For years, Rob Howard restored old cars. In his youth, he worked on a 1971 Plymouth Duster with his dad, and as an adult, he restored 1960s Mustangs and modernized a 1957 Chevy station wagon so he could drive it safely with his kids. But the cars weren’t dependable, and it was especially difficult to tune antiquated fuel systems. “No matter what, it always smelled like gasoline,” he says.
With a background in tech and engineering, Howard sought improved outcomes. His key determination: Banish petroleum. “When you think about restoring your car, electrification is so obvious,” he says. “It performs better, it’s lower maintenance, and it’s actually a roughly equivalent cost.” In 2019, two years after he’d sold his software company to Target and worked on the executive team there, he decided to apply his skills in software, supply chain management, and retail to a new business of old-car electrification, founding Kindred Motorworks in San Rafael, California. Today, his 40-person team has multiyear contracts with electric vehicle battery, motor, and parts suppliers, allowing them to rehab vintage Ford Broncos, Volkswagen buses, and Chevy trucks and convert them to EVs that cost anywhere from $149,000 to $199,000.
In a new 110,000-square-foot facility in the Napa Valley, Howard plans to electrify thousands of vehicles and introduce several new-old models each year. “There are 30 million collectible cars in the US,” he says. “So it’s a very large opportunity.” Soon and McKeel Hagerty, whose namesake company is one of the world’s largest insurers of classic vehicles, and Robert Downey Jr.’s environmentally oriented venture capital firm, FootPrint Coalition, are investors.
Kindred isn’t alone. Zelectric, also in California, focuses on VW Beetles and Porsches that it goes on to sell from $100,000 to $300,000. The Ghost Garage in Michigan does Jeep Grand Wagoneers ($295,000). E.C.D. in Florida electrifies classic Land Rover Defenders, Range Rovers, and Jaguar E-Types ($225,000 to more than $400,000).
Other companies focus on providing conversion hardware for DIY’ers and small shops. Michael Bream, founder of EV West, leads this realm. Since 2009, Bream has been designing and retailing bolt-in electrification kits for vintage Porsches and VWs, becoming a soft-power evangelist for alternative energy. “You can have some old man who doesn’t give a shit about the environment, but he’s actually being environmental because we sold him an electric car based on horsepower and fun-to-drive,” Bream says. “And after he drives it for six months, he comes to the shop, and he’s like, ‘Hey, man, I got solar put on the roof!’”
Even Ford and General Motors are entering the category, building electric motors sized to replace their guzzly old V-8 engines. “Classic vehicle restoration is an integral part of GM’s business and history,” wrote Travis Hester, GM’s vice president of EV growth operations. “Extending that same passion to electrification is a natural next step.”
Because the collector market privileges unmodified vehicles, there was an early emphasis on preserving removed gas engines so they could be reinstalled should the owners later resell. But as the practice has caught on, this has shifted, and EV-converted cars have become eminently desirable.
“Ewan McGregor came down here with his 1954 Oval Window [VW Beetle], just a beautiful showpiece, and he had a matching-numbers engine in it, and when we pulled it out, he said, ‘I want to save that motor,’” Bream says. But a year after McGregor picked up his electrified Bug, he hadn’t retrieved the gas engine. Bream messaged him, wanting to know where to send it. McGregor wrote back. “Oh, mate. I don’t want that.”