Embracing the future doesn’t have to mean letting go of the past—just look at the growing number of classic Volkswagens that people have converted to now run on electric power.
The mid-century Beetle and Bus have long been used as canvasses for hot rodders and customizers, with the Meyers Manx serving as an early example of such inspiration. In recent years, hobbyists have explored how to combine the old-school Volkswagen charm with no-tailpipe electric drivetrains.
Volkswagen of America joined in last year, commissioning California-based electric vehicle conversion specialist EV West to build a one-off concept vehicle by merging a 1972 Type 2 Microbus with the modern electric powertrain of a 2017 e-Golf. Over several months, EV West harvested the 134-hp electric motor, 35.8 kWh battery pack and all the necessary charging hardware from the e-Golf and arranged the pieces into the Type 2 body.
The goal? To demonstrate what’s possible.
“When people see a classic Volkswagen charging next to a Tesla at the grocery store, their jaws drop,” says Robert Tietje, a design e-mobility, charging and battery management expert at Volkswagen of America.
Bolted into the rear where the Type 2’s 60-hp engine had been, the powertrain from the e-Golf is designed to give the bus an approximate range of 125 miles. EV West also installed regenerative breaking through a single-speed transmission and a high-voltage auxiliary unit for heating and air conditioning. Wiring harnesses and control units completed the process.
While EV drive systems are typically reliable and can be easy to work with, an older model’s original hardware can create challenges for the conversion team. “The technical challenges are mostly around trying to update the car in regard to the older systems—things like upgrading the vehicle’s brakes and suspension,” Bream says.
This transplant gives the Bus a more modern and refined driving quality but keeps intact its vintage charm. “The Bus is iconic because of its character,” says Michael Bream, the CEO of EV West, who drives an electric Volkswagen himself. “We want to preserve that character. We take our technology to the limits to make the vehicle more enjoyable to drive, without altering the classic driving experience.”
Although the movement to drive electric has been alive for over half a century, Tietje and Bream have seen a spike in electric vehicle deployment over the past ten years. The trend has grown so much that EV West now works on around twelve projects at a time and has a multi-year waitlist for new conversions.
Bream attributes this to two things: “People want to drive the classic car that they love, but they want to do it sustainably and dependably.” The Type 2 Microbus has always been popular for its charm, and there is usually a sentimental reason that people choose to convert. “Maybe it was their first car, or their parents’ car or the car they took on a road trip,” Tietje says. “People don’t want to let that go.”
For Bream, switching to electric mitigates a few negatives that are associated with hot rodding. “Driving classic cars is always fun, but with an older car, you do worry about the old car breaking down or whether you need to stop for gas,” he said. Since converting his car, he drives without the worry associated with driving a decades-old car. “It really changes people’s whole perception of driving,” he says.
Volkswagen’s efforts illustrate how an iconic vehicle like the Type 2 Microbus can get in on the trend of going electric and have a second—and more sustainable—life. Many of these models have already survived for decades, and with a lower-maintenance EV powertrain, can have many years left to run.
“A converted car can drive sustainably well into the future. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a vintage electric bus driving down the road 100 years from now,” Bream says. “They can last a lifetime—or several lifetimes.”
The modifications described are complex and dangerous, and they should only be handled by experienced professionals. Modifying vehicles in the manner described can adversely affect compliance with required safety & other standards and can increase risk of fire and injury.