MONEY

Chevrolet to offer kit to convert gasoline classic cars into EVs

Jamie L. LaReau
Detroit Free Press

DETROIT – General Motors will soon offer an electric crate-motor package to allow people to replace gasoline-powered engines with fully electric propulsion systems in classic cars.

It's dubbed the Electric Connect and Cruise eCrate Package and it is seen as a "future business opportunity," Chevrolet Vice President Scott Bell recently told the Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network. 

The eCrate is a motor and a package of components for use on vintage GM vehicles. But GM is not yet specifying which vehicles will be compatible with the eCrate. 

"We’ve done spectacular with what we call ‘crate’ engines in old cars … putting new V8 internal combustion engines in older cars to make them more reliable and perform better," Bell said. "Now we have that same group of people working on EV conversion kits for classic cars."

Chevrolet first introduced a concept of the eCrate in 2018 and brought out new iterations of the concept in 2019 and 2020. It was supposed to start rolling out to the market in late 2021, but it remains in development. Ford Motor Co. launched its EV crate version late last year.

"The technology will soon be available through Chevrolet Performance," said Mark Lubin, GM spokesman. "This specific offering is part of GM’s larger strategy to provide EV component sets to a variety of different industries and applications outside of GM’s product portfolio."

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GM's initial projected timeline for the retail eCrate program has been delayed "by the same broader supply chain issues which are being experienced throughout the industry," he said.  

GM is bringing 29 new EVs to market in the next few years, including a Chevrolet Blazer EV it introduced Monday night. 

Lubin declined to provide additional information regarding the timing, pricing or availability of Chevrolet's eCrate program. 

'Little ... smoke and mirrors'

GM's kit will be a holistic package of components needed to do a conversion to electric, Lubin said. It also will provide customers with access to the resources required to do a conversion as well as installation training, aspects that differentiate it in the marketplace, he said. 

In November, Ford Motor Co. introduced its Eluminator electric crate motor, which it called "the first of its kind to be engineered, developed and offered by an original equipment manufacturer," the Ford Performance website said. 

The Eluminator was priced at $3,900, not including the traction inverter, control system and battery.

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Ford spokesman Said Deep confirmed on Monday that Ford has "sold out" of the Eluminator, but he did not immediately provide a figure as to how many were made and sold. 

"We sold out right out of the gate and the demand for our kit continues to outstrip supply," Deep said. "We’re excited about what we have planned next. Stay tuned."

Ford's Eluminator weighed 205 pounds, delivered 281 horsepower, 317lb.-ft. of torque, and generated a maximum speed of 13,800 rpm. The Eluminator crate engine package included a high-voltage motor-to-traction invertor harness, low-voltage harness connector, and vent tube assembly, Ford Performance website said.

Jonathan Klinger, vice president of car culture at Traverse City-based automotive media and specialty insurance company Hagerty, said the automakers are smart to offer converter packages to the aftermarket. The packages will preserve the integrity of the classic cars while updating them to a quiet, environmentally friendlier EV propulsion.

"These vehicles will last longer than we do," Klinger said. "If people are going to modify them to EV drivetrains but do it in such a way that they can be brought back to their original modification — that’s the best way. It avoids people trying to build their own system and hack up a car."

But Ford's kit was "a little bit of smoke and mirrors," said Marc Davis, president of Moment Motor Company in Austin, Texas. Moment Motor converts about 10 classic cars to EVs each year. 

He and another conversion expert, Greenshed Conversions in Florida, looked at Ford's offering and said it had the motor, but it did not have the controller, a key part required to make the conversion work. Davis said another $20,000 in parts would be required to make it work.

"If you look at what Ford did, with the 1978 F-100 ... it’s completely brand new and a totally customized drive unit," Davis said. "It’s still awesome, but it’s far beyond anything someone can do in their garage."

The pros and cons

Davis said he has had extensive conversations with GM and Ford about their EV conversion packages. The allure of what they are doing is that it would offer Moment Motor a fully integrated system of motor and parts needed, which would bring down labor costs and lower prices for customers.

"We might be able to get our hands on (original equipment manufacturer) quality product, which is attractive," Davis said. "Right now, the conversion industry is working with lots of niche manufacturers. We have to get motors and converters from this company and then we have to combine it with battery modules from another company and stitch it all together."

Marc Davis, owner of Moment Motor Company, explains their conversion process to enthusiasts in this undated photo.

Converting a classic car to an EV takes several months, requiring a lot of labor, making it expensive, Davis said. To convert a classic Camaro muscle car to all-electric would cost a customer about $70,000 for parts and $50,000 for labor for a total of about $120,000, he said. But with an all-inclusive kit, the cost of equipment might fall to $30,000 and the cost of his labor would be cut in half, bringing the total to $55,000, he said. 

"What I hope for in the future is they would say, 'Here’s our solution for the Camaro … or the Mustang,' " Davis said. "It’s probably still going to be complicated and sophisticated to put it together, but if we can do a conversion like that in a few weeks rather than a few months, that would be great."

The challenge that automakers face is that the architecture of a modern EV is not the same as that of a classic vehicle, Davis said. The modern EV, for example, is powered by a drive unit consisting of an electric motor mated with a gear box meant to sit between the driven wheels, he said.

"That is essentially incompatible with the way a classic American car is – which has an engine up front that faces the rear and drives the rear axle with a drive shaft," Davis said. "The kit that GM is working on, they have to take what comes off the manufacturing line being used on those vehicles and make modifications to it to make it fit and work on a classic vehicle."

Lubin declined to comment on specific challenges GM faces in developing the eCrate.

Davis said he expects that Ford, like GM, will work to make a drive unit that can fit in a classic car because "people are looking at ways to customize cars. But it was billed as a crate motor, like it just drops in, but it’s more complex than that."

Classic Blazer conversion

Chevrolet first previewed the eCrate conversion concept with the Chevrolet eCOPO Camaro in 2018. It was an all-electric dragster that produced 700 hp and 600 lb.-ft. of torque.

A year later, Chevrolet showed the Chevrolet E-10 Concept at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas. The E-10 was a 1962 C-10 pickup powered by an electric Connect and Cruise concept crate propulsion package. At the time, it offered 450 hp using components from the Chevrolet Bolt EV.   

Chevrolet’s E-10 Concept shown at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas in 2019. A 1962 C-10 pickup truck was powered by an electric Connect & Cruise concept crate propulsion package. At the time, it offered 450 horsepower using components from the Chevrolet Bolt EV.

In 2020, Chevrolet showed a 1977 K5 Blazer converted to all-electric propulsion. In a news release at the time, GM wrote: "The K5 Blazer-E is a functional proof of concept of the upcoming Electric Connect and Cruise package Chevrolet Performance plans to sell in the second half of 2021."

GM said to convert the K5 Blazer, the team removed the original 175 hp, 400 cubic-inch V-8 engine, three-speed automatic, fuel system and exhaust. They installed a Bolt motor to deliver 200 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque, paired with a Chevrolet Performance electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission.

In 2020, at SEMA360, Chevrolet showed a 1977 K5 Blazer converted to all-electric propulsion.

GM said the rest of the Blazer drivetrain was untouched. The power came from a 400-volt Bolt battery pack with 60 kilowatt-hours of usable energy installed in the cargo area.

When GM is ready to launch the eCrate, Chevrolet dealers and aftermarket companies that are interested in installing the system can apply to receive the training, tools and the equipment needed to work with high-voltage systems and charging stations, GM said. 

Follow reporter Jamie L. LaReau on Twitter @jlareauan.