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Electric Vehicles

How to Turn Any Old Car Into an EV

All you’ll need is thousands of dollars and some elbow grease.

A woman charging a Mustang.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

When Adam Roe hits the accelerator and sends his vintage Land Rover flying past a Porsche, he likes to imagine what the other driver must be thinking.

While Roe’s ride looks the part of a restored Land Rover Series II, an off-roading, unbreakable icon from the late 1950s, the secret is what’s under the skin. Whereas the original bruiser produced about 45 total horsepower, Roe says, the “restomod” created by his company, ZeroLabs, is a fully electric vehicle with 600 horses — more than enough to catch a sports car by surprise.

Being a classic car enthusiast doesn’t have to mean burning fossil fuels anymore. ZeroLabs is part of a small but growing community of startup companies and DIYers who are transforming some of the most beloved vehicles of automotive history into zero-emissions EVs. The next time you see a beautifully restored boxy Chevy Blazer rolling down the highway, it might just be battery-powered.

Patrick Mackey has been turning vintage Mazda Miatas into electric cars for more than a decade. Back in the 2000s, he wanted a fun but fully electric car like the original Tesla Roadster, but couldn’t afford what Elon Musk was asking. When he looked around at the kind of cars the DIY-inclined were hacking into EVs, he thought about small rides like the Toyota Yaris and Honda De La Soul. But it was the classic Miata — derided by muscle-heads as too wimpy, but beloved by car enthusiasts who recognize its compact greatness — that became the obvious choice.

“The Miatas have a great reputation for handling,” Mackey says. “They sold a ton of ‘em, so there’s a lot of ‘em out there and you can get one for a reasonable price.” Despite its small stature, the Miata was a sturdy car, with thick frame rails that are strong enough to hold a hefty EV battery back. (Mazda itself won’t be selling you an electric Miata until 2026, by the way.)

Initially, Mackey and his colleagues considered building their own EV conversions and selling them directly to people, like ZeroLabs does, or making kits to sell that would contain all the parts a person would need to turn a gas-powered Miata into an electric one. But the steel parts weighed a ton and wouldn’t fit inside one another for shipping, rendering the idea impractical.

Instead, Mackey’s EV Miata website offers all the plans and fabrication documents a home mechanic would need to take on the job. It’s up to the builder to source the off-the-shelf electrical components to do the job, or, perhaps, to salvage them from a wrecked EV as many DIYers do now, he says.

Blueprint for engine rack.Courtesy of EV-Miata.com

A surprising amount of the original Miata parts can survive the transformation. “You would keep the transmission and everything behind it, so that part of the powertrain you keep. You’d replace the motor with an adapter plate to connect the motor up to it. Then there’s the battery pack and the controller and all those E components come into play. But in that case, the majority of the car is there. If you are going racing, or you’re looking for something with higher performance, you could remove the transmission and then do a direct drive and have two or three motors that are driving the rear wheels.” Or, he says, some people are doing what’s called a stack replacement. They get a Nissan Leaf’s entire subframe, containing the axles and transmission and motors, and swap that into their EV conversion so it’s running on all Leaf parts.

Car restoration has always been a money pit of a hobby. EV conversion is no different — you do it for love, not because it’s cheaper than just buying an electric car. Mackey says the EV Miata project probably costs about $22,000 now, not counting the cost of buying an old Mazda nor the sweat equity required to build it.

Nevertheless, plenty of people with the proper mechanical chops take on the challenge. At Caltech, where I work (and where lots of people are electrical engineers), there’s a vintage Porsche often plugged in next to me that was clearly hacked into an electric. With enough cash, you could buy a kit to convert just about any classic car into an EV.

And the DIY EV is just one end of the spectrum. On the far side lies fully realized conversions like those by ZeroLabs, which specializes in not just electrifying, but modernizing Ford Broncos and other beloved SUVs of yore.

A classic Bronco turned EV.Courtesy of ZeroLabs.

“A restoration is to say, hey, we’re going to put this back to the original condition exactly as it would’ve been, which means no Bluetooth, no three-point seat belts. You got to use radial tires, you got to put on whitewalls. You got to use period-correct paint and AM radio and [an] ashtray. That’s a restoration. That’s not what we’re doing.”

Roe was inspired by a backcountry snowboarding trip when the engine on his old Bronco cut out, a problem that plagued the old SUVs. As it coasted silently, he fell in love with the idea of a classic car without all the noise. “You could hear the winds, you could hear the tires, you’re in your classic, but you’re also kind of with nature versus being hidden by this loud rumbly loud noise engine with your stereo,” he says.

In place of their original bare-bones interiors, ZeroLab’s reimagined EV trucks and SUVs have all the tech features of a modern vehicle. “We looked at everything that needs to be done for a modern car: How do we think about steering, how do we think about brakes, communication, upgradeability, and charging rates? All of that has changed, and so simply electrifying that car isn't really enough.”

Their creations aren’t for the faint of wallet. The fully realized ZeroLabs first-generation Bronco starts at nearly $300,000. But it seems there are plenty of wealthy buyers looking for a boxy, retro, or just plain eccentric electric car that doesn’t look anything like the production EVs now rolling off the assembly line. Roe exudes optimism that EV restomods will have their Tesla moment within the next couple of years — and the EVs that are old on the outside and new on the inside will be the next big thing.

Andrew Moseman profile image

Andrew Moseman

Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles.

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