They turn ’49 Mercurys and Shelby Cobras into EVs, one Tesla carcass at a time

Charles Fleming
Los Angeles Times

In a garage near South Los Angeles, metal fabricator Greg Abbott fits battery packs borrowed from a decommissioned Fiat 500E under the hood of a 1965 Mustang.

In Oceanside, Calif., former AAMCO mechanic Matthew Hauber combines the suspension system and battery packs from a totaled Tesla to make an 800-horsepower, all-wheel-drive Shelby Cobra.

Jonathan Ward created this 1949 Mercury Coupe EV by converting the classic car to an electric vehicle powered by Tesla batteries.

In an unlikely marriage of classic car culture and green technology, sophisticated hot-rodders — mostly men, mostly Californians — are cannibalizing crashed electric cars and using their batteries to create electrified sports cars and muscle cars.

As comfortable wielding an ohmmeter as a spark-plug wrench, they are expanding the automotive world’s consciousness about what can be done in the electric-vehicle space — and making good money doing it. Their price can run from $30,000 for a do-it-yourself conversion kit for a VW Bug to several hundred thousand dollars for a fully customized, up-from-the-tires EV overhaul.

“These guys are taking drivetrains out of Teslas and Nissan Leafs and putting them in all kinds of vehicles,” said Gordon McCall, founder of the Quail Motorsports Gathering in Carmel, Calif., one of the country’s most respected annual automotive events. “They’re hot-rodding electric cars just like their grandfathers did with 1932 Fords.”

The EV classics are gaining stature on the custom car circuit. August’s Quail event featured “A Tribute to the Electric Car Movement.” On the fairway were a VW microbus conversion and a battery-powered 1949 Mercury, which took the top prize in the Quail’s first-ever electric car class.

Hauber became interested in electric vehicles after seeing the 2007 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” about the demise of GM’s 1990s-era EV1. He got a job working on EV pioneer Jack Rickard’s popular electric vehicle webcast. Soon he was building electric cars on his own.

Abbott started early, too. Sometime around 2004 the artist, furniture builder and metal fabricator, who goes by the moniker Reverend Gadget, converted a Triumph Spitfire into an electric vehicle, using old-fashioned lead-acid batteries that were heavy and hard to control.

Friends began asking him to build them electric cars, too.

Greg "Reverend Gadget" Abbott, car inventor and EV whiz, in his shop in Los Angeles.

The process was tedious, and the results were undependable. Standing in his cramped Florence-area workshop alongside a mid-electrification Porsche Speedster, a classic Volvo station wagon and a rusting 1947 Ford pickup, Abbott said, “They were like rolling science experiments, and you had to be a tinkerer to own one.”

Salvation came in the form of Elon Musk and Tesla. Pouring massive resources into batteries and battery management, the billionaire entrepreneur started selling increasingly large numbers of electric cars powered by lithium-ion energy packs that were powerful, rechargeable and reliable.

When Tesla owners crashed their Tesla Model S sedans and Model X SUVs, and the cars wound up as insurance write-offs, EV scavengers came running. They would scour local junkyards for the damaged cars and pay, in the early days, only a few thousand dollars for their undamaged battery clusters.

That increased the power and range of the custom electrified vehicles and made them a lot easier to own and operate. “Then you could just hand the keys to someone, to anyone, and say, ‘Drive it until it runs out of electricity and then plug it in,’” Hauber said.