The art of making a fully electric 1959 Volkswagen Beetle

Paused at a stoplight, my passenger and I look over at a Smart ForTwo idling next to us, and I make the universal finger-rolling motion of, “Wanna race?” The driver ignores us. But when the light goes green, the guy stomps on the gas and the tiny city car scoots forward with a faint squeal of the front tires.

This poor fellow has probably never beaten anybody at a stop light before, and this is likely his best chance ever, since I’m in the most tortoise-like of all vehicles, an original Volkswagen Beetle. But life is full of surprises — and disappointments.

I trigger the 1959 model’s accelerator and the car zips forward, utterly silent, outpacing the hare in a hot second. As I sprint across the intersection I wish I could see the expression on guy’s face. Who knew that the future would arrive in a 57-year-old Bug?

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This is The Harper Spin, a weekly column from seasoned auto critic Jason H. Harper. He’s raced at Le Mans, crushed a car in a 50-ton tank, and now, he’s bringing his unique style to The Verge.

The trick is that the Beetle’s puttering, smog-spitting, 36-horsepower engine has been replaced by a potent electric motor and lithium battery pack, courtesy of a San Diego-based company called Zelectric Motors. My passenger is Zelectric’s CEO, David Benardo, who specializes in retrofitting VWs from the late 1950s and 1960s.

Few designs are as classic as the original People’s Car. It is as lovable as a puppy and as recognizable as the Eiffel Tower. But, as Benardo points out, "they’re dirty and slow." He says his original goal wasn’t necessarily focused on the environment — the green factor is a happy offshoot. "I wanted a VW that was quick, fun, and wouldn’t leave you stranded on the side of the road. An electric powertrain proved to be the best solution. It works magically well with a 50-year-old design."

The tiny Bug’s interior is no bigger than a teacup, and at a price of $68,000 it sure isn’t cheap. But there’s something magical about the mixture of 20th-century design and 21st-century propulsion. This Bug moves in ways its original engineers would never have imagined: quick off the line and silent except for the sound of the tires on the road. Benardo is clearly getting a kick out of my own enjoyment. "Fun, right? People have no idea until they drive it," he says.

Conversions from gas to electric certainly aren’t a new thing, but early efforts were often done by private citizens in their garages. Safety is always a potential issue, considering the cars use high-voltage systems that can be fatal when installed or handled incorrectly. A number of companies will do it for you, and there are even do-it-yourself kits. But the truth is, if you’re looking for a modern environmentally sensitive car, regular car manufacturers are offering more and more hybrid and EV solutions that are ready out of the box.

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Zelectric has found a particularly happy niche, though, tapping into an environmentally conscious thread of the latent nostalgia for old VWs. Benardo says Zelectric can currently convert and restore about 10 vehicles a year. Prices range from $68,000 for a Beetle sedan to $88,000 for a convertible, and include the price of the original car, which Zelectric will send out to a local firm to restore. "The sweet spot is between ‘58 and ’66," he says.

The hefty price is partly because of the intense work needed to safely install the electric powertrain, but also because the prices of well-maintained vintage VWs has exploded. Zelectric will even locate and convert that most quintessential of California vehicles, the Microbus — but prices for the iconic van are crazy these days, so a Zelectric starts around $130,000.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect when I showed up at an industrial park in Oceanside, California, where Zelectric neatly assembles its electrified icons. Any notion of a beatnik-cum-patchouli operation were happily dispelled when I met the congenial Benardo, attired in bright red Nikes. In a previous life he was a creative director at an ad agency, and he still looks the part. Also present was the company’s engineering guru, Matt Hauber. Hauber has been in the EV space for years and is responsible for the integration of the electrical motor and battery packs. He’s an obsessive who does most of the hands-on work.

The garage is small and crowded with two Beetles, a Thing, and a perfectly restored Microbus. The engines in old VWs were located in the rear, and the e-motors fit neatly into that rear compartment, looking mod and clean. I’ve seen some conversions which are an ugly and unsettling snarl of wires, but Zelectric clearly sweats the details.

Benardo claims a range on a Beetle of 80 to 100 miles, and speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. The electric motor, he says, puts out the equivalent of 85 horsepower and 120 pound-feet of torque, a sizable upgrade on the original.

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The car retains its original manual transmission, using stock gearing. It can move from a dead stop in second or third gear, and you can leave it in third gear to speeds up to about 50. Oddly, you don’t need to depress the clutch when you stop, only when actually shifting. There’s something enjoyable about using the Beetle’s original manual, a feature you’ll never find in a modern EV.

No question, both the hardtop and convertible Beetles are fun, but I’m most taken with the flawlessly restored Microbus. VW itself showed an EV van concept at this year’s CES that was sort of a less-cool Microbus, but you can’t beat the charm of the original.

The steering wheel is situated atop a vertical column, like an old bus, and it’s huge. The shifter grows out of the floor, the front windows pop open, and the canvas rooftop can be rolled back to open up the entire top of the bus. There are two bench seats behind the bucket drive and passenger seats; the middle bench actually holds the battery pack, a very clever solution. Benardo has a surfboard resting atop the bench seats — a quintessential feature for a California Microbus — and there’s still tons of room inside.

Clearly it isn’t as quick as the Beetle, but the van moves along nicely. You’re sitting at the extreme front of the vehicle, with very little protection between you and any potential oncoming object, a fact which is a bit disconcerting when paired with brakes that feel a bit too vintage for my taste. Basically, your head functions as the airbag. I would probably request a brake and seat belt upgrade if I were to buy a Zelectric Microbus myself.

As we roll around San Diego in the bright California sunshine, every window thrown open and clean ocean air blowing in, it’s easy to fantasize what your life might be like if you lived here and drove this. Who would figure that the future would arrive so neatly wrapped in the past?

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