In 1958, a now-iconic Rolls-Royce advert promised passengers that, despite its eight-cylinder aluminum engine, the loudest noise would be its electric clock.
Six decades later, modern technology is making good on that promise. “Henry Royce built those cars to be silent,” says David Lorenz, founder of luxury auto shop Lunaz. “Now, we can make that happen.”
It’s not magic – it’s electric.
Founded in 2018, in Silverstone, England, Lunaz specializes in electric engine conversions of high-end classic cars, from a six-seat Rolls-Royce Phantom to James Bond’s favorite, the Aston Martin DB5. It’s one of a growing number of businesses providing this kind of service.
Lorenz says electric engines can make classic cars low-maintenance and user-friendly to “preserve these cars for future generations.”
Why convert your classic car?
Electric vehicles, or EVs, offer a variety of benefits, says Dominic Dattero-Snell, an engineering PhD researcher at Cardiff University with expertise in sustainable transport. With no tailpipe emissions, EVs are less polluting and cheaper to refuel than petrol or diesel cars.
But according to 2018 analysis from UK non-profit Zemo, while a new EV will produce overall lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions than a petrol car over its lifetime, manufacturing can account for anywhere between 20% to 95% of the emissions associated with an electric vehicle (depending on the source of electricity). A 2021 report from the non-profit International Council of Clean Transportation says that overall EV manufacturing in Europe for a medium-sized car creates two metric tons more in CO2 equivalent than manufacturing a conventional car.
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Converting an existing vehicle bypasses manufacturing, and upcycling old cars is a more efficient use of resources, says Dattero-Snell. “Not having to extract new raw materials in the production of a mostly new, functional vehicle is a huge win,” he adds.
A luxury upgrade
In addition to replacing the combustion engine with its own electric powertrain, built in-house, Lunaz strips the car for a full “nut and bolt restoration” which rebuilds the car with modern amenities to the client’s specification.
While EV conversion shops are nothing new – Green Shed Conversions in Florida set up in 2006, for example, and Japan-based OZ Motors has been converting cars since 2010 – there is growing excitement around this niche industry.
“The biggest change is the amount of capital being invested into this market space,” says Lorenz, which is driving technology development and the growth of conversion companies. Lunaz has received investment from notable backers including the Barclays family, the Reuben family (reportedly among the UK’s richest families), and most recently, David Beckham, who bought a 10% stake in the company.
Its factory can convert 120 cars a year, but Lorenz hints at future expansion. Conversions of these luxury vehicles don’t come cheap, ranging from $250,000 up to more than $1 million. That hasn’t slowed business though, says Lorenz: the company is fully booked for the next year.
The ‘everyman’ conversion
While Lunaz is serving a niche, luxury market, another UK-based classic car enthusiast is searching for a more “everyman” solution to EV conversion.
Matthew Quitter converted his own 1953 Morris Minor, which inspired him to start his classic car EV conversion shop London Electric Cars in 2017.
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The 16 projects Quitter is currently working on will cost the owners from £30,000 ($41,000) to £200,000 ($275,000), but he says he would like to see that number fall to £5,000 ($6,900) to £10,000 ($13,800) to meet the demand for the “affordable conversion.”
He points to the environmental commitments countries around the world have made in recent years as a factor for surging interest. Globally, transport accounts for around 20% of CO2 emissions, and passenger road vehicles including cars and motorcycles make up 45% of that. In 2020, the UK government announced plans to phase out sales of combustion-engine vehicles within the next decade, which has made EVs more appealing to the public. At least 11 other countries have announced similar phaseout plans for sales of new combustion engine cars by 2030, with more targeting the decade after.
The appetite for EVs is demonstrated in the rapidly growing global electric car stock, which increased by 43% in 2020, even as overall car sales dropped 16%. But Quitter says that if countries are to meet their commitments to reduce emissions, buying new electric cars won’t be enough.
“If we’re going to hit these obligations of reducing our CO2 emissions by 2030, we’re going to be scrapping huge numbers of cars, because they’ve got combustion engines,” he says.
Engineering researcher Dattero-Snell agrees that EV conversion could be a “powerful alternative” to current scrappage schemes. He adds that while discussions about conversion often focus on the classic car market, the concept could be applied to a mass market.
That’s something Lunaz is already looking at – not luxury cars, but commercial vehicles, such as refuse trucks.
Many cars and industrial vehicles are discarded before they’ve completed even 10% of the mileage they were built for, which is where EV conversion can offer a solution, says Lorenz. “We can’t just scrap those vehicles. We’ve got to get out of that buy-new mentality.”
Controversies and car chases
But EV conversions aren’t an easy alternative to scrappage schemes yet, as they are expensive and can take thousands of hours.
Classic cars are the perfect test-bed for these conversions, where the benefits in terms of increased reliability and usability of the vehicles are more pronounced, and the sentimental value makes owners more likely to invest.
Still, classic car conversions aren’t without their controversies.
Some car enthusiast groups, such as the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs, believe vintage vehicles should not be upheld to the performance, roadworthiness, and environmental standards applied to modern cars.
“There will always be backlash from a segment of purists who see extensive modification as hurting the historic value of a vehicle, which I somewhat understand,” says Dattero-Snell.
For some people, EV conversions destroy the soul of a car. In the UK, classic cars comprise just 1.8% of road-registered vehicles and account for a meager 0.2% of road miles driven annually, so there’s a strong argument that these electric engine conversions make little impact on the environment.
But it’s not just the potential environmental benefits that drivers are thinking about now – it’s also about performance and perception.
Five years ago, electric powertrain manufacturer Electric GT hired California-based EV West to convert a burnt-out 1978 Ferrari 308 GTS, around the same time that Ferrari boss Sergio Marchionne famously said that an electric Ferrari would be “obscene.” The conversion was a world first, and in 2018, beat the original model on a track test by 10 seconds, proving that not only could electric cars be as good as gasoline, but potentially even better.
Lunaz also wants to enhance the driving experience from all angles. Owners often have sentimental attachments to their motors, and for Lorenz, the aesthetic beauty of classic cars “will never be replicated in a modern vehicle.” But making old cars easier to use and maintain is essential for their longevity, he says, adding: “Once you go electric, you don’t go back.”