At the 2018 Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) trade show, Chevrolet unveiled an electric COPO Camaro and was greeted with boos. Electric motors, the crowd seemed to think, had no place in performance car culture. Turns out Chevy was only guilty of being early to the party, because this year EV is in. At the 2021 SEMA Show there were multiple options for drop-in motor conversions and at least nine EV-swapped classics on display, from Ford’s F-100 to Hot Rod magazine’s famous Project X Tri-Five, as well as a hydrogen-burning LS-powered ’48 Chevy truck built by Arrington Performance (not electric, but certainly not traditional SEMA fare). All have been surrounded by interested crowds and heavily covered in online galleries. If anyone’s booing, they are doing it quietly, and many people seem to think this is the future of classic-car collecting. Is it? Should it be?
I had a chance to drive one of the show cars before the event, Superformance’s Tesla-motor Cobra replica, the MkIII-E. There is a market for volts under the hood, but it might not be the people who already have a classic car in their garage.
Superformance offers licensed Shelby continuation cars that replicate all the quirks and rudeness of the originals—Cobras being among the rawest of red-meat driving experiences. But the company also has its own line of builds, which offer a little more flexibility in engine choice, and some modern amenities like coil-over suspension or additional NVH protection.
“Have you ever driven an original Cobra?” sales manager Ashton Stander said as he showed me around the Superformance warehouse in Irvine, California. “The heat just travels through the whole car.” Most of Superformance’s customers are happy to give up a bit of historical accuracy in return for less heat-transferring fiberglass-bodied versions with big fender flares, custom interiors, and a wide variety of engine options. Real Shelby roadsters sell for seven figures, which makes the replica market, even with cars hitting the $100,000 range, a straight-up bargain. Purists go for the well-mannered Ford 289 small-blocks or rowdy 427s, but you can buy a car prepped for any of the common classic Ford V-8s, as well as the modern Coyote 5.0L or the massive 7.3L Godzilla. You can even get a Cobra and drop in a—gasp—Chevy LS engine. Heck, if you wanted a Ferrari V-12 in one, the folks at the shop would do their best to help make it possible (it’s been done). But putting an electric motor in the midnight blue, wide-fendered MkIII roadster sitting innocently by the roll-up door was such a reach for Superformance CEO Lance Stander that it almost wasn’t built.
“Initially he was a little reluctant,” said Joven Katic, owner of Joe’s Garage, which partners with Superformance on prototypes and development. Katic and Stander have been friends for nearly 40 years and regularly bounce ideas off one another. Katic was fascinated by the technical challenge of electrifying a Cobra, but said Stander was worried about the lack of sensory excitement. “He was always about the noise,” Katic said. In the end, Stander was won over by the same thing that wins over so many first-time EV drivers—instant torque and unending acceleration. “Everyone who drives it feels differently afterwards,” Katic said. Sure, 1500 pound-feet of torque is a mind-changer.
That 1500 pound-feet is the tuned-down version. The motor in the MKIII-E is the rear-drive unit from a Tesla Model S. Pop open the decklid and you’ll find it tucked between the back wheels and visible behind a plexiglass window. Under the hood is a custom-made battery pack comprised of two LG Energy 16-cell units combined into a 32-kWh pack good for about 100 miles of range—assuming you only do donuts part of the time. Stander said that the original build was undrivable in the lightweight Cobra, instantly turning the 275/35-18 Nitto tires into smudge and smoke. It was equally difficult to stop, as the settings for regenerative braking that worked in the Tesla Model S came on so hard they’d spin the car around. “It took some tuning,” he said.
Said Katic: “We had to learn how to do this. Before you start building something, you know exactly how to do it. Then you start building . . .” He trailed off, but the inference was clear, electric-motor conversions still aren’t quite as easy as a more traditional engine swap.
By the time I got in the Cobra, the big concerns had been worked out, but Stander had a few warnings for me about not treating it like a modern EV. “There are no driver aids,” he mentioned more than once. There’s also no park setting, no hill-hold, and no working parking brake, which gave it a surprisingly authentic manual Cobra feel, despite it having no transmission and no gears to shift through.
When it’s not starting on extreme grades, the MKIII-E is easy to drive, and there are none of the usual Cobra worries: no finicky carbs, no hot side-pipe to leap over, just those fenders like rolling hills and the usual convertible problem of what to do with your stupid hair. No wonder Ken Miles had a crewcut. At speed, the roar of the wind distracts from the silence of the car, but cruising, the loudest sound is the click of solenoids on the brake pedal. “It’s very unusual to hear birds while driving a Cobra,” Katic said. “There’s aren’t too many electric convertibles.”
He’s right, and it’s one of the things I’ve always been excited about as we start to see more off-road electric vehicles. A quiet dirt-bike ride? Moab without the howl of a million ATV engines? Yes, please. But do I want to cruise Highway 1 along Laguna Beach in silence? I’m not sure. The plusses were obvious—no ringing headache, no need to scream at the passenger over a V-8 rumble—but I missed some things about a traditional cruise in a classic. With no soundwaves rippling away from the Cobra, you don’t get that head-snap response from fellow car lovers. If they aren’t looking your way, nothing warns them you’re nearby. Is that vanity? Yes, but to deny it’s part of the appeal of classic-car ownership is to tell a lie. The lack of vibration made it easier to read the startlingly high number on the 15,000-rpm tach, but I missed the urgent feel that a lopey gas engine offers. There’s something almost alive about the way an old car pulls against the transmission, the way it shakes through its core, a racehorse in the starting gate. Then there are the driving characteristics—tunable to some degree—but I’ve always loved the silky slide of a downhill coast off the gas, the little clash of driveline when you get on the throttle. The MKIII-E drove like an electric go-kart, all on or off, a harsh binary out of sorts with its glossy curves. It was still fun. People still loved to see it and came over to talk about it. I would not kick it out of my driveway. But given the choice between the MKIII-E and one of Superformance’s gas-powered Cobras, I’d take the fuelie and never look back.
Earlier I said there’s a market for motor-swapped classics, and I think that’s true, only, it’s not that electric tech swaps are going to win gearheads over to EVs. Most owners of classic cars love them not just in spite of, but because of, their flaws. We like the sound, we like the smell, we forgive their leaks and breakdowns and often enjoy the maintenance process as much or more than actual driving. What electric classics can do is bring a new audience over to classic-car ownership. For folks who appreciate the looks but have stayed away because classics are noisy, messy, or old-fashioned, EV swaps could encourage interest in cars as a hobby, much the way modern engine swaps brought a whole new group of younger mechanics and performance fans who had no interest in changing the jets in carburetors but loved turbos and laptop tuning into hot-rodding. The more the merrier, and they can always play engine sounds over the stereo.
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