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We put a classic car up against an electrified classic. Here’s what we learned

Brock Winberg is on a conference call, quite possibly an important one, but he bolts out of the room to say hello and to give me a tour of the Electric GT workshop. With every 3D printer and electrical test station he points to, he exudes excitement. This is a man that is jazzed about what he does. And what he does is pretty damn cool because Electric GT makes it possible to convert vintage cars to a fully electric powertrain.

Electric GT workshop
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Now anyone who has been to a Cars and Coffee event in the last 5 years has seen a backyard project that turned a Porsche 914 or an 80’s Corvette into an electric car by using a trunkful of lead-acid batteries or maybe even a salvaged Tesla or Nissan Leaf powertrain. These conversions are generally notable for their jagged metal edges, copious amounts of electric tape, and a general sense that this machine is just barely holding itself together.

These conversions are the Folgers Instant of the electric conversion world. Electric GT is the Blue Bottle. The few cars that Brock and his team convert – and they are few and far between, more on that later – are ground-up restorations that leave no bolt untouched and no surface unfinished.

Brock is asking his team for the keys to a beautifully eye-searing orange Fiat 124. This is a customer car that is just about wrapped up, and he and I are keen to take it on a shakedown test in the nearby canyons. Gone is the Fiat’s anemic 4-cylinder engine, replaced with an 88kw (roughly 120hp) electric motor attached to four Tesla battery cells good for 25kw hours (conservatively 80 miles). Brock has a knowing grin as he hands me the now-located keys, because he knows what a potent combination this is.

I wanted to judge this transformation for myself, not just for the excuse to drive an electrified vintage car, but to conduct a direct head-to-head against a “normal” vintage car. So I scoured one up and brought it to Electric GT with the intent of doing battle. This isn’t a test of 0-60, cornering, or naked stats. The only question I’m hoping Brock and his Fiat can help me answer is if an electrified classic still retains that “it” factor, that special feeling of driving a classic car.

What I brought to the arena is a 1970 BMW 2002. Not the rarest of vintage rides, or the fastest, but one universally applauded for it’s rewarding driving dynamics and positive relationship with the driver. In other words, a driver’s classic car.

Driving up to Electric GT, the BMW popped and snarled its way through traffic, the light weight of the thin sheet metal (and complete lack of any and all safety equipment) translating to instant lane changes; the non-assisted steering giving me a thesis-level conversation with the road surface. Like all vintage cars, the 2002 is fantastic because of its faults and imperfections. Where lazy writers often recast defects as character or soul, philosophers have long known that defects are the only pathway to a meaningful relationship. Simply put, you can’t be friends with someone (or something) that is perfect.

So is the electrified Fiat perfect? It certainly lacks the velocity stack induction noise, or the raspy exhaust note, or the overall feeling of a container of angry bees under the hood. But driving al fresco can make up for a lot. As can a thin-rimmed steering wheel, old school gauges, and a real wood dash. And this Fiat 124 hides a secret that makes all the difference. All the Electric GT vehicles have this secret – a manual transmission. That’s right, that disappearing unicorn of modal transference. And it is here in an electric car of all things. Let’s not play around – shifting gears in an electric car is a revelation.

Obviously, the torque-heavy electric motor is more than capable of moving around a 2,000-pound Italian cabriolet with only 1 gear, and if you so choose you can leave the gearbox in 1st, 2nd, or even 3rd and trundle along with no fuss. But why would you want to? You’ve got 30,000ft of headroom, skinny tires, and a dancing steering wheel all begging you to get involved in the driving process. Damn right you’re going to use the stick shift.

If you’ve ever driven a vintage car before (that ’89 Buick LaSabre your friend had in High School doesn’t count), you know their rewards are entirely illogical, and completely sensory. Smell, sight, touch, and hearing are all flirted with, teased, and ultimately romanced by old cars. One-by-one I felt and reviewed what the EV Fiat had to offer.

Clearly the sights and smells are the same – electrified classics still look stock and enjoy interiors and materials that reek of age. Points to the Fiat. This leaves us with touch and sound to contend with. Electric motors are not silent, especially in a poorly sound-deadened old car made mostly of tin and leather. There is a wonderfully sci-fi “whoosh” you get with each depression of the accelerator pedal. That, and the rushing wind noise through the open top adequately compensated for the loss of snaps, crackles, and howls. It’s all down to feel then.

An electric classic car with a normal EV’s single gear is nothing but a fashion accessory. A thin wooden wheel is not enough to make a smile-worthy driving experience. Nor is a convertible roof. Not even the flex of an old frame on top of skinny tires translates to a rewarding drive. But a manual transmission changes everything and returns the driver to center stage. A vintage electric with a stick shift is completely rewarding and heartwarming. This is not a future to be afraid of.

If you’re now (understandably) interested in getting your own EV classic, it’s not as simple as calling up Electric GT. You see, they are not in the business of converting old cars. Not really anyway. The do take commissions from time to time. Right now the timeframe for a full custom build is about 18 months. What Electric GT really wants to do is sell you (or your mechanic) the electric drivetrain that is bolt-in ready for your car.

That means one of their increasingly famous crate motors, Tesla battery packs matched to your car’s weight, and an adapter to your stock transmission. Then you’re off to the races on converting your car into a world-saving and stylish masterpiece.

Bring on the electrification of Beetles, Beemers, and Bentleys. Wire up that old 2002. Plug in your Alfa and pack a picnic. Just remember your driving gloves, some good sunglasses, and a manual transmission. Everything is gonna be alright.

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