Is the classic future electric?

Good old Gary Newman. Between flying airplanes and keeping the makers of Gresham 2000 in business, he took time out of his busy electro-techno-twiddling life to ask us a very important question - Are Friends Electric?

Of course, at the time we thought he was absolutely batty. But then electricity became the dominant go-to green energy and suddenly we realised - our friends may never be electric, but electricity could indeed be our friend. And, quite probably, our future.

And, as Elon Musk tweeted his car firm into the mainstream, running our cars on invisible power instead of lovely, smelly liquid fuels is fast becoming the norm.. With new cars switching to electricity it wasn't much of a stretch for budding entrepreneurs to look around and surmise that the same technology might equally be applied to classic cars.

Over the last couple of years several firms have jumped in with clever e-fuelled classic car conversions. Even Jaguar got in on the act, threatening an e-equipped E-Type until the project got canned earlier this year due to funding cuts.

All of which has raised a fair question - do we want electric classic cars and are we going to get them anyway?

Classic car enthusiasts, by their nature, tend to be people who look backwards. At least in the automotive area of their lives. It's pretty much the defining characteristic of loving old cars. And so the idea that the same people would want a forward looking, new-tech version of an old car seems, on the face of it, like a bit of a stretch. It's also tempting to lump e-conversions in with other non-standard post-production modifications like engine transplants, bodywork changes and suspension tweaks. All of which tend to be frowned up.

Such is the all-embracing drive to be seen to be green that the opposition to electric classic cars has been fairly muted. But it is there. It centres around the idea that a classic car's engine is fundamental to its character - if you remove it you change what it is in a very definite way. Take an E Type for example - with a Chevy engine rather than a Jaguar engine under the bonnet it's largely worthless. Or certainly worth a lot less. Because, for many, it ceases to be 100% an E Type.

I have some sympathy with this argument. If you love a certain car then its engine is a big part of the attraction.

So it's very easy to dismiss electric classic cars out of hand. And in the process be accused of a head-in-the-sand attitude by the purveyors of e-enabled technology. Because, whether you actually like electric classic cars or not, the issue is bigger than personal preference. Just as in the wider car world, new fuels are the inevitable consequence of environmental policies and dwindling fossil fuel resources.

The trouble with the electric classic car issue is that it is too often seen as a do or die situation. Proponents of the new technology argue that it's takeover is inevitable and that resisting it is tantamount to environmental suicide. On the other side, enthusiasts seem to see electric cars as a threat to their way of life.

I prefer to see things differently. For me electric cars are part of the modification industry, like the hot rods of old. If there are some people who want electric cars, let there be people prepared to build them. But the future of classic cars does not lie in widescale electrification. To do so will rob old cars of their character - and, in most cases, it will be wholly uneconomic.

If we allow electric cars to be seen as the future of the classic car movement, or even a practical response to environmental concerns, then we risk giving up the fight to protect liquid fuel motoring. The reality is that most classic cars cannot or won't be electrified because it's relatively expensive. Even as cheaper solutions come through most owners won't want to sacrifice a large part of what draws them to specific cars in the first place - ie the engine. I count myself among them. I am sure that an electric E Type would have brought something to the model that a petrol engine lacks, but I prefer to experience an E Type as it left the factory. It's not right or wrong, it's just me.

Instead, as a classic car movement, we need to work to safeguard the exemptions we already enjoy in the use of our cars. Old cars do use fuel and they do so inefficiently. But their contribution to the warming of the planet is infinitesimal compared to, for example, cows. Like alcohol and other pleasures that give live joy and meaning, we should always be able to enjoy old cars in moderation.

Thankfully, to date legislation aimed at curtailing liquid fuel motoring has largely excluded old cars. Hopefully, with continued fact-based arguments the sector's representatives can keep lobbying to protect what the cars we love and enjoy. This includes encouraging school leavers to learn the skills required to keep old cars mobile.

Lets applaud the electric classic car innovators for broadening the appeal of old cars and helping them to address environmental concerns. But lets also agree that loving these cars as they were when they left the factory is also valid, like loving great art, and it's a passion that should be protected too.

Graham Eason, Great Driving Days

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