10 Best EV Conversion Classics, Part 1: The 1970s
Published on February 1st, 2021 | by Jo Borrás
February 1st, 2021 by Jo Borrás
Another month, another highly opinionated and massively subjective list from yours truly, amirite? Hang on, though, because I think that this list is going to be a fun one. Welcome to “EV Conversion Classics, Part 1,” a series of posts wherein I identify some of the best candidates for EV conversion from a given decade, and we’ll be starting things off with the best (potential) EVs from the 1970s!
Before we get too far though, I want to throw in a little bit of a disclaimer. I’ve done my best to split the list into categories, since not everyone wants to read about top-dollar exotic cars in the same way that not everyone wants to read about scooters or pickups or any other category. So, if your mechanical tastes lean more (or less!) towards the practical, doing the list this way should help you skip the cars, trucks, and bikes you’re not into. Second, I tried to avoid duplicates and ties. And, finally, I tried to limit the choices to vehicles that were more or less available to US audiences.
I can’t think of any more reasons to keep you waiting, so here they are: the 10 best (potential) electric cars, trucks, and motorcycles of the 1970s!
Best Mainstream Sedan | Volvo 200 Series
Of all the possible choices in each of the categories presented here, this is one of two picks that I’m supremely confident in. Introduced in the summer of 1974, the Volvo 240 and 260 series was offered in coupe, sedan, and wagon body styles that featured industry-leading safety features and a timeless, if boxy aesthetic. Volvo didn’t build too many of these cars, and they represented less than 1% of the US market’s sales in their 20-year (!) production run, but you’d never know that unless you were there. That’s because virtually every other car from that era has long since rusted to dust or been left to rot on a scrapheap. The Volvo 240s? They’re still out there, racking up miles.
Besides being, you know, available to convert, the Volvos’ relatively lightweight construction, high-quality steel frame and body, readily available parts, various battery-holding nooks and crannies, and an established online community of Volvo engine-swappers make the 240 and 260 series cars ideal — and proven! — electric car conversion candidates.
We recently covered an electrified Volvo 240 GL here on CleanTechnica, and that car has been humming along on Dutch roads (and through Dutch winters) with minimal maintenance for over ten years! You can learn more about it by clicking the image, below.
Best Compact Car | BMW 2002
Surely you’ve heard the classic BMW tagline. But do you know which BMW earned the brand its “Ultimate Driving Machine” reputation? That would be this car, the 2002, a car that very nearly didn’t happen. See, back in the 1960s and 70s, BMW wasn’t known as the premium, sporty, muscle-y German car company we see it as today. The BMW 1600 “02 series” made its debut in 1966 as a well-built, reliable sedan aimed at the heart of Germany’s mainstream car market. It wasn’t until a pair of BMW engineers crammed their personal 1600s with a 2.0L from one of the brand’s larger offerings, and showed their cars to BMW’s US distributor, Max Hoffman, who had been clamoring for a sporty car to fill his BMW showrooms, that the 2002 was born.
The BMW 2002 set a standard for what German cars should be that continued into the 80s and 90s with the BMW 3 series, Mercedes-Benz C-class, and (arguably) any number of “hot” VWs. Heck, without the 2002, the entire German car industry in the US might have soldiered on with the same reputation for dull durability that makes a Toyota Camry such a tough car to sell to anyone under age 40. The combination of light weight, a willing chassis, and a torquey engine was just too much fun, and the feeling of driving a car like this was just so compelling, that it changed the entire industry. Add in the instant-on torque and rapid acceleration characteristic of electric power, and that recipe could turn this 70s-era Teutonic tourer into a sporty car for the ages.
And, I know, this whole segment is a lot more about why you should love the 02 series, and not what makes these classic BMWs good candidates for electrification. But you guys should trust me that they most definitely are. They’re such good candidates, in fact, that BMW themselves actually built a pair of electric 1600s way back in 1969.
BMW 1602e | The First Electric BMW
Built to investigate the suitability of an electric drive unit for practical driving, BMW engineers put a 32 kW, Bosch-built, DC shunt-wound motor where the transmission would have been, sending power to the rear wheels via the intermediate gearing and prop shaft. A dozen standard 12V lead-acid car batteries were positioned on a pallet in (what used to be) the engine bay. That battery pack was heavy at nearly 700 lb, but it was designed to easily be “plucked out” of the engine bay and replaced with a freshly charged pack, making this early factory EV a bit of battery swap pioneer, too!
Other firsts for the 1602e included using the electric motor as a generator during “engine braking,” which we now recognize as regenerative braking. Speed was limited to 100 km/h (62 MPH), and the car had a range of about 20 miles on an overnight charge.
Best Muscle or Sports Car | ’77 “Bandit” TransAm
The terrible “Smokeless and the Bandit” jokes almost write themselves with this pick, but converting the 1977 Pontiac Firebird TransAm to electric power is less about greenwashing old movies and much, much more about righting a historic wrong. See, back in 1977, the once-mighty 400ci Pontiac V8 was being choked down by GM’s inefficient smog control, and delivered a paltry 200 HP from a massive 6.6 liters of displacement (compared to 345 HP in 1969). For comparison, a Honda Odyssey minivan pumps out 280 HP … so, yeah. To say that the iconic black and gold “Thunderchicken” on the hood was overselling the car’s performance is perhaps an understatement.
Despite being a bit of a pig, the ’77 TransAm managed to gain legendary muscle-car status as the star of Smokey and the Bandit. That Hal Needham classic featured the great Burt Reynolds, Jackie Gleason, and an impossibly nubile Sally Field looking to shed the overly wholesome “Gidget” reputation that had kept her from really making it big. The wild stunts and actually pretty good acting from everyone involved helped make it the second highest-grossing movie of 1977, second only to Star Wars (!).
As for the Bandit’s suitability for EV conversion? The good people at Revolt Systems have made the swap incredibly easy with a drop-in, 533 HP, 800 lb-ft., Tesla-based “crate motor” that’s been specifically designed to replace small-block GM V8s. That’s the same V8 that GM’s F-body Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebirds were built around. The resulting build might be pricey (the Revolt crate motor starts at around $30K, without batteries and controllers, while the collectible Pontiac T/A will set you back even more), but you’ll finally get movie-star performance out of your movie-star car.
Best Exotic Car | Lamborghini Countach LP400
If you were a kid in the 70s and 80s, this was your favorite car. If you had any car enthusiast leanings at all, there was a poster of it on your wall, a 1:24 scale model was on your bookshelf, and a picture of one — in stunning Rosso Siviglia red — on your Trapper Keeper. This is the Lamborghini Countach, and its shape and look and style and scissor-wing doors have influenced the design direction of every high-dollar sports car since the first one rolled off Lamborghini’s assembly line in 1974. The Countach is easily the most iconic supercar of the 1970s, and the obvious choice for this list.
The Lamborghini Countach is powered by a physically large V12 engine that was mounted behind the transmission, which means that power goes from the engine, forward to the transmission, then backwards again to the rear drive axle. It’s a complicated design solution, but one that suits our purposes … primarily because it takes up a s**tton of space. Space that could otherwise be filled by that same 533 HP, 800 lb-ft., Tesla-based “crate motor” from Revolt Systems we talked about a few paragraphs ago.
ProTip: Get used to reading about that, because Revolt’s crate motor really takes a ton of the guesswork out of most of these builds. That’s because GM’s “small block” family of V8 engines (commonly called “Small Block Chevy” motors, or “SBCs”) are just about everywhere in the automotive world, having been the go-to engine for hot rodders and street racers for the better part of seventy (70!) years. Heck, they’ve even made their way into Lamborghinis! Here’s one from the 2019 SEMA show.
LS-Swapped Lamborghini at SEMA
Beyond making the swap as easy as a swap like this is likely to get, the Revolt crate engine would also make an electric Countach one of the fastest Lamborghinis out there. Compare those numbers (again, 533 and 800) to the most powerful Countach ever offered for public sale (the LP5000 Quattrovalvole, with 449 HP and 369 lb-ft. of TQ), and you’ll begin to see that EV power is what this forward-looking design masterpiece was born to have. The V12 makes a nice coffee table, too!
Best Pickup Truck | Chevrolet LUV
Though not as common in recent years, compact pickup trucks were a huge deal in the post oil-crisis 1970s and well into the 90s, and you could argue that the most influential of these utilitarian runabouts was the Chevy LUV.
Built by Isuzu and imported by General Motors from 1972 on, these small pickups offered fuel economy comparable to many compact cars of the era, with features like a 6-foot cargo bed and 1190 lb. payload capacity available initially, followed by long-bed options that could carry big-engined Harleys of the day. The one you want, though, is the standard short bed with the Mikado plaid interior (shown in the ad, above). Not only does it scream “70s era malaise,” it also happens to be unspeakably awesome.
Best of all, stuffing the engine bay of the compact Chevy LUV pickup is a tried-and-true way of generating massive power in these cars, and SBC swap guides abound, making the call to Revolt Systems for a switch to Tesla power an easy one. If you’d prefer to keep your classic LUV pure though, Chevrolet Performance is offering a slick “Connect and Cruise” package that uses a modern Chevy Bolt power train, GM controllers, and more to help turn your classic car into an EV. They even offer a 50,000 mile warranty that (in theory) would be good at any Chevy Performance dealer in the country!
Best SUV / Off-Road | Ford Bronco
The original slab-sided Ford Bronco built from 1966 to 1977 is my pick for the best SUV of the 1970s. It may not have been the first SUV, but I think it’s the SUV with the most enduring legacy — especially when you consider that most SUVs and crossovers in 2021 look more like a hardtop Bronco than, say, a hardtop Jeep Wrangler or Fiat Campagnola. These are cars that are universally loved, genuinely durable, and that are supported by a decently large online community of enthusiasts and restorers to keep them humming along for many decades to come. That said, what makes the Bronco a great classic to convert to electric power has less to do with what the classic Ford Bronco is, and a whole lot more to do with who is doing the upgrades: Zero Labs.
To create its bespoke, Bronco-based electric SUV, Zero Labs takes a meticulously restored original Bronco body and drops it on a state of the art “skateboard” built around your choice of an 85 or 100 kWh battery with up to 235 miles of range. Independent front and rear suspension systems built around top-shelf adjustable air shocks from Fox Racing offer a blend of superior on-road comfort and ultimate off-road performance. Dual electric motors mounted front and rear deliver more than 600 HP and jaw-dropping levels of torque off the line, which is not only a lot more than the “official” 2021 Ford Bronco, but nearly 500% more power than the classic 1966 original. The interior is also totally re-done in brushed aluminum and artfully crafted wood.
It is, in my opinion, a nearly perfect vehicle, and I genuinely can’t think of anything I’d change — assuming I could afford it, that is! Click here to read our coverage of Zero Labs’ electric Ford Bronco for more.
Best Scooter | Vespa PX
I think it’s fair to say that when most people think of a scooter, they’re probably thinking of a Vespa. Well, I would take that a step further and say that, when most people think of a Vespa, they’re probably thinking of a Vespa PX.
Essentially unchanged from its debut in 1977 until its ultimate, emissions-related demise in 2016 (!?), the steel-bodied Vespa PX has enough visual presence to steal the show at your local bike night and enough style to wear Ferrari “Rosso Corsa” red paint without irony, all of which makes Vespa’s choice to build the relatively generic-looking Elettrica instead of simply electrifying the PX is so utterly bewildering.
Get the electric motor from an Elettrica, have a local fab shop make you some engine mounts, stuff the battery on the spare tire side and the electrical bits in the glove box, and you’re more than halfway towards the all-electric Vespa PX the company should have built to begin with. Better yet, call the people over at Retrospective and order their large-frame Vespa electric conversion kit to remove all the guesswork. It won’t be cheap, of course, but you can be sure that your electrified Vespa will never go out of style.
Best Motorcycle | Honda GL1000 Gold Wing
Ask almost any motorcyclist you know — even the most staunch Harley-Davidson supporter — and they’ll tell you that the Honda Gold Wing is where the conversation about long-distance motorcycle touring begins and, as often as not, ends. To say that Honda’s GL series of bikes sets the bar here is a bit of an understatement, because while you can bet that every motorcycle engineer tasked with building their company’s next touring bike spends thousands of miles on Honda’s Gold Wing, it’s an equally safe bet that Honda’s own engineers spend a lot more time asking ‘Wing riders what they’d like to see in the next ‘Wing than they spend on a competitor’s bike, and the GL1000 you see here is where all that started. It’s a classic, and for very good reason.
Legacy aside, the GL1000 has a number of features that make it a great candidate for electrification. That big, flat-four engine can easily be replaced by an electric motor, which itself could be adapted to the bike’s longitudinally-mounted transmission that sends power to the rear wheel through a sturdy shaft instead of a more fragile, maintenance-heavy chain or belt. That big fuel tank could just as easily be a big battery, and a full set of hardbags could easily have a few more battery packs worked in there, somewhere, don’t you think?
As far as I know, no one has built an electric Gold Wing yet, but there have been Gold Wing-based track bikes, cafe racers, off-roaders (see above), trikes, and more, so it may just be a matter of time.
Best Race Car | Porsche 917/30 Can-Am
It was a car so dominant, so fast, so predictably victorious that it effectively killed the popular Can-Am (CANadian-AMerican) racing championship in the 1970s. Even today, nearly fifty years after the Porsche 917/30 made its debut, the 917/30’s 1600 HP engine, 400+ km/h top speed (that’s 250 MPH to you and me), and precious little else in the way of crash safety and fire prevention have conspired to make driving the 800 kg race car a harrowing experience, and the sheer danger of the thing has enabled it to more or less keep up with even the most successful LeMans racers of the hybrid era.
Replacing the Can-Am Porsche’s complex flat-12 engine with electric motors and batteries may seem sick and wrong — and it may well be! — but it also seems like hilarious fun. If you decide to do this, though, I’d recommend having someone like Icon Engineering build you a replica that’s stuffed full of top-shelf electronic goodies from Rimac, and leave the few surviving 917/30s out there in motorsports museums where they belong, you know?
While you’re waiting for your 917/30e to get delivered, I’d invite you to learn a bit more about “The Car That Killed Can-Am” in this well-produced video from the guys at Shannons Legends of Motorsport, below. Enjoy!
The Car That Killed Can-Am
Best Concept Car | Lancia Stratos Zero
From the 1970s and even into the 1990s, if you wanted to show the world that your new exotic car concept meant business, you’d make it look like a wedge, and the wedgiest of all the wedge-y concepts was the 1970 Lancia Stratos Zero by Bertone.
Depending on who you ask, you can probably draw a line from the Stratos Zero concept car directly to the Lamborghini Countach, the off-road Lancia Stratos rally car, the Lotus Esprit, and a boatload of other Italian concepts that anyone with a Road & Track subscription in the 80s could rattle off from memory. Heck, when Michael Jackson needed to transform into a futuristic-looking hypercar to save the day from Joe Pesci in Moonwalker, he turned into a Lancia Stratos Zero.
Moonwalker | Lancia Stratos Zero
As far as suitability for electrification goes, it’s a concept car. That means only one or two were ever built, probably by hand, and they don’t really run, in the way that your car (probably) runs. All we’re really looking at, then, is how the car looks — and Bertone’s Stratos Zero concept absolutely looks the business. You could pull one of these up to SpaceX five years from now and I’d bet the car enthusiasts would still pour out of the building just to see it. In fact, I think the only thing that dates this car’s wild design is the internal combustion engine itself! Get rid of that smokey, rumbly mess of an engine, and the Lancia Stratos Zero could be a timeless, electric hypercar for the ages.
That’s it, gang, that’s my list of the best EV conversion classic vehicles from the 1970s. As always, I’d love to hear what you think of it, what categories I’ve missed, and what cars you would have put on the list in my place, so head on down to the comments section at the bottom of the page, and make your voice heard.
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