Electra-mods are a way to preserve vintage sheet metal

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Royals head for their wedding reception in electric-powered vintage Jaguar | Twitter @KensingtonRoyal

Someday — and for some I’ll add “and sadly in the not-that-distant future” –  automotive historians will look back at the spring of 2018 as the time when the sea change began, and they will see an event that took place in England as the seminal moment.

The date was Saturday, May 19, and the event that occurred was a bride and groom, though not just any bride and groom, prepared to leave for the drive to their wedding reception.

The bride was an American actress who was marrying into a royal family. Except this time, it wasn’t Grace Kelly and Monaco’s Prince Ranier but Meghan Markle and England’s Prince Harry. The seminal event from an automotive standpoint came when they left for the reception in a gorgeous — even Enzo Ferrari called it the most beautiful car of all time — E-type Jaguar roadster. 

But this 1968 E-type might best be referred to as an e-type, because instead of the usual 4.2-liter inline six-cylinder petroleum-fueled engine, Jaguar Land Rover Classic had installed a 220kW electric motor fed by a 40kWh lithium-ion battery pack. 

Jaguar Land Rover Classic, the British automaker’s official restoration shop, calls the car the E-type Zero, as in zero pollution.

This new “engine” reduces the car’s weight by around 100 pounds, propels the car from a standing start to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds — a second quicker than with petrol in its tank — and offers a driving range reported to be 170 miles.

Purists might still object, but resto-mods have brought newcomers into the hobby. The same thing will happen with what I’m calling the ‘electra-mods.’ 

“Our aim with the E-type Zero is to future-proof classic car ownership,” Tim Hannig, director of Jaguar Land Rover Classic, said in a news release reported here several months ago by Bob Golfen. 

“We have integrated the new electric powertrain into the existing E-type structure, which means a conventional engine could be reinstalled at any point,” Hannig added. “We think this is essential as it ensures a period Jaguar remains authentic to its DNA. We could use this technology to transform any classic XK-engine Jaguar.

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“We’re looking forward to the reaction of our clients as we investigate bringing this concept to market.”

Ah, the reaction indeed.

My recollection is that when classic car enthusiasts started putting modern powertrains into vintage vehicles some — or maybe many — traditionalists saw such an act as blasphemy. Well, they did until they went for a drive in a car that still looked the way it did when it emerged from an automaker’s assembly line, but that now could cruise comfortably at interstate speeds, and could also turn and stop, and didn’t leak oil all over your driveway or garage.

Those vehicles came to be known as “resto-mods,” resto as in restoration and mod as in modified. They also came to be well-accepted by the collector car community, well, with the exception of that part of the community that runs the major concours d’elegance events. But that’s OK. Concours have their place, too, and it’s nice to see cars we might otherwise view only in a museum or a very private collection getting taken outdoors, and even driven under their own power for a few hundred yards. 

Yes, I know that some concours encourage car owners to do a pre-show driving tour, and that such events have become more fun to watch than the concours themselves, because you get to see the cars in motion, and on the regular roads rather than a golf-course fairway. Plus, while it might cost hundreds of dollars to attend the concours, the tours are free to view from the comfort of your roadside canvas chair.

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Purists might still object, but resto-mods have brought newcomers into the hobby. The same thing will happen with what I’m calling the “electra-mods.” 

I’m both surprised and delighted that in our recent poll, only slightly more than 63 percent of those responding to a question about the acceptance of electra-mods responded negatively. That means that nearly 37 percent are as willing to accept them alongside the resto-mods.

Now, I’m no fan of electric-vehicle range anxiety, but a couple hundred miles usually is about what a vintage road rally covers in a day anyway. And if you can enjoy that drive in a cool-looking but clean vehicle, why not? 

What about the noise, or lack thereof, purists might ask? What fun is driving without the rumble of a V8 or the wail of a V12? I agree, sound can be part of the fun, and some cars shouldn’t be electrified. But quiet can open new roads — such as those where petroleum-powered vehicles are not allowed — and major auto racing series are moving toward hybrid-electric powertrains. Who knows, Formula E might just be the new Formula 1. 

I keep hearing that the millennial lifestyle loves vintage nearly as much as it loves the latest in digital connectivity. If preservation is the point of car collecting, what’s wrong with preserving the vehicle by cleaning up its propulsion system? 

And if it ever comes time to retire those vehicles from being used for transportation, they can be put back the way they were, petroleum engines and all, and displayed in museums, or in concours.

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the Web and becoming the author of more than 15 books. In addition to being Editorial Director at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times, writes a weekly automotive feature for The Detroit News and is an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

11 COMMENTS

  1. The biggest mistake ever! I’m keeping my 1969 Chevy chevelle, it has a spare tire and is not electronic what so ever!

  2. To say this is ZERO pollution is FALSE ……. you burned some form of HYDROCARBONS to produce the electricity …..!!!!! How about ALL the hydrocarbons used to "produce the conversion" ….VERY SLANTED / UNTRUE article to say the least …!!!

  3. Iam the owner of a 69etype my second.Being a collector car person and in contact with many others I would be thrilled to convert my etype into a zero how can I do so?

    • No true collector would ever find this appealing! Enzo Ferrari used to tell his customers not to complain about their cars because they were not buying a car from him, they were buying an engine! A Ferrari V12 or a Jaguar C/D/E type straight six is all about the sensations! The sounds, the characteristics at different RPM levels, etc. Driving a Ferrari or an E Type with an electric motor misses the entire point and the car is no longer a real Ferrari or Jaguar, etc., as its heart has been removed. Moreover, REALITY CHECK TIME, HOW MANY MILES PER YEAR ARE THESE CLASSIC CARS DRIVEN????? Not so much! Folks should worry about the out of tune beat up daily drivers we see belching smoke, scooters that run around spewing raw fumes of gas and oil,, diesel and gas buses, trucks and ships that belch far more fumes than all the world’s classic cars combined. How about those coal burning plants? Of the fracking that releases methane into the atmosphere, a gas 23 times more harmful than CO2?

  4. Maibe that a electronic circuit witch react at the position of the gaspedal that makes a V12 sound is a solution for the "noiceless" restomod. The purist reject everething that is a change at the car……OK. But there are inof people who has a classic car becouse the looks of the model (becouse all modern cars look more or less the same. And when you like to change something on your car the gouverment say’s……Noooooooo (Holland))

  5. The end of the world is surely near…. is nothing sacred anymore. I hope no one tells them about this really cool little car called the Shelby Mustang…..

    (sarcasm intended by the way)

  6. I can understand both points of view. I agree with the purists to some point because of their interest in preserving the car itself. That is important because if every old car were modified to be a restomod or electromod, then there would be nothing left to show the next generation how things used to be. Just imagine if every single 1932-1940 Ford were modified to run a 350 Chevy? Yes the modern Chevy engine may be far more efficient and reliable than the 80+ year old flathead Ford motor, but that’s not the point. The point is we need to preserve some of the history to show what life was like in the early days of the automobile.
    But on the other hand, we also need to preserve our hobby and our lifestyle. If converting thse cars to electric can keep the cars on the road in an age when modern gasoline could do major harm to the earlier fuel systems. Also we are potentially looking at an age in the near future when gasoline engines could be banned in some places. If we want to keep driving these vehicles, which is what they were built for; then major modifications will need to be made.
    To sum it all up I will say this; while I’m not completely on board yet with electric power as a DD, the infrastructure just isn’t there yet to support it. For our classics, it depends on the make/model, or the condition of the car before restoration. If you’re bringing a car back from the dead and literally the only way to resurrect it is to restomod it in some way, then have at it!

  7. Well said, Larry. The key part of resto-mods or electro-mods is having the cars on the road AND, hopefully, having the original drivetrain in weatherproof storage. Lots of rest-mods change hands with the original hardware included.

  8. Here is a product opportunity: A recording of the engine of your choice programmed to respond to the throttle pedal. It could be heard outside the car, or simply to entertain the passengers. Several companies are already doing a brilliant job of that replication heard inside a modern sound-proofed interior.

  9. "Zero" is the correct number. Explain to me, please, why people would give you grief if you put a small-block Chevy in it, which would make for a much nicer car, but gush over it if you put a toy electric motor and a big, heavy battery set in it?

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