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From Toyota HiLux to Volkswagen Beetle and Citroen DS: The old petrol and diesel cars that are ripe for EV conversion to electric cars

The original Volkswagen Beetle is one of several old cars that’s a great candidate for EV conversion.

One of the rapidly emerging themes around CarsGuide is the rise of the electric car. And within that, there’s a healthy debate going on around the conversion of conventionally powered cars to electric operation.

Millions of people watched Harry and Meghan motor off towards their honeymoon in an E-Type Jaguar that had been converted to an EV, and the specialist media and the internet are full of EV-conversion content.

But what are the best cars to be converting now? Is there a trend that has emerged, or is any conventional car ripe for a conversion from ULP to volts?

If you’re thinking about converting a car to EV, there are a few considerations that will make your life a whole lot easier.

While, technically, any car can be converted, some cars definitely have a head start. Fundamentally, those are cars that are simpler and have less on-board systems that need to be reinstated in the change to electric operation.

A car without power steering and even assisted brakes, for instance, will be much easier to convert as you won’t need to worry about the power-steering pump (which was run by a belt on the engine in the car’s original form) or a booster for the brakes (which would have used vacuum from the internal-combustion engine). Yes, there are alternative ways of boosting brakes and steering, but they require more electric motors and represent a further drain on the converted car’s batteries.

There’s also strong case for choosing a car without ABS brakes and airbag systems, too, as these will definitely be harder to incorporate into the finished vehicle. Again, it can be done, but the extra weight of the converted car’s batteries may alter what’s known as it’s crash signature, making the standard airbags less effective than they might have been. And any car that started with these systems would be all but impossible to register and drive legally without them. Saving the planet by putting yourself at risk is never a good idea. Don’t forget, an accredited engineer will have to sign off any EV conversion before you can hit the road. Your insurance company might have some advice to offer, as well.

Choosing a car that is relatively light to start with is a good idea, also. Those batteries are going to add lots of weight to the final product, so sticking with a lightweight package makes sense. Extra weight will have an obvious effect on the car’s performance, but it also has implications for range.

There’s also a strong school of thought that suggests a simpler driveline layout wins out, too. Specifically a two-wheel-drive car as that allows the easiest packaging of the new electric motor and getting its power to the ground. A manual transmission is the go-to as well, as a torque-converter automatic requires the car’s engine to produce the hydraulic pressure it needs. That’s another power-drain and since an EV really only needs one gear anyway, the automatic transmission is a waste of payload and volts.

Now, if you take all those factors into consideration, the road to a car to convert to electric really only points in one direction: Older cars. Old cars tend to have the simplicity and specification converters are looking for, including – generally – lighter weight and two-wheel-drive.

Within that is the sub-set of collectible or classic cars. A classic is a great start because it is half a chance to retain its value over the years. EV conversions are not cheap, but if you can restrict the cost to a smaller percentage of the car’s value, you’re on a winner. Converting a classic car costs no more than converting a cheapie, and at the end, you’ll have yourself an investment as well as a great source of fun and satisfaction.

It’s this cost element that effectively rules out converting modern cars. On the assumption that even the most basic conversion will cost anything from about $40,000 and up once you’ve sourced the battery packs (and that’s doing the work yourself) converting, say, a Mazda CX-5 to electric and finishing with an SUV that now owes you $50,000, makes absolutely zero sense when you consider that you can now buy a second-hand Nissan Leaf EV which is ready to go and fully legal to drive, for comfortably under $20,000.

The next step, then, is for us to offer you a list of cars that make the most sense – financially and practically – as conversion candidates. The criteria are pretty simple; a car that is relatively simple to convert and a car that never lived or died on the performance or character of its engine. Without making any judgments, it would feel wrong to us to convert a V12 Ferrari or a rotary-engined Mazda RX-7 to electric, as the engines in both those cars were so fundamental to those vehicles’ character and appeal. But other classics? Er, not so much…

Air-cooled Volkswagens (1950s to 1970s)

These vehicles have already cemented their place as the preferred conversion platform for many, many EV converters. Mechanically, they have the manual transmission, rear-wheel drive, overall packaging and simplicity to make the converter’s life a whole lot easier.

It doesn’t matter whether you choose a Beetle, old Kombi or a Type 3, they all have the same attributes and they’re all relatively lightweight to start with. And while that air-cooled engine has its admirers, an E- converted VW will have about three times the performance of the old petrol unit. In fact, an engineer may require a brake upgrade to cope with the extra power safely. And with the way the market for old VWs is going, you won’t lose money on the deal if you have to sell it.

Citroen ID/DS (1955 to 1975)

The slinky Citroen reset the way the planet thought about cars when it was released in the mid-50s. Its stylist was Flaminio Bertone, an industrial designer and sculptor and it showed. The car was an immediate hit and still rates a mention in the pantheon of the great automotive designs.

But if there was one thing that let the Citroen down, it was the fact that it never really got the engine it deserved. Instead of a smooth, refined V6, it got a hand-me-down four-cylinder from previous models. It was an okay engine, but nobody ever confused the powerplant with any of the DS’ real standout attributes.

The car’s hydro-pneumatic suspension and braking represents a bit of a hurdle for an EV conversion as the vehicle would require a second electric motor to pressurise the system. Which means the slightly less complex ID model with its more conventional braking system and manual steering emerges as a smart choice. Either way, you’d have a stunning end result.

Land Rover (1948 to 1978)

We’re talking the old-school Land Rover here, including the aluminium body panels, part-time four-wheel drive and peasant charm. Designed to be used for everything that a post-war British farmer might ask of it, the beauty of the original Land Rover is in its simplicity.

A performance vehicle it is most certainly not, and even in the day, acceleration from the oddly designed four-cylinder engine was marginally better than walking. So why not ditch that and create an electric Landy that will have much more useable, real-world performance in the 21st Century?

The part-time four-wheel-drive layout is the sticking point here, but it’s a spit-simple version of AWD and there’s lots of room for engineering solutions. Meantime, there’s lots of room in the thing to fit batteries and controllers without compromising its practicality too much. Perhaps the biggest hurdle will be finding axles to cope with the EV torque as these were the Land Rover’s original Achilles’ heel. And our bet is that, on the right tyres, it might just embarrass a lot of more modern off-roaders.

Toyota HiLux (1968 to 1978)

You could substitute any early Japanese utility for the HiLux, but the sheer Toyota-ness of the things means there’s still a few around in decent condition. The small Japanese utility inspires us for a variety of reasons: It’s light, still relatively cheap to buy and offers a generous load area for the batteries. Yes, you’ll sacrifice some cargo space, but by allowing you to engineer the heavy batteries into a space between the axles (not always possible), the little truck is a packaging dream.

Utes like these were also incredibly simple. Any less features and Toyota wouldn’t have been able to call them motor vehicles. But that’s great news now and the lack of comfort and convenience items means a HiLux EV with just a small range between recharges won’t be such a tragedy; you’ll be sick of it before it runs out of power.

But is an early, small Japanese ute a classic or collectible car? In the right circles, you bet it is.

Triumph Stag (1970 to 1978)

The Stag is generally regarded as a good-looking car. It featured the classic lines of other Michelotti designs but somehow manages to look even better than its sedan cousins. But it has also been condemned by many (mainly mechanics) for poor engine design that can see it overheat at the slightest provocation. When that happened, the aluminium cylinder heads warped and large amounts of money began changing hands.

So why not get rid of the single element that made the Stag a laughing stock and, in the process, improve its performance, reliability and overall desirability? Indeed. In fact, Stag owners have ben swapping better, more reliable petrol engines into their cars for decades, so the switch to EV shouldn’t upset too many people.

Despite a decent footprint, the Stag is not a large car by any means, so packaging the batteries and controllers might prove to be the most complex task. The other Stag snag might be finding an example with the optional manual gearbox as this will be the easier conversion. But once you’ve got that figured out, you’ll have a truly sexy roadster that works as it always should have but rarely did. You’ll also have possibly the world’s only Stag that doesn’t leak oil.