Driving a 1978 Ferrari 308 with zero engine noise was weird. Using a regular three-pedal five-speed manual gearbox connected to an electric motor was even odder. But Electric GT’s EV-swapped Ferrari has a distinctive driving experience that, once you wrap your brain around it, is uniquely satisfying.
Eric Hutchinson has the broad-shouldered stature of a comic book Superman and an enormous personality to match. In the time it took me to kill a styrofoam cup’s worth of tepid hotel lobby coffee I’d been completely updated on his life, loves, hopes, dreams and finally, the classic Ferrari he’d been telling me about since I’d first met him at San Diego electric vehicle shop EV West a few months prior.
I’d been locked into the auxiliary garage at EV West for the better part of a week, watching Bill Caswell and his friends try to turn the shell of an old BMW into a Baja racing car. But that’s a whole other story.
On this day, I was hanging out at an LAX Airport Holiday Inn to see what modern electric power, mated to a good old-fashioned manual transmission, and stuffed into a vintage Italian sports car, really felt like.
Hutch’s ’78 308 would have made about 220 horsepower and 179 lb-ft of torque—before it caught fire. When he came across the charred corpse of the car, Hutch figured there was just enough Italian soul left to reanimate with electric power.
But purists can relax, the base on which this bastardization is built was beyond saving in any traditional sense.
Hutch estimates that HP and torque are now both around 330 now, thanks to the car’s triple HPEVS Custom Electric AC-51 “V-8” motor package, Curtis 1239 controllers and 46 kW-h lithium battery.
The car supposedly weighs 3,350 pounds with a range of about 150 miles, depending on how hard you’re driving it and how much of your trip is uphill.
To hear what this car really sounds like at speed, and enjoy a little groovy infomercial music (sorry, Magnum P.I. music! [sigh] you really can’t talk 308s without Selleck’s ’stach huh?) , here’s a closer look:
Three HPEVS Custom Electric AC-51 motors transmit power through a Porsche G50 manual transmission to the rear wheels.
The build was long enough and complex enough to span a 23-page FerrariChat forum thread and an entire video series you can check out on YouTube. But basically, the powertrain was completely removed to make way for a cluster of batteries and the triple motor package. And since nobody’s ever done that, just about every part had to be custom-rigged for fitment.
The car still looks like a Ferrari. Every part your hand touches feel like it belongs to a Ferrari, especially the heavy unassisted steering. But the car’s signature engine burble has been replaced with the smooth sound of a wedge cutting through wind.
And the car surges from a stop like no Malaise Era exotic you’ve ever seen.
This car does have a “regular” manual transmission with a clutch, three pedals, and a shifter you row to change the car’s gear ratio. But you don’t use it like a exactly like a shifter in a standard gas or diesel car.
Since the GTE is electric, it doesn’t need gears, because its motors provide adequate power at all RPMs and therefore, could operate with a single gear ratio. That’s how “traditional” electric cars are set up, after all.
The Ferrari (or any EV) also doesn’t stall, so there’s no need to put the clutch in at stops. There’s really little need to use the clutch at all, except when upshifting, and even then it’s more like a “button” than the transitional control you would be used to.
Just like any car ever, the lower gears are where you’ll find the most aggressive acceleration and higher gears make it possible to comfortably cruise at speed.
But instead of moving your way from first to fourth as you accelerate, you can basically just pick your acceleration rate from a stop and ride whatever gear you like for your entire drive. Second gives you a nice pull off a stoplight and onto a fast canter. Third gives the car a much gentler reaction time. First is borderline scary.
You can shift the car while it’s underway; dip the clutch and move the stick, it’s really more of a “throttle sensitivity” adjustment than anything else.
With the clutch in, car in second, clutch out, car still stopped (weird) I rolled into the throttle. I mean “power potentiometer” I guess, but the tall pedal on the right released the car into the world like water coming through a dam. Once you had any momentum and traction, the amount of energy pushing you along is unbelievable. Especially when you’re riding that wave of power in a lithe and super low 40-year-old sports car.
By the time we got far enough up the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu’s mountain switchbacks, I thought I was comfortable with the car’s unique method of control. I wasn’t.
The first corner I attacked I tried to blip-and-downshift into, which the car did not like one bit.
Obviously, in a gas powered car, you get the revs up as you downshift when you’re aggressively decelerating into a hard turn. You need to downshift because otherwise the RPMs will drop as you slow down and your engine won’t be making any power to get you out the other side of the corner. You need to rev match to do this deceleration without upsetting the car.
But the electric engine doesn’t need to be at high RPM to make power. In second or third gear in the GTE you can roll hard into the brakes, heck, bring the car to a dead stop, and simply stomp the gas, sorry, accelerator, and immediately be humming again.
When I took the car out of gear, and tried to rev it, the motor just spun into oblivion and overwhelmed the clutch causing the car to buck like, well, a regular-old manual car driven at the hands of an amateur.
“Ah, ah, nah, nope, you don’t need to downshift, dude,” Hutch almost sounded like he wanted me to make that mistake. I could certainly tell I wasn’t the first.
Instead of rev-matching, the way to handle hard deceleration into corners with the GTE is regenerative braking.
Many electric cars use their own wheels as power sources. Practically speaking, they put an immense amount of drag on the vehicle when the go-pedal is released to suck the energy out of what would be coasting momentum back into the batteries.
The GTE doesn’t do this very aggressively by default, it almost coasts like a gas car unless you activate the re-gen manually with a neat little button on the center console near the shifter.
Then the car gets pulled back like it’s been pinned under god’s thumb.
Squeezing the regular brakes with your foot while simultaneously fingering this button felt a little unnatural, but mastering the move unlocks an incredibly fine level of control over the vehicle’s speed. So I’m told. I just ended up riding second gear all the way up the western roads of the Santa Monica mountains, because the steering on this car was enough of a handful on its own.
Despite being fully electrified for propulsion, the GTE has a manual steering rack that requires an immense level of effort to operate even though this Ferrari’s about the same size and mass as a loaded shopping cart.
If you’ve never turned a car without power steering... have you ever tried to take a piece of rope away from a dog? At low speed, the GTE’s steering wheel has about as much resistance as a golden retriever with a sock freshly liberated from your drawer. You can get it, but you’re going to get a little sweaty.
I’d driven other manual-steering vehicles too, from grandpa’s tractors to dad’s old Fiat. I must say; the weight of the wheel in this GTE felt a lot closer to farm equipment.
But this is what old coots at car meets are talking about when they say “they don’t make ’em like they used to.” You don’t need any kind of special sport mode when your steering is completely unassisted, you feel every inch of the road and as a result, you feel like you earn every turn.
Learning to broker love between the GTE’s electric power plant and manual transmission dominated my drive experience at first. But that’s not what I remember when I close my eyes and think back to the day I spent with this car.
And I do daydream about this thing, believe me.
Besides the novelty of new power in an old outfit, the GTE had a uniquely invigorating combination of weight balance and power. The car felt light and tiny in turns, but the steering was heavy enough to give the car a real sensation of power and precision at any speed. And once I did tap the power; thunderous acceleration from a slow roll.
In the mix with all that, classic Ferrari idiosyncrasies like delicate hidden door handles and scooping shovel-seats are perfectly preserved. The heavy breathing of an engine is missed, for sure, but the GTE is faster and smoother and more reliable.
Electric GT has done away with the noise, but there’s plenty of personality in this car.