It’s been a long time coming, but I am pleased to welcome you to “EV Conversion Classics, Part 2,” a series of posts wherein I identify some of the best candidates for EV conversion from a given decade, and we’ll be starting things off with the best (potential) EVs from the 1980s!
Before we get too far though, I want to throw in a little bit of a disclaimer. I’ve done my best to split the list into categories, since not everyone wants to read about top-dollar exotic cars in the same way that not everyone wants to read about scooters or pickups or any other category. So, if your mechanical tastes lean more (or less!) towards the practical, doing the list this way should help you skip the cars, trucks, and bikes you’re not into. Second, I tried to avoid duplicates and ties. And, finally, I tried to limit the choices to vehicles that were more or less available to US audiences.
Ready? Let’s go!
Best Mainstream Sedan | Ford Taurus
It may not look like much now, but when the Ford Taurus made its debut in 1986 it looked like a freakin’ spaceship. The Taurus made every other car look ancient by comparison. It looked so futuristic, in fact, that Taruses (Taurii?) didn’t even look out of place in the far-off future world of Robocop (set in 2043). Even in 2021, the original Taurus doesn’t look 35 … until you look under the hood, that is.
That original 3.0L Ford “Vulcan” V6 made about 140 HP, and didn’t do so in a manner that was particularly smooth. Or thrilling.
What the Ford Taurus needs to go with its forward-looking design is a forward-looking powertrain, and the front drive unit/suspension sub frame of a dual-motor Tesla Model 3 should fit nicely under there. In fact, the two cars’ overall widths are within just 2” of each other, and they ride on a nearly identical ~62” front track.
You’re reading that right. I fully intend for this swap to be front wheel drive when we’re done, just like the original Taurus. And, while the single Tesla drive unit is significantly more powerful than Ford’s 3.0L Vulcan engine – it makes 221 HP and 302 TQ according to Car and Driver – the original Taurus could be had as an SHO model with an optional 220 HP Yamaha-built V6, so it’s not totally nutty. SHO, by the way, stood for “Super High Output,” would an “Electric High Output” be for you?
Best Compact Car | Honda CRX
This was an easy choice. The original Honda CRX hatchback isn’t just the best compact car of the 1980s, it’s a candidate for best compact car of all time. Such is the joy of driving the little CRX, regardless of specification. From the lowly HF to the relatively mighty Si models, the CRX inspired frugal fun and launched a generation of import tuners. No other compact of the era had a chance.
Originally a front wheel driver, there is a case to be made for turning the largely unused “storage” space under the rear hatch for something a little more engaging that sailboat fuel. Oddly enough, even if you did manage to slide an entire Tesla dual motor powertrain under a CRX, you wouldn’t be the first person to build a dual-motor CRX. That dubious honor goes to the guys at Car and Driver, who dropped a second CRX engine and transmission into that space way back in 1985.
The Model 3 is a bit wider than the stock CRX, however, so expect your dual-motor CRX to look a bit more like the 1986 MUGEN-tuned wide body from the video (below) when it’s all said and done. Still a sharp look, though – and very 80s!
Best Muscle or Sports Car | Mercedes-Benz 300E AMG Hammer
Oh, boy — where to begin? When the original AMG Hammer dropped onto the automotive scene, it did so like a … well, you know. Here was a car that packed big V8 power in a comfortable, mid-sized package. The result was an almost unfathomably fast sedan, easily capable of running down the Ferraris, Porsches, and Lamborghinis of its day.
The Hammer was more than fast, though. It was Performance Without Compromise™, and its influence can still be felt today. Don’t believe me? To almost anyone over thirty, there has always been a V8 powered mid-sized German sedan.
The Hammer was the first, and – to many – the best of the Teutonic muscle sedans, and that’s why it’s my choice to receive an EV upgrade. In place of the 6.0L Mercedes-Benz V8, I’d put a Revolt Systems crate motor under the Benz’ aerodynamic hood, loading batteries into the rear of the car until I got a perfect 50/50 front/rear weight distribution.
And, yeah, I did say aerodynamic. The AMG Hammer’s chiseled lines fairly whisked through the air with a drag coefficient of just 0.25. That’s not far off from a Tesla Model 3’s hyper-efficient 0.23, and the Benz did it without the benefit of either computer models, or a flat floor. (!)
Best Exotic Car | Ferrari 308 GTS
Sure, the Ferrari 308’s iconic Pininfarina-designed body originally debuted in 1975 as a replacement for the Dino 246, and that one might argue that this car belongs in my list of 1970s EV conversion hopefuls. They’d be wrong, though, because this car just drips of 1980s cool, and very, very few people dripped as much cool between 1980 and 1988 as Tom Selleck, in the role of Magnum, P.I..
You may not like hearing it, but this is the correct length of shorts for a man pic.twitter.com/A8RqIOEV9S
— i am the Great timholio! (@PostinMonkey) April 13, 2020
It’s almost like seeing a shark fin and not hearing the Jaws theme – it just doesn’t happen, and that makes this a car of the 80s, and a perfect addition to this list.
Why perfect? Because it’s already been done. We’ve covered the original Tesla-powered Ferrari “GTE” here before (above), as well as a second 308 built in the UK and famously drag raced against a flat-12 Testarossa of similar vintage (it won), and – in both cases – the electron sipping Ferraris are marked improvements over their fossil-fueled siblings.
This is the way.
Best Pickup Truck | Nissan Hardbody
The Nissan D21 Hardbody pickup was blessed with not just the greatest nameplate ever affixed to a beachcombing pickup truck, but also timeless good looks and dead-nuts reliable mechanicals. Sadly, the original 2.4L Z24i four-cylinder engine made just 106 HP. Configured thusly, the Hardbody was slow – which could have been forgiven, if not for the truck’s equally dismal fuel economy.
I know, I know – Nissan claimed the truck got 25 MPG, but that was before the 2008 EPA clampdown on mileage reporting. In practice, the little truck got about 19 “modern” MPG, which was less than many bigger, heavier trucks and SUVs (even back then).
How to make the Hardbody quicker and greener? The answer, as ever, is electrification, and Nissan’s own LEAF provides a perfect source of high-quality engineering. If it were me doing the swap, the first people I’d call would be the guys at Resolve-EV. They specialize in putting Nissan LEAF powertrains under the hoods of rad rides like this, and their Resolve Controller is the undisputed king of getting LEAF bits to play nice with – well, other car bits.
Best SUV / Off-Road | Lamborghini LM002
There were literally dozens of other, more sensible choices available to me here—but this is my fantasy list, and the Lamborghini LM002 is a truck that is just begging to be blasted across the desert, exploding over sand dunes in dramatic, all-wheel drive fashion. It was automotive brutalism massaged to perfection, and the only problem with the thing was that it’s V12 engine liked to explode over sand dunes in dramatic fashion, as well. Which, you know—that’s a problem.
A problem that’s easy to solve, that is. Another quick trip to the guys at Revolt Systems should do the truck here. This time, though, you’ll want to opt for a low gear set, so buy the Revolt torque box to Turbo 400 mount adapter. As Jeep has very effectively demonstrated, an extra gear here or there can work wonders off-road.
So, if you were smart enough to dump all your money into Doge when it was hovering around the 0.003 mark, call a broker and get yourself one of these. Most people – even “car” people! – don’t even know this thing exists. With Tesla power under the hood? I can only think of one modern vehicle that can even hope to compete with the visual presence of the LM … and it, too, has Tesla power.
Best Scooter | Honda CN250 Helix
The Honda Helix may not be the most iconic scooter the world has ever seen — that’s the Vespa PX, obviously – but it may well be the best. Powered by a 250cc single-cylinder engine, the Helix straddled the line between scooter and motorcycle with a feet-forward riding position, shiftless transmission, and highway-ready top speeds. Ask my internet buddy, Eric, who recently completed a cross-country scooter Cannonball Run on one of these what he thinks, and he’ll probably rate it even higher than I do.
Thankfully, we’re not the only two nerds who understand the Helix’ greatness. The bike sold in sufficient numbers that it sold in the US from 1986 all the way to 2007. That “in the US” caveat? That’s because the Helix is still in production, unchanged, in 2021.
So, yeah, people like it. “But, but, but,” you ask, “if that many people love the Helix, why aren’t they sold in the US anymore?” Remember that 2008 EPA clampdown on fuel economy numbers I mentioned earlier? In addition to more stringent fuel economy testing, the EPA also made emissions certification harder to come by, and the old-school, stone axe reliable CN250 couldn’t deliver the goods, emissions-wise.
The right answer here is not a performance-choking catalytic converter. It is, instead, cleaning your garage-queen Helix while waiting for Honda’s nearly-here electric CB300 class bike to debut, snatch the motor out of that, put a swappable battery in the cargo box, and get that Helix back on the road—a little cleaner, and a lot torquier this time around.
Best Motorcycle | Yamaha Vmax
Let’s get one thing out of the way before we get too far into this: a Yamaha Vmax should not be your first motorcycle. If it is, it will probably be your last.
In stock form, these things are terrifyingly quick — certainly faster than anything else of a 1980s vintage in a straight line. For context, they’ll run a ¼ mile deep into the 10s (and, with the right rider on a prepped track, into the 9s), and they will do so with a mechanical, clockwork consistency that will help you understand, if you didn’t already, why the Yamaha logo is not one, but three tuning forks. A Mustang GT of similar vintage would be lucky to cross the line five seconds behind it.
For more context, I sold one of these to a guy back in 2003, when I was living in Florida. He rode out of the lot, blitzed the throttle, and was gone. A short while later, he came walking back to the store. “What happened?” I asked. “Where’s the bike?”
“I parked it,” he said, still wearing his helmet. “I’ve never been so scared in my life.”
He ended up selling the bike back to us on the spot, and we sent some guys to go pick it up — about a mile and a half up the road. That 15-20 second ride cost that dude about $3000, and he seemed genuinely happy that’s all it cost him. Still, it seems like there is room for improvement … maybe we could get one into the 7s if there was a big, bad Tesla Hyperloop motor sending power to the rear wheel via the VMax’ existing shaft drive, you know?
You know — someone should get on that.
Best Race Car | Mosler Consulier GTP
The automotive press of the day decided Warren Mosler’s Consulier GTP was ugly — and it was. If it went out drinking with the Ferrari 308 GTB and Lotus Esprit S4, it would definitely be the ugly friend. Funny thing about that, the ugly friend is usually the most fun – and, on the racetrack, the slab-sided, low-nose, pointy-windshield Consulier could dance like nothing else.
The list of innovations in this car reads like a list of motorsports must-haves in 2021. Composite chassis? Check. Compact, 4-cylinder engine turbocharged to the tits? Check. Flat-bottom aerodynamics and massive amounts of both aerodynamic downforce and mechanical grip? Double-check. All of that in an ultra-lightweight package that weighs 1,000 lbs. less than its nearest competitor? The Consulier checked every box, and it did so on its debut … in 1988.
Mosler took his car racing to prove its worth, where it immediately beat everything else before the Porsche, Lotus, and Corvette teams lobbied to have the car first weighed down with ballast, then outlawed altogether when the ballast just lowered the car’s cg and made it faster.
Not content to be pushed off the competitive stage, Mosler offered first a $25,000, then a $100,000 bounty to anyone who could show up to a racetrack in a certified production car and put in a lap faster than his Consulier. The challenge was not free from controversy (or sore losers) but automotive lore is written by the winners, and Warren’s money stayed in his pockets.
Today, the car is let down by its antiquated, 225 HP 2.2L turbocharged Chrysler powerplant, and – as a lightweight sporty car with plenty of room in the frunk and trunk for batteries (yes, the Consulier had both – the engine is tucked waaay up there, just behind the drivers’ seat) it seems a natural candidate for electrification.
Mosler’s Consulier is such a naturally good candidate for an EV powertrain, in fact, that it was already done – in the 1990s.
You’re not hallucinating. That is, indeed, Leslie Nielsen presenting a Solar Electric badged Consulier “Electricar” GTP in the Nieman Marcus 1990 (?) catalog.
There were a lot of problems with this particular campaign, and almost none of them had to do with the car, in my opinion. I mean, who impulse buys an electric convertible race car out of a Neiman Marcus catalog? And who, at any point, could look at the great Leslie Nielsen in that pose, making that face, and not laugh their pants off?
The Consulier deserved – not better, maybe (who could ever be called “better” than Nielsen?), but different. And nothing says different like a hyper-efficient 21st century electric powertrain with street and track-based torque maps dialed in to perfection by AEM’s VCU200 CAN Networking Controller. Heck, they can even use the same motors they used in the Testang … and, if you thought a Consulier was awesome fun with 225 HP, wait until you drive one making 470.
Best Concept Car | Corvette Indy
Visit any sports forum, and you’ll quickly learn that greatness is a matter of opinion. It is my opinion, then, that concept cars don’t get any better looking than the 1986 Corvette Indy Concept shown here.
The car was a flexing of GM’s engineering muscle. An example of the type of supercar GM could build, if it wanted to. A car that looked absolutely incredible and that backed up its good looks 2.65-liter twin-turbo Indy V-8, rumored to put down more than 600 HP. Keep in mind, this was 1986, when the hottest Ferrari – the legendary 288 GTO – made “just” 395.
If I were GM, and I really wanted to show off the Chevrolet Electric Connect and Cruise EV conversion package the company showed at SEMA last October, I wouldn’t bother showing up with another resto-modded Blazer or Silverado. I’d pull the covers off the most beautiful concept car of the 1980s, yank out the alcohol-burning IndyCar V8, and give this car the futuristic drive train it deserves.
Ask yourself, would you rather have one of the garish C8 Corvettes that keeps getting schooled by family sedans at America’s drag strips, or something as timelessly beautiful as this? You know, if it could get into the 10s?
I think that answer is obvious.
That’s it, gang, that’s my list of the best EV conversion classic vehicles from the 1980s. As always, I’d love to hear what you think of it, what categories I’ve missed, and what cars you would have put on the list in my place, so head on down to the comments section at the bottom of the page, and make your voice heard.
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