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Electric dreams: Vintage cars ripe for EV conversion

About the author

Editor of BBC Autos, Matthew is a former editor at Automobile Magazine and the creator of the digital-only Roadtrip Magazine. His automotive and travel writing has appeared in such magazines as Wired, Popular Science, The Robb Report and Caribbean Travel + Life. He lives in Los Angeles with his wonderful wife and four-year-old daughter.

 

  • Vintage cars, electric dreams

    Prompted by the efforts of San Diego, California-based Zelectric Motors, which plans to offer “investment-grade” classic Volkswagen Beetles converted to 100% electric power, BBC Autos has picked a passel of gasoline-powered vintage cars that are prime candidates for EV conversion. (Pictured: Fiat X1/9; Fiat Group)

  • 1973-79 Lamborghini Urraco

    Despite a gorgeous shape penned by Marcello Gandini, father of the more famous Miura and Countach, the Lamborghini Urraco was – like all modestly powerful, relatively affordable four-seat grand tourers from automakers better known for ferociously fast, comically expensive two-seat supercars —born an also-ran. The company built 791 examples over six years, with mid-mounted 2-, 2.5- and 3-litre V8 engines respectively producing 180, 217 and 247 horsepower. Discard the greasy bits and the fuel tank, and the Urraco would neatly accommodate EV hardware. (Automobili Lamborghini)

    Runner up: 1973-80 Ferrari GT4 Another mid-engine 2+2 with a pretty face and ho-hum performance, this Bertone-styled wallflower would make a stellar EV.

  • 1975-81 Triumph TR7

    Futuristically styled but famously unreliable, the TR7, whether in coupe or convertible form, is undeniably ripe for EV conversion. There is plenty of space within that mighty wedge to install EV hardware, and no one is likely to lament the loss of the TR7’s 2-litre in-line four-cylinder engine, which in the US version produced a wheezing 92hp. And because Triumph built more than 112,000 coupes and some 29,000 convertibles during the TR7’s six-year run, one is never more than a mouse-click away. Admittedly, finding a running example can be a challenge, but that does not matter for this exercise, does it? (Triumph Motor Company)

    Runner up: 1970-74 Saab Sonett III Sports-car looks could not offset the letdown of the piddling 65hp V4 engine. Saab’s sad-sack Sonett III was the last and, with some 8,400 cars build during a four-year run, the most plentiful of its breed.

  • 1968-82 Chevrolet Corvette

    Through no fault of its own, the third-generation Corvette was something of a joke. Hobbled by ever more stringent emissions laws, America’s sports car became increasingly unable to reconcile its dramatic looks with speed to match. The nadir came in 1980 with the debut of the “California” Corvette, which supplanted the standard 350-cubic-inch V8 with a very sub-standard 305-cubic-inch lump producing an embarrassing 180hp (and only slightly less carbon monoxide). But there is hope for the C3: Lose the 305 and its three-speed automatic fun-killer, and make room for a big bank of lithium-ion batteries and a suitably fearsome electric motor. (General Motors)

    Runner up: 1971-91 De Tomaso Pantera Keep the voluptuous, Italian-made body, ditch the glug-glug-glug American V8 engine. The Tom Tjaarda-designed Pantera was born to be an electric supercar.

  • 1972-82 Fiat X1/9

    Fiat delivered some 140,000 of these Bertone-designed beauties between 1972-82, and Bertone itself pick up production until 1989, building another 20,000. Four decades on, X-1/9s that have managed to avoid the ravages of rust still look sharp. Like the Porsche 914, however, Italy’s little wedge was not particularly quick. That can be remedied. (Fiat Group)

    Runner up: 1968-73 Opel GT A petite sports coupe derived from Europe’s Opel Kadett B compact car, the GT was, despite its rakish profile, no autobahn-burner. In the US, the GT’s 1.9-litre engine produced a less-than-whopping 83 horsepower, exactly 83 good reasons to swap it out.

  • 1969-76 Porsche 914

    Porsche purists are quite vocal in their disapproval of this Volkswagen-Porsche joint effort – that is, they were until the debut of the Cayenne SUV in 2002, which gave them something else to lambast. But 40-odd years after its debut, the targa-topped 914 remains a handsome, if not exactly scintillating, piece of Teutonic engineering and, thanks to its mid-engine layout, a prime candidate for EV conversion. Few will lament the liberation of a 914’s VW-derived flat four-cylinder engine, which never cracked the 100hp mark in seven years of production, despite displacement bumps from 1679cc to 1795cc and 1971cc. (Let’s agree to leave the rarer and more valuable six-cylinder 914/6 out of this discussion.) And thanks again to that Teutonic engineering and vigorous factory output (VW and Porsche built nearly 119,000 of the little roadsters), there remains an impressive population of survivors. (Porsche Cars)

    Runner up: 1965-69 Porsche 912 Yes, the four-cylinder 912 looks like a six-cylinder 911. But it isn’t.

  • 1997, 1999-2002 Plymouth/Chrysler Prowler

    Loudly derided by the motoring press when it debuted as a production model for the 1997 model year (the spitting image of the 1993 concept car of the same name), the retro-mod Prowler nonetheless was a dazzling piece of Americana. The Prowler’s real downer was its engine – the same 3.5-litre V6 found beneath the ordinary hoods of such sedans as the Chrysler Concorde and Dodge Intrepid. The Prowler was assembled by hand using plenty of lightweight aluminium bits and advanced construction techniques, which helped keep the curb weight well below 3,000 pounds. Chrysler built close to 12,000 Prowlers during its five-year production run. Bonus: Find an original “Prowler trailer” – a $5,000 option that was intended to make up for the car’s lack of a trunk – and load it with an auxiliary battery pack. (Chrysler Group)

    Runner up: 1988-91 Buick Reatta Sure, this slick two-seater deserved better than the stalwart 3.8-litre V6 that powered its front wheels, but there is a more compelling reason to build an electric Reatta. The car was produced at General Motors’ Lansing Craft Center, the same factory that between 1997-99 built – wait for it – the General Motors EV1.

  • 1976-90 Aston Martin Lagonda

    Stylist William Towns’ radical “folded-paper” design for this expansive (and expensive) sedan is polarising, but love it or loath it, the Lagonda’s star power is undeniable. Unfortunately, there are other aspects of the car that are equally undeniable. The electrical system, including a very groovy digital instrument cluster, was reliably unreliable, and the powertrain, comprised of a 5.3-litre carbureted V8 matched to a three-speed Chrysler TorqueFlite automatic transmission, was staggeringly thirsty. Aston Martin built a scant 645 Lagondas over 14 years. Finding one in any condition will not be easy, and embarking on an EV conversion will not be a task for the faint of heart or thin of wallet. And yet, just imagine. (Aston Martin)

    Runner up: 1955-75 Citroën DS It is not difficult to believe that Andre Citroën would have approved of an electrified DS. He was an innovator, and his namesake company built its legend on one stupendously innovative automobile after another.

  • 1975-80 AMC Pacer

    The anchor of a thousand “worst car of the 20th century” web galleries, the nerdy Pacer was nonetheless packed with good intentions and innovative features — including a passenger-side door that was four inches longer than the driver’s side to ease back-seat ingress and egress. The Pacer was originally designed to make use of a Wankel rotary engine; when those plans fell through, AMC scrambled to make use of its venerable in-line six. The result was a car with George Jetson looks and Fred Flintstone fuel economy. But thanks to modern technology, that deficiency is fixable. (American Motors Corporation)

    Runner up: 1985-91 Subaru XT Launched the year that Back to the Future landed in theatres, Subaru’s XT, marketed in its home market of Japan as the Alcyone, was brimming with futuristic flourishes – both legitimate (a slippery shape that yielded a drag coefficient of 0.29) and gimmicky (a quasi-holographic digital gauge cluster). Electric power would suit it perfectly.

  • 1964-70 Dodge A100

    Vans were big in the 1960s. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler each had similarly snazzy entries into the segment, all of which owed more than a little to the hippie-tastic Volkswagen Type 2, which had defined this peculiar, flat-faced animal back in 1950. Among the Americans, the Dodge A100 was, with complete subjectivity, the coolest, with big round headlamps, a split windscreen and a jaunty 90-inch wheelbase (a less jaunty 108in-wheelbase model joined the range in 1967). They were tough, too, and versatile, accommodating a variety of Chrysler’s slant-six engines and even a couple of V8s between the front seats. (Chrysler Group)

    Runner up: 1991-97 Toyota Previa Toyota’s first commercials for the Previa looked, quite intentionally, like a documentary on the Roswell Incident. But within the Previa’s orbicular body lurked something really clever: a mid-engine layout perfect for a battery pack and EV accoutrements.

  • 1975-96 Jaguar XJS

    A reputation for dubious reliability is only one reason that Jaguar’s lithe beauty makes this list. They are also plentiful: more than 115,000 examples of this semi-successor to the E-Type – in coupe, semi-convertible and full-convertible body styles – rolled out of Jaguar’s factory Coventry during a 21-year production run. Finding a lovely example is never difficult, and finding a mechanically challenged but otherwise lovely example is even easier. (Jaguar Cars)

    Runner up: 1972-76 Jensen-Healey Another largely unloved design from William Towns, of Aston Martin Lagonda infamy, the Jensen-Healey never managed to capture the motoring world’s collective imagination like its spirit guide, the Austin-Healey 3000, which was discontinued in 1967. What it lacks in inspiration, however, the Jensen-Healey makes up for with availability. The company built more than 10,000 examples of the roadster, the majority of which landed in North America.

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