Classic Cars & The Electric Revolution
Updated: Nov 2, 2021
The title above may sound like a bad 1970s glam rock band but there is a revolution afoot in the otherwise sleepy world of classic cars and it is all about electric. Today, if you don’t fancy tuning the carbs on your Morris 1000 for the unpteenth time or you want to trumpet your green credentials you can stick an electric motor in your classic. And several companies - seemingly more every week - are lining up to do it for you.
But should you? Well, there’s the nub. Within that question lies the conundrum facing the classic car community. For some, perhaps inevitably mainly those selling the conversions, switching to electric is a binary choice. They argue that continuing to run a classic with its original motor is unnecessary, because there is an alternative. They also suggest that doing so is irresponsible, because it causes pollution.
I don’t see the argument in those black and white terms. EV conversions open up the classic world to new options and opportunities. That’s a great thing. Owners have been customising their cars since the dawn of the Ford Model T, so carry on. We used to call them custom cars and hot rods. Some flat capped members of vintage car clubs got angry. The rest of us revelled in the awesome creativity, if we were perhaps less comfortable with the artistic treatment of women.
I see electric cars in the same tradition, albeit with fewer spray-painted naked women adorning their bonnets. Thankfully. I do have some reservations about the environmental argument - EV conversions do have their own environment cost, even where they’re using second hand motors, and with classics covering an average 1,200 miles a year the payback is not immediate. Some have also argued that plonking a hefty electric conversion in a car designed around a relatively light engine, with all the implications for crash safety, requires more thought.
I don‘t intend to pour cold water on classic EVs. If you own a classic and want to convert it, do it. My issue is with the binary choice electric adherents present. They suggest that EV is the future of classics. That it is a sign of responsible classic car ownership.
I disagree. Owning a classic car is a hobby. It is to become part of a world of like-minded souls enjoying something that adds meaning, value and happiness to life. Such things are why we are alive. And a disproportionately large aspect of that experience, for most owners I suspect, comes from the engine under the bonnet. It’s often one of the first questions one enthusiast asks another. Discussion of engines and their many bits occupies many owners at many car shows every year.
The pursuit of that hobby doesn’t seriously impact anyone else. Old cars do pollute, but average mileages are very low and surely to lead fulfilled and joyful lives we have to accept some consequences?
At Great Driving Days, of course, our cars cover many more miles than average. But all of those miles fit the same criteria - we are providing experiences that add colour and joy - we hope - to lives. Many customers also use us as an alternative to buying a classic, making it a more environmentally sound choice. But we recognise the issue and we take responsibility for the impact of our business. So, alongside work to ensure our cars perform optimally, for 2022 we will be introducing carbon offsetting.
Should we convert our cars to EV? Surely we’re a prime candidate for it because our cars are high mileage classics?
I don’t believe so. Our business is providing customers with an opportunity to drive a dream classic. With all the sounds and smells that entails. They also want originality and increasingly they relish the nostalgia of a classic engine running carburettors or with many, many cylinders. Converting our cars to EV would change that dynamic - it would be intriguing, different and unusual, but it would not be an E Type experience.
And that is ultimately the issue: I run a business. Customers want petrol power. If I convert our E Type to EV I‘ll have few or no customers.
EV is an exciting and interesting opportunity for classic cars. But it isn’t the only future. As we move away from combustion engines surely there is and should always be a place to enjoy and celebrate that technology, albeit responsibly? If doing so also delivers joy and fulfillment to people, with minimal consequences to others, who should tell them to change?
Classic car enthusiasts have already faced the introduction of E10 fuel, which limits our access to fuel, with other existential threats such as ULE zones facing the sector. We need our representative organisations, as well as each club, to lobby for our interests. But we also, as owners, need to recognise and respond where we can to the imperatives behind these changes. Very simply that means ensuring our cars are well maintained to minimise pollution and driving them responsibly to do the same.
The changing world means as classic owners we should continuously evaluate what we do. How can we make our cars less polluting and more efficient? What role can maintenance play? As a classic car experience company we have to be responsible and considerate in the face of these changes.
But that doesn’t mean we have to fundamentally change the nature of the cars we operate. To do so would change the experience we provide and the one customers want.
I don’t rule out our fleet having an EV on it one day, perhaps soon. But I think it will always have an E Type powered by hydrocarbons too.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. 01527 893733