One of the nice things about being a known sucker for a particular type of car is that people seek you out when they have interesting versions. Which is pretty much why a guy named David contacted me to see if I wanted to drive an electric-converted ‘63 Beetle. I did want, and I did drive.
This conversion job wasn’t the work of a backyard experimenter with a bunch of possibly stolen golf cart batteries. The Zelectric Beetle is a surprisingly well-engineered conversion, with the drivetrain engineering done by the same folks that gave us the Pikes Peak-climbing electric BMW E3, and it shows.
The red ‘63 I got to drive around Santa Monica for a bit is the prototype model, but low-volume production of these conversions is planned, with orders already starting to roll in. They’re not really cheap at around $45,000, but they’re not being targeted as an entry-level vehicle anymore. The market for the converted Beetles is well-to-do older — likely Baby Boomer-era folks who have that combination of disposable income, environmental concern and maybe a bit of guilt, and a fond nostalgia for old air-cooled VWs.
Fortunately for David Benardo, California has a decent supply of such people, and while I’m not really one of them, I do love old Beetles and interesting new technology.
The first thing you notice about the Zelectric Beetle is how clean and careful the conversion was. This is clearly a professional job, not some experimental hack. The Beetle has been left essentially intact, with no major new holes cut or extensive frame modifications. It could, in theory, be converted back to old flat-four power if you really wanted.
The electric motor installation out back is really something to see. It’s a wonderfully high-tech contrast to the exterior of the car, and reminds me of how my augmented brain will look in my head when I finally get around to getting cyborg’d sometime in the 2040s.
The car is now actually liquid-cooled, since the electronics in these setups can run quite hot, and there’s even a very sci-fi-looking little transparent orange reservoir of magic electron cooling solution. Which may just be normal engine coolant. There’s a custom, laser-cut housing for the large cylindrical motor that mates to the stock transaxle, and some pleasingly beefy wires in there, too. It’s immaculate, and finished to a very high standard.
I’ve seen some other home-made electric conversions that use large lead-acid or marine-type batteries. The Zelectric Beetle uses a much more energy-dense and compact 24 kWh battery pack (like the the Nissan Leaf), composed of Lithium LiFePO4 Batteries. That’s largely the reason why the car costs what it does, and also why they managed to be able to retain most of the front trunk. Other conversions I’ve seen leave you with no cargo room at all, but in this case while you lose the entire rear cargo well to a big battery box, the front battery box replaces the old gas tank location, and still allows for some storage.
Those batteries do up the Beetle’s weight by about 250 lbs or so, I’m told, but it’s still about 1,000 lbs lighter than a Nissan Leaf. Which really isn’t surprising, since this is still a 50 year old car with no airbags or any heavy safety stuff. Still, less weight does mean more fun.
The extra weight from a stock Beetle of the era is more than offset by the significantly higher output of the electric drivetrain. I was told HP from the electric motor is about 80, and there’s 110 lb-ft of torque available right from a dead stop, both numbers just about doubling the original specs.
The significantly increased output of the engine does bring me to my one major technical complaint, and that’s the use of the original swing-axle transaxle. While this is period correct for ‘63, it would be relatively trivial to swap it for a later double-jointed rear suspension, which would make the car much better to drive.
VW changed over to double-jointed rear axles in 1968, right about the same time Chevy made a similar change in the Corvair to address certain handling issues that caused a certain someone whose name rhymes with “Darth Vader” to write a book. Swing axles can mean tuck-in and scary oversteering in the right situations, and providing a double-original HP Beetle to people who haven’t driven a rear-engined car in years seems like it could be asking for trouble.
Luckily, this would be very easy to fix, with later VW transaxles not exactly being rare, and I made my case to David, who seemed to genuinely listen.
Okay, enough of that. What’s a double-original-power electric Beetle like to drive? Great. And a bit weird. And weirdly quiet.
Getting in, it feels just like any old Beetle. The only visual difference is the gas gauge has been replaced with an unobtrusive, fittingly chrome-rimmed little digital battery gauge. It displays in percentage, but the range is supposed to be between 90-110 miles, so you can think of the percent numbers in terms of miles pretty easily.
Once you get in the low-back seat, and get ready to go is when it gets really weird for a Beetle veteran like myself. I’m used to starting up with dramatic clatter and popping some shaking back and forth. There’s none of that. The car, like all electrics, keeps quiet.
There’s still the original transmission, but the role of the gears have changed almost entirely. The Zelectric Beetle can be driven like an automatic, if you want. Just put it in 3rd and you’re good to go, from 0-80+ MPH. The gears are better thought of as “performance settings” or something. The lower the gear, the higher the torque, the more dramatic the acceleration, and, interestingly, de-acceleration, since the Beetle uses regenerative braking/coasting to convert speed back into electricity.
So, driving around in 3rd gives usable, but a more relaxed sort of driving style. Pick-up is fine for in-town driving, but not amazing. It’s probably close to what it was originally.
Put the car in 2nd, which is what I was mostly in, and you start to really feel the difference. You take off quite quickly off the line, with noticeably strong acceleration — it easily keeps up with modern traffic. Letting off the gas, you feel a very pronounced drag on the wheels as the regenerative system kicks in. It actually is dramatic enough that you almost never need to touch the brakes until you want to totally stop. It was actually making David consider a different brake light system, perhaps something accelerometer-based.
Going into first is where it gets really crazy. The first-gear acceleration feels genuinely quick — there’s no 0-60 numbers yet, but I suspect it will be surprising. I suggested taking it to a drag strip and really seeing what it’d do, and that may just happen. It’s also a bit much for normal driving, really, especially with the increased regenerative drag. But it’s still a good bit of fun.
To make things nice and confusing, you don’t clutch in when braking, or, really, almost ever, other than when changing gears. It took some getting used to, but once you adapted, it was easy.
When I drove the electric Fiat 500e, I lamented that electric cars were losing a major component of a car’s identity, the engine character. And that’s certainly the case here. Love or hate the old air-cooled flat-four of the original Beetles, you can’t say those noisy air-suckers lacked character. But all electric car motors feel essentially the same. In terms of pure engine character, this converted old Bug didn’t really feel that different than the 500e or a Leaf.
That all means that without engine character, everything else about the car needs to be that much more interesting to maintain the personality of the car. And, luckily this old Beetle has that in buckets. You miss the distinctive chatter of the original engine, but you’re still treated to a symphony of whirrs and clicks and creaks and sounds from the decidedly vintage chassis and remaining drivetrain of the Beetle. The view out the flat, face-hugging windshield is still like no other, and the car still steers and feels like a vintage Bug on the road. Just quicker.
Sure, it’s got no airbags or crumple zones or a/c (it does have a nice ceramic heater, though) or any number of modern conveniences, but I would still much rather tool around town in this than any refined mobility appliance like a Leaf.
It’s absolutely not for everyone, but that doesn’t matter. It’ll be mostly driven in town, where the lack of safety equipment is a bit less of a concern, and the range numbers seem quite useful, and on par with modern offerings. It’ll charge at the same sort of ports the Leaf/500e use, in around the same amount of time. Drivetrain-wise, you realize it’s not really that different than its modern brothers, and it shows.
I found this unholy cyborg to be absolutely delightful to drive. I’ve never really been a purist about anything, and there’s still so many Beetles around that converting some of them to electric power isn’t going to threaten the preservation of the breed in any way. They’re only converting Beetles up to ‘66 or ‘67 to keep the really vintage look, and while those are growing more scarce, they’re not exactly rare.
So, rich ex-hippies, you’re in luck. You can still be green without looking like all those smug drivers in their gleaming suppositories covered in leaf-graphics. And, if it means more vintage Beetles on the road, I’m all for it.