example, will replace the tachometer, which you do not need for electric propulsion?

Moerman introduced the automotive industry to the idea of 'assembly to order': wanting to keep the standard parts needed for an electric Porsche in stock as much as possible in order to keep the delivery time under control. We are not going to transform cars that are already in the possession of customers, but buy donor cars that meet our requirements. There are plenty of them available: of the models we want, built between the late sixties and late eighties, around 150,000 are still driving around the world. And a torn dashboard, broken engine or an unusable gearbox are no problem for us, because we don't have to build a 100 percent original car.

Voitures extravert works together with a German specialist that disassembles a donor car completely, strips the car body bare and makes it anti-corrosion and then partially builds it up with original Porsche parts, such as brakes and running gear. The electric drive is then installed in this restored hull. Battery packs come in front of and behind, for good weight distribution. “911's with an internal combustion engine have always been out of balance", says Moerman. “Even die-hard 911 enthousiasts conceded us that the car was actually running like crap. Only with a full gas tank there is enough pressure on the front wheels”. According to the entrepreneurs, their electric version might have better driving characteristics than the original one.

An additional reason to choose for transforming a Porsche 911 is the status of this model in the market for classics. Prices of more than €200K for a specimen in perfect condition are no exception. Will the electric 911 soon convince even the largest Porsche purist? The glossy brochures have already been designed. The prototype that is currently being worked on will be on its way at the beginning of next year at the earliest.

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