Classics cars fitted with electric engines, seat heaters, air conditioning and power steering. To some petrol heads it’s hand-over-the-mouth sacrilege. To others, it’s the ultimate in automotive luxury
In the chequered history of portmanteaus,“restomod” has to be one of the less successful examples — it’s definitely no “brunch” — but the restored and modified car scene it describes has been going from strength to strength in recent years.
The concept is pretty alluring: take a vintage car and all the great things that go with it— looks, backstory, rarity; and add the best of modern driving — comfort, eco-friendliness, not breaking down every time you drive it.
There’s nothing intrinsically new in modernising old cars but there is in the scale and slickness of some of the operations involved, epitomised by the super high-end (and expensive) “re-imaginings” of Nineties Porsche 911s undertaken by Singer in California but now filtering down to almost any beloved classic you can think of.
In a corner of this field is a newer crop, where past and present collide to even more dramatic effect — electrified restomods. Here, the guts of the original car are ripped out entirely and transplanted with electric motors, batteries and circuitry.
It’s currently a micro-niche being served by several specialist start-ups, though Aston Martin has also spotted the opportunity, tasking its Works team with the job of producing an all-electric DB6 MkII Volante, available for £1.3m a pop.
Unsurprisingly, demand is on the rise, as the electric tipping point nears and buyers increasingly look for something that can legitimately be called unique. To some vintage petrol heads, such a practice is hand-over-the-mouth sacrilege, but for Martijn van Dijk, co-founder of Voitures Extravert in the Netherlands, which specialises in electrifying vintage Porsche 911s, these are precisely the people he wants to position against.
“With respect, typically they are old, grey, bald men who spend the winter getting their classic car ready for summer,” he says. “While at the same time there are lots of younger people, women, that would never buy a classic car because of all the vulnerabilities — the oil that’s spilling on the pavement, not being able to drive them into city centres, stuff like that— but who like the design and the whole story around it.”
One of several reasons van Dijk decided to focus on the 911 was because he wanted people to be shocked about the lack of engine noise when they came across such a familiar car. Another reason is the car’s enduring popularity, the fact that the 911 is arguably the quintessential sports car; important for a start-up looking for orders. They are also still relatively plentiful and didn’t change fundamentally between 1964 and 1989, making the engineering, or “transplanting”, more consistent.
The cars he focuses on are second generation 911s, mainly from the Eighties, sourced through a supplier, which his team faithfully restores before conducting “the horrific part”— the engine and powertrain transplant. Fitting everything into such a small car and then ensuring that it drives well is challenging, but the hardest part is integrating the old and new to avoid creating a “Frankenstein’s monster”.
Behind the scenes, everything is digitised, controlled by a computer system that Voitures Extravert developed itself, while on the frontend, the experience is kept as original as possible. Customers can choose between a Sixties or Eighties spec, selecting from original or bespoke colours and trims.
Original, with benefits. Modern luxuries include seat heaters, air conditioning and power steering, plus some neat touches like an LED strip on the rear window which doubles as rear lights and indicators when driving, and a battery-life bar when you’re at the charging station. The biggest difference from the original isn’t the climate control but the torque. What van Dijk calls “never-ending power, available whenever you want it, not just at the lights.” Its 60kWh lithium-ion battery pulls it from0–100kmh in less than six seconds, and the quoted range is an ample 400km.
The typical customer, says van Dijk, whose own background is in economics and marketing, tends to be an entrepreneur looking for something that stands out. A uniqueness that is certainly helped by the €300,000 price, most of which goes on the restoration. Customers need to stump up a 50 per cent down payment to place an order, waiting a very acceptable six months for their new wheels to arrive. “This is what the guy who drove a Tesla seven years ago is driving,” he says.
The resulting car, exquisitely finished to original spec is like a time machine — but one that travels forward and back at the same time. Orders for what he is calling the “Quintessenza” are coming from all over the world, and before the Covid-19 pandemic at least, the firm had been scaling up every year.
In California, the heart of both the restomod scene and the electric vehicle industry, Zero Labs is another start-up centring its attentions on a much-loved classic in plentiful supply: the first-generation Ford Bronco.
At its HQ in Hawthorne, Los Angeles, just a 15-minute walk from Elon Musk’s SpaceXHQ and the Tesla Design Center, the company takes out-of-condition Broncos from between 1966–’77 and rebuilds them from the ground up to an astonishing level of detail, both inside and out. The results are not only unexpectedly beautiful but customers ultimately receive a car that can switch between the roles of luxury SUV, capable off-roader, reliable EV and remastered classic.
“Honour the past, without impact to the future,” says founder and CEO, Adam Roe, a former ad man, who has set up a Cali-cultured team of engineers, designers and even artists, whose aim is to remake 150 Broncos, with prices starting at $185,000.
“EV manufacturers don’t have a classic past, and OEMs [Original Equipment Manufacturers] are too busy trying to be Tesla,” says Roe.“We are an answer to this space between.”
The company has plans to add a new “beloved” vintage car to its production schedule each year. Voitures Extravert would also like to branch out from 911s once it becomes more established. “Can you imagine a beautiful, early Seventies Land Rover, for example?” says van Dijk. “People would kill and die for it.”
Up the road in north Los Angeles, Electric GT is working on a Defender 110 right now.But this operation is approaching electric restomods in a slightly different way. It began when founder Eric Hutchinson took a burned-out Ferrari 308 GTS — the model that Tom Selleck drove in Magnum, PI — and rebuilt it as an electric car. It later featured on Top Gear USA, where “the Stig hit 165mph in fourth gear and ran out of pavement.” In terms of lap times, the electric version “decimated” its petrol equivalent.
Adding a restored Fiat 124 Spider as its first flagship restoration and conversion for a customer in The Bahamas, Hutchinson and partner Brock Winberg have since focused on developing an off-the-shelf “crate” motor, a full electric ecosystem that they say can be directly transplanted into any car made pre-1990 and can be installed in roughly 50 hours. “So when we send it to the guy who’s going to convert that car,” Hutchinson says, “it has everything down to the last bracket, nut and bolt bushing. That’s our business model.”
His clients are now mainly autoshops and restomod operations, who are increasingly being asked by their own customers, “What’s your electric option?”
“Once you get into the car, it changes your perspective,” says Hutchinson. Unlike with a traditional vintage car, “You don’t have to throttle, you don’t have to warm it up, you don’t have to baby it — you drive it everywhere you go and it puts a smile on your face.” Performance is one big draw, another is reliability. Good electric systems require very little upkeep, are cheap to run, and problems can be diagnosed quickly. Beautiful, fast, reliable, characterful: the case for electric restomods is strong enough even before we mention the combustion engine’s emissions, environmental impact and the plain fact that its days are already numbered. Vintage purists may abhor them, but these EV conversions could be the key to the survival of classic car culture.
“Of course [the environmental benefit] is really important,” says van Dijk. “But also, we love the design of classic cars. We hate the fact that they are vulnerable and that lots of people can’t enjoy them like they want. And now they can.”
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