We all have a soft spot for old air-cooled VWs, especially the classic buses that were so intertwined with surf culture that when Hot Wheels made one, they included little surfboards. They have transcended normal car enthusiasm and become cultural icons of a free-spirited era and carefree travel. However, the reality of old buses is that they were generally ... quite anemic. The most powerful flat-fours ever included in them still measured in at a scant 60 horsepower, which is certainly enough for lackadaisical cruising around town but leaves something to be desired for the hectic freeways criss-crossing Southern California. For one classic car enthusiast, electrification provides a perfect solution to this problem.
This is a ‘72 VW Bus picked up very recently by a car collector friend of mine off of Bring A Trailer. His collection spans literally over a century, with every make and model imaginable represented; there is no theme aside from “it made me smile when I drove it,” and this bus is no different. And he’s already an EV fan. His daily driver, despite the Lancias and NSUs and Packards awaiting him, is a Chevy Bolt, which he enjoys for its perfect city-parking size and maintenance-free operation.
Before even digging into the new drivetrain, I could tell that this is a fantastic example of a Bus. The van is extensively restomodded to modern spec. Alpine speakers, a head unit with Apple Carplay, nicely-trimmed peanut-butter vinyl seats and door panels, new accurate gauges, fresh two-tone paint, and wood flooring in the rear along with a comfortable bench-seat/recliner (that yours truly rode around in). All complete a comfortably modernized Bus that still offers plenty of vintage panache.
Pop open the engine hatch, and behold the real magic. In lieu of the anemic 1.6L air-cooled flat-four, a Netgain HyPer 9HV motor is installed, literally doubling the van’s power to 120 HP. It also manages 160 ft-lbs of torque — which I assure you is a lot for a van this lightweight — goes to the rear wheels thanks to a Freeway Flyer four-speed manual transmission. The more relaxed gearing adds an element of usability in the modern world that the original drivetrain could never attain. The Freeway Flyer transmission is upgraded with a 3.45 final drive ratio (vs. the stock 3.60), so the van can actually hit, like, 70 MPH. This transmission doesn’t work well on a stock flat-four motor, because that engine 1) is more likely to overheat at lower speeds due to lower fan RPM, and 2) just does not have enough power to actually get the whole bus moving.
But with 120 HP and 160 ft/lbs of torque at zero RPM, the Hyper 9HV can more than scoot this old VW along the freeway, and putting it in first and flooring it leads to an alarmingly quick experience for such an old Bus. It seems frivolous until you have to merge onto the 110, and then it becomes life-saving. With the concerns about overheating removed from the equation, it can get stuck in stop-and-go traffic without any anxiety about the air-cooled motor cooking its oil. Add in a set of front disc brakes to slow the bus down with the same rapidity as the motor can accelerate it, and the whole package is basically the perfect hippie van with enough performance to actually be usable in 2021.
Because it has a manual transmission, regen and acceleration can be set to varying levels by shifting gears, similar to the Maserati Biturbo conversion I reviewed recently. The entire setup is run off of seven Tesla Model S battery modules chained together into a single pack, for a total of 37 kWh. (That’s roughly half of a single Model S’s capacity, but comparable to a Nissan Leaf.) About 100 miles of range can be squeezed out of a full charge, which is not bad when you consider the aero profile of the van is closer to a breadbox than a streamlined hypermiler.
My friend only recently got the Bus, so he hasn’t had a chance to give it a long-term test, but when I dropped by to visit, he was taking it out for a run to pick up parts for some of his other vehicular projects in his collection. I rode in the back, and I can confirm it’s a perfect city runabout for Los Angeles. Honestly, it rides like an old Bus. It just accelerates from 0-30 alarmingly fast, and it could do 90 MPH pretty easily, although it’s not recommended. We rode around with the transmission humming and the rear gate opened for a nice breeze, while The Beatles reverberated throughout the interior; it was equal parts surreal and ideal.
He personally plans to use it to transport bikes, car parts, and his pets around the city as needed; the wood interior means that he won’t need to worry too much about making a mess in it, and the surplus of torque means no matter how heavy his cargo is, the van can still suffice. It essentially works as a more stylish and fortunately-named version of the much-hyped eBussy we’ve discussed before. Until we get any of the various electric vans we’ve been promised, this VW will more than hold him over.
We’d love to hear from more readers about their EVs, modern or classic, factory or otherwise.
What car do you own? (If you owned a car in the past, let us know what years!)
Where do you live with it?
How and where do you charge it?
How was buying it?
How long have you had it?
How has it lived up to your expectations?
A photo of your car
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