Converted Jaguar Lunaz XK120 classic car

Could upcycling cars be the greenest option?

We’re all getting ready for electric vehicles, but do we need really brand new cars? What if upcycling our existing cars was an even more sustainable option, asks Craig Thomas

It should be clear to most car users now that the future is electric. The government, having already committed itself to banning the sales of all new petrol and diesel cars (including hybrids) by 2040, is now even consulting on bringing that date forward, possibly even to 2032.

This is a laudable aim, but with battery electric vehicles accounting for just 4.7 per cent of cars sold in the UK this year (in 2019, a more typical year for car sales, the figure was 0.9 per cent), it’s going to take a real effort to get to 100 per cent in just 12 years. Yes, there are lots of EV models slated for launch by carmakers over the next few years, but the production and supply of so many EVs is going to be challenging.

And there’s one other thing. What are we going to do about all the vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICE) as we transition to EVs? There are over 35m of them in the UK alone – and over 1.4bn globally – so are we just going to junk them? Current legislation dictates that 95 per cent of every discarded car has to be recycled, so that’s a lot of scrap metals, foams and plastics to deal with.

There may be an alternative.

Retrofitting ICE-powered vehicles as EVs is a possibility. We could simply extend the lives of our existing vehicles for at least another decade or two, while at the same time taking CO2 and other noxious emissions out of the equation – and, more pertinently, out of the air we breathe.

For now it isn’t cheap, but it’s going to get more and more affordable.

As is so often the case in automotive innovation – the lead is coming from the luxury end of the market. Two companies, in particular, are busy converting classic cars into EVs. 

Lunaz, based near Silverstone, has already converted a Jaguar XK120, Bentley Continental S2 Flying Spur and a couple of Rolls-Royces: 1950s and 60s classics that demonstrate that being old and stylish is not incompatible with also having the latest technology.

Founder David Lorenz has been a classic car aficionado for 30 years, so he needed little persuading about the potential of electrifying the cars he loves. “I always preferred a classic car over a modern vehicle. There’s something I felt when I was in a classic that I didn’t feel when I was in a modern sports car. But I’d broken down, had oil leaks, water leaks. As an owner of classics, it’s something that you take in your stride and you find humorous at the time, even though it’s not too much fun sitting on the side of the motorway.”

Teaming up with Jon Hilton – a former technical director for the world championship-winning Renault F1 team – Lorenz saw that the only real solution to preserving classic cars for future generations was to electrify them. 

“When a new marque comes in, we weigh it at all four corners, work out the weight dynamics of the vehicle, then strip the vehicle down, have it reweighed to understand what we’ve removed from the vehicle, and what will not be going back on to the car,” Lorenz explained.

“The software has also been in continuous development from the start and will continue for many years to come. Every year we’re going to be adding little features – exactly like you see with a Tesla. It would be possible to convert any classic car with the system we use.”

We could simply extend the lives of our existing vehicles for at least another decade or two, while at the same time taking CO2 and other noxious emissions out of the equation – and, more pertinently, out of the air we breathe.

Justin Lunny, owner of Ionic Cars, is similarly evangelical about restoring and electrifying classics. It has already redeveloped the Mercedes-Benz SL W113 ‘Pagoda’ and Porsche 911 Carrera 964 Targa as EVs. “We remove the drivetrain and gearbox,” Lunny told us. “But we scan all of that, work out the space available and then design a specific drivetrain and battery solution for each model. 

“In essence, we’re doing a ground-up restoration, installing elements that are clearly to do with EV. For example, our dials on each car represent the originals: we’re actually trying to ensure that these cars, to the naked eye, look original. We don’t cut the cars in any way: our conversion’s entirely reversible.”

Lunaz and Ionic take slightly different approaches to the process of converting classics to EV – the changes Lunaz make is, to all intents and purposes, irreversible – but the overall principle is the same. They remove the fuel tank, engine, gearbox and exhaust system and replace them with a battery pack and a motor that is connected to the driveshaft. At the same time they restore the car fully, doing whatever it takes to take the car from barn-find to concours quality, in some cases.

Of course, this is the very upper end of the market, so you can expect to pay between £250,000 and £550,000 for a restored and converted classic car; clearly out of the reach of most car buyers.

But thankfully, luxury isn’t the only game in town, when it comes to retrofitting.

In France, Phoenix Mobility – based near Troyes – is starting to make headway into the retrofitting field, but it is focusing on vans – which, considering how commonplace they are in our towns and cities in this age of online shopping, makes them an important element in our mobility landscape, now and in the immediate future.

Phoenix sees the introduction of Clean Air Zones (CAZ) as a crucial element in persuading companies to switch to electric. Also important is the fact that it is currently charging €15,000 to €25,000 for a conversion process that takes just a day – which is less than the cost of a new electric van – and the cost is likely to fall to €10,000 to €15,000 by the end of 2021, according to Antoine Desferet, Phoenix’s COO. This sounds like good news for any company that needs to deliver in a CAZ, but can’t afford a brand new van: for companies that have vehicles that are modified for specific business objectives, this is worthy of serious consideration.

In the UK, Swindon Powertrain isn’t converting cars itself, but it has just started producing electric powertrains for low-volume manufacturers, small engineering companies engaged in retrofitting – and even DIY enthusiasts. Such projects cost around £20,000.

“I think that there is a window of opportunity,” explains Swindon MD Raphaël Caillé. “Certainly, in the next decade, we will see a growth of this sort of activity, as it becomes more difficult to drive cars with internal combustion engines in urban areas. But before regulation, it’s the social acceptance that will push people to do it.”

It’s clear that the road to electric motoring doesn’t necessarily have to be littered with the shells of petrol and diesel cars: a more sustainable option that involves the recycling of older cars is viable – more than viable, if the cost of conversion is lower than the cost of a new EV.

The future is undeniably electric. But that electric future might, surprisingly, look a lot like the past.

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