OCEANSIDE, California — The workshop is small and in a complex of identical buildings, many of which house other small businesses. Across the alley, a mechanic wrenches on a pretty serious-looking off-road buggy; a few doors down, another shop houses several interesting cars, including a classic Ferrari undergoing restoration. But here, something different happens. You can tell by the charge cord plugged into a 1964 Volkswagen Type 2 (more commonly known as the Microbus), and a ’60 VW Beetle Convertible is driving into a parking space without its signature flat-four rasping away.
Out of the Beetle climbs a grinning David Benardo, Zelectric’s founder and CEO. Benardo was an air-cooled Volkswagen guy before he was an electric car guy; his childhood neighbor transformed VW Beetles into Meyers Manx-style dune buggies. Benardo, too, went through a succession of old VWs while working as creative director for various ad agencies and tech companies. A decade ago he heard about EV conversions for old Porsches and VWs and became interested in converting his Microbus, which led him to several companies offering EV conversion kits. None satisfied him.
“The components that we’re using here have had enough time to evolve into things that are dependable,” Benardo says. “Back then, it was all-new technology, and it didn’t have a track record. I didn’t want to be a guinea pig.”
Years later, Benardo and his wife moved to California from the East Coast and bought a black ’66 Beetle. Again, an EV conversion was on his mind, and conversations with Matt Hauber, co-founder of electric-vehicle supplies business EV West, convinced him the technology was finally available to do a proper electric conversion. Benardo’s relationship with Hauber led to a partnership of sorts, and the latter sold his half of EV West to form Stealth EV. The majority of his current business is supplying and installing electric powertrains for Zelectric.
“You can leave the exterior lights on for weeks before the battery goes dead.”
Zelectric specializes in selling ready-to-drive EVs, no assembly required. The process typically starts with Benardo hunting down the latest conversion subject. Right now there are several future VW EVs lurking in different locations. Two are in Benardo’s home garage, and a 21-window Microbus is stashed at a local air-cooled VW specialist. A VW Thing destined to receive a 180-hp electric motor is sitting in Hauber’s shop, along with a Porsche 914 (one of Stealth EV’s side projects). A search is underway for a larger building to call headquarters.
Once a usable subject is found, the powertrain is pulled and the engineless car gets a new transmission, disc brakes, a rebuilt and modified suspension, and a full cosmetic refurbishment, courtesy of local specialist shops. Battery boxes are built to fit several locations, typically under the rear seat, in the front trunk, or both. When the car is ready for its new electric heart, Hauber goes to work installing the motor and lithium-ion phosphate batteries, then wires up the complete system, including transducers in the brake circuit to activate regenerative braking. Range is said to be 70 to 80 miles for most vehicles, and the recharge time on 220-volt power is about eight hours. Although the electric motor is a couple hundred pounds lighter than the stock engine, the batteries weigh about 500 pounds, raising the vehicle’s weight slightly.
Other considerations are given to the conversion from liquid fuel to electric power: A dash gauge shows the battery-charge percentage, and all vehicle lighting, inside and out, is via efficient LEDs. “You can leave the exterior lights on for weeks before the battery goes dead,” says Benardo. The charge port resides behind what was previously the fuel filler door, and the batteries for the Microbus I’m about to drive are built into the base of a custom second-row bench seat. Importantly, Benardo knows that even though millions of classic VWs were built, the company is not making more of them. To that end, all of Zelectric’s modifications are completely reversible, save for a couple small holes in the rear floorpan that allow cables to pass between batteries and motor.
It’s finally time to hit the road in the green and white first-generation Microbus glimmering behind the shop. After hoisting myself up into the driver’s seat, it’s quickly apparent that in the event of a frontal collision, I am the crumple zone. Only a steering column and the thin sheetmetal that is the Bus’ front end separates me from whatever it might collide with. Meanwhile, the front windows are about 8 inches too short to see much of what’s above and ahead—like traffic signals—but they do swing open to give some airflow through the cabin on a warm day in Southern California.
Turning the key and being met with silence instead of that classic VW sound is odd, but the low growl from the stock reduction gearing is something of a substitute. The overall noise level is still nowhere near as loud as a combustion-engined Microbus. With some 80 horsepower and 120 lb-ft of torque, the Bus moves cleanly away from a stop in third gear. Add people, stuff, and hills into the mix and you might want to start in first, but because first is such a low gear it is almost never needed in normal driving. In fact, around town the need to shift at all is pretty rare (third will take you from 0 to roughly 80 mph), but you can shift exactly as you would in a conventional Bus, with long, vague throws from the spindly lever. The clutch is a stock VW unit, and the transmission mates right up to the flywheel on the electric motor. In reality, the transmission just acts as a torque selector: Calm getaways are easy in third, and long burnouts seem entirely possible in first.
There are virtually no rattles or squeaks while on the move, and the Microbus actually rides pretty comfortably thanks in part to its refreshed suspension. Steering can be a bit heavy at low speeds—Benardo is investigating electric power-steering systems—and the brakes require a bit more distance to stop than does a modern car, despite the upgrade to four-wheel discs. Make no mistake, the Zelectric conversion doesn’t remove the Bus’ classic charm. In fact, you could argue that it’s more engaging considering the increase in power over the stock 51-hp engine.
We’re headed to the beach because our photographer insists this is where you shoot a classic VW Bus—with a surfboard stashed inside. He’s not wrong, and the Bus gets plenty of attention as we cruise down Oceanside’s coastal streets. Whether many folks know about the electric conversion, despite the doorless engine compartment, is anybody’s guess, but most of the waving and traffic-light conversation simply revolves around the Bus itself. “What year is it?” “It’s just like the one my buddy had in high school.” And so on.
As time marches forward, questions about the future of the classic car hobby become not just more varied, but also more urgent. Will we live to see a day that gasoline-powered cars are banned from our roads? What happens when all the mechanics who grew up tuning carburetors retire or die? The latter is already happening, which you already know if you own a car built prior to the 1980s.
Electric conversions won’t be for purists, and they do remove much of the sounds and smells that endear many to classic Volkswagen—and other brand—ownership, but they do solve many problems for a niche group of enthusiasts. “The charm of that sputtering, rackety engine has been fun for the last several decades,” Benardo admits, “but we think not having to run around with bailing wire and duct tape is a big improvement.” Electric powertrains also don’t mind sitting inactive as much as gasoline engines do, making them ideal for those with less time to drive their classic car or who leave them parked at vacation homes.
Indeed, it seems entirely plausible that Zelectric should branch out into other marques, but Benardo says Volkswagens are the focus for now. The reason is simple. “Everything is available,” Benardo reminds me. “Turn signal lenses, chrome trim, pretty much everything you see outside of the car, you can get.” Porsche 356 Speedster replicas and other air-cooled, VW-based cars provide alternatives if standard Volkswagens aren’t your thing.
Today the lead time for your very own Zelectric vehicle is around four months, and conversions start at roughly $58,000 plus the cost of the vehicle. That’s not cheap, but for a forward-thinking classic car enthusiast, it may be worth every penny.
1964 Volkswagen Microbus w/ Zelectric conversion Specifications
|Price:||$58,000 (as tested) (plus cost of donor vehicle)|
|Engine:||80 hp/120 lb-ft electric motor|
|Layout:||3-door, 8-passenger, rear-engine, RWD van|
|Range:||70-80 miles (est)|
|L x W x H:||168.5 x 68.9 x 75.8 in|
|Weight:||2,700 lb (est)|
|0-60 MPH:||8.0 sec (est)|
|Top Speed:||100 mph (est)|
Yes So Fast
Automotive enthusiasts might not automatically celebrate EVs, which still carry a stigma in the eyes of some. However, the technology can help satiate our need for speed as much as it addresses fuel-consumption concerns, and some manufacturers already produce, and others plan to produce, EVs capable of thrilling drivers:
Rimac Automobili Concept_One
The Croatian-built car features four electric motors that develop LaFerrari-fighting 1,088 hp and 1,180 lb-ft of torque. It needs just 2.6 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 62 mph, with a theoretical
top speed of 221 mph.
NanoFlowcell Quant FE
NanoFlowcell’s entry delivers Lamborghini-like stunning looks. Its energy-generation system uses two ionic fluids stored in 66-gallon tanks that transmit power through a generator into a 70-kWh battery to produce more than 1,075 hp. The Quant FE will hit 62 mph in 2.8 seconds.
This three-wheeler is recognizable instantly, but gone is the gasoline-powered, 116-hp S&S V-twin in favor of a 46-kW electric drivetrain.
Porsche Mission E
Porsche is investing more than a billion euros to bring this one to reality. The fully electric sport sedan will feature all-wheel drive and develop 600 hp from dual electric motors. It should hit 60 mph in 3.5 seconds and be able to travel 310 miles per charge.