How do you perfectly blend nostalgia and futurism? Well, one way to do that is to take a 60-year-old icon of a car and add modern Tesla power.
On a recent trip to the New York edition of the 2023 Electrify Expo, the sprawling grounds outside the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island featured crowds lined up for test drives in cutting-edge new EVs with a palpable sense of excitement.
But at the opposite end of the venue, the vibes were part sci-fi flick and part Herbie Fully Loaded, thanks to one low-riding electric Volkswagen Beetle conversion grabbing eyeballs amidst multiple customized Teslas.
Anywhere you go on Earth, a classic Beetle is destined to be a crowd-pleaser. Even more so, it seems, when it's powered by electricity.
This, of course, isn't the first EV-converted Bug; tuners of all stripes have been at this for a long time. After all, it's not like Volkswagen is stepping up and giving people what they want. The automaker pulled the plug on the Beetle long ago and has dismissed plans for its electric successor. Instead, it remains focused on electrifying nameplates like the Golf and Tiguan by 2026. An electric Beetle “would be a dead end,” CEO Thomas Schafer said earlier this year.
Thank Blake Rhodes for being committed to ensuring the Beetle’s continuity. The 1962 Beetle I saw in person exuded less science project energy and appeared more like a factory retrofit, thanks to Rhodes’ three-decade-long experience in restoring prewar cars, working on hot rods, and swapping motors. He has been in the tuning business since he was 18 years old. He’s 54 now and runs a small company in Northern Virginia called Twisted Voltage LLC that specializes in meticulous restoration and electrification of air-cooled Beetles, Porsches, and some MGs.
Rhodes swapped the original 1.3-litre normally aspirated engine with a Netgain Hyper 9 electric motor, tuned to deliver 120 horsepower – three times the ICE output – and 173 pound-feet of torque. It draws energy from a Tesla Model S battery that's roughly 30 kilowatt-hours in capacity (one-third of the original pack), with three modules in the frunk and three under the rear seats. All told, it's enough to deliver 100 miles of range.
“We usually buy packs from low-mile vehicles that are crashed. All batteries are fully tested before use,” Rhodes said.
It also retains the original manual transmission. You don’t have to row through the gears at all if you don't want to, but you can, Rhodes said. Shift to second on tight New York City roads, or to fourth on the highway. But you can really drive around in the third gear all day at up to 60 miles per hour.
EV-swapping air-cooled VWs and Porsches with electric powertrains isn’t a new idea. They generally have less complex designs, making motor swapping easier, and there's so much mechanical commonality between those old cars that what works for one model can easily work for its cousins. They also typically have better airflow around the engine bay, which helps with cooling. But Rhodes’ conversions are impeccably neat, especially compared to some despicable Chinese aftermarket kits.
“They make a lot of sense to convert. Originally they were loud, smelly, unreliable, and leaked oil,” said Rhodes. The goal is the exact opposite, to make them “clean, quiet, and super reliable with minimal maintenance,” he added. “We also focus on a few details that people seem to enjoy, sometimes that means slammed on the ground, and sometimes it is pinstriping.”
Apart from some easy-to-fix paint scuffs on the boot lip, the housing of the new motor appeared near-perfect. “I try to hide as many wires and components as I can. I also do some bead rolling in the motor bay and use high metallic paint to help it pop,” he said.
The bead-rolling technique in fabrication can add strength and stiffness to a metal and smoothen its rough edges if the metal is old. Hand-making the motor compartment panels makes it possible to hide wires and anything unsightly, Rhodes said. “We also spend a lot of time on wiring paths and heat shrinking loom connections to make it look a little more factory built.”
The batteries and the motor added 200 pounds to the overall weight, and the EV now tips the scale at roughly 1,800 pounds. These are modest numbers, but remember that it’s an automotive dinosaur, and it still has a better power-to-weight ratio than the entry-level Toyota Corolla or Nissan Kicks.
It typically takes three to four months to restore old air-cooled VWs, and they can cost between $50,000 to $58,000, including the 120 hp motor, 30 kWh battery pack, new four-wheel disc brakes, and some added bracing – a hell lot more expensive than the aforementioned Chinese kit.
Moreover, with new EVs packing a million horsepower from the factory, there’s probably no need for more power. But Rhodes believes there would still be room for powertrain upgrades. “On a lot of these motors you can run more electricity or a different controller to extract more amperage out of them, so maybe the future of EV tuning could be custom-built controllers.”
But Rhodes indicated that the typical customer isn’t seeking practicality. They’re seeking emotional value; they're enthusiasts.
“Our typical customer has a fair amount of disposable income and a love for a certain car that doesn't get driven due to reliability or lack of power," he said. When restored with some bespoke craftsmanship, they draw a lot of love and attention. “I parked [the electric Beetle] next to a 2022 Ferrari Portofino and the owner commented how many people walked past his Ferrari to look at the Bug," Rhodes said.
He has converted six Beetles so far, and the seventh would be a “Baja Bug,” an EV he claims will be capable of driving on the beach without dripping oil and in near silence. It would be a “perfectly non-offensive vehicle,” he added.
After all, who hates the idea of such a classic and iconic car being on the road for many more decades to come?