Home » Help This Autopian Reader Pick The Perfect Droptop EV-Conversion Car

Help This Autopian Reader Pick The Perfect Droptop EV-Conversion Car

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One thing in the tuning world I’m excited about in the coming years is more electric vehicle powertrain swaps. My take is that there’s a lot of exciting stuff there we’ve barely scratched the surface on yet. Plus, what if you have a cool old car that always had kind of a garbage engine, like my old BMW 325e? The low-revving inline-six was the least-good thing about that car. I would’ve dumped it for batteries and instant torque in a heartbeat.

Check out this video our friends at The Drive did some years ago if you don’t believe me:

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Watch it smoke those tires! You had better believe my E30 didn’t do that shit.

Now, one Autopian reader named Jordan is thinking of doing something similar. Plus, he’s figured out a way to make Uncle Sam pay for at least some of it. Smart! Favorable tax incentives and loopholes are how you really get ahead in life, kids.

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But Jordan needs our help to figure out what to EV-swap. He wants it to be a convertible because he has good taste, but from there he needs an assist from The Autopian Hive Mind:

I’m all-in on EVs and love the idea of converting a cool-looking older car to electric to have something fun and unique for short trips around town and just for fun. I feel like a 20-ish-year-old car that looked great but had lackluster power and/or a problematic engine could be a sweet spot to buy it for cheap and then bring out the best by ditching the ICE entirely.
 
I happen to live in Washington DC, where until 2026 there is a 50% tax credit for all costs associated with an EV conversion, which means I could afford a professional job. This is good because I know I don’t have the skills or time to do this myself. With less than 3 years left on the tax credit, I’d want to buy the car sometime in the next year, to give me plenty of time to figure out the rest. This means you all don’t need to find any cars actually for sale right now, but instead, identify the ideal model I should keep an eye out for.
 
He’s right that the District of Columbia does, in fact, offer some pretty serious tax incentives for an EV conversion. I think I’d probably triple-check with their Office of Tax and Revenue to be sure, but this initially sounds promising.
 
Now EV conversions are no amateur job. You’re dealing with cutting into the car to make space for a battery, which varies from vehicle to vehicle, and you’re working with potentially dangerously high voltage levels. I am not sure I would recommend this sort of thing to just anybody. Both David and Jason have superhuman levels of indestructibility at this point.
 
But we all have to start somewhere, and it’s best to start with choosing a donor car. Jordan continues:

My wish list includes, but is not strictly limited to:

  • Convertible–targa and t-top suggestions also encouraged!
  • 4 seater and booster-seat compatible to bring the whole family along
  • Looks cool
  • Good color (or boring color but cheap enough to add a wrap to the project)
  • Good candidate for EV conversion
  • In running condition (needs to be already registered in DC to qualify for tax credit)
  • Roughly late 1990s through early 2000s
  • Under $10k
I’m definitely biased toward European cars and so I’ve come close to pulling the trigger on a Saab 9-3 (in Gatorade yellow) or a nice, red BMW 325ci, but I’ve hesitated, not knowing if these would actually be a nightmare to try to convert. I’m slightly flexible on my list, but I’m pretty sold on a drop-top unless it is extremely cool or otherwise the perfect candidate for this sort of thing.
 
After I emailed with him a bit, he seemed a bit discouraged after looking at the costs involved. Here’s where we’re at:
Since I sent this out I’ve had a few other conversations. I’ve learned if I’m paying for a pro conversion, that’s really more like a $40k+ price tag, double what I had thought. So with the tax credit (which is capped at a $19k credit) it would be more of a $35k project on the low end, or a lot of DIY, which is just a much bigger project than I had in mind. Also I’ve learned pre-OBD II cars are much easier to convert–probably for the best I didn’t get that Saab! So unfortunately I’m a little doubtful if I can really pull this off, but I still love the idea and would be fascinated to read the suggestions and comments, or inspire another DC resident to take advantage of this tax incentive to do something cool!

This stuff isn’t cheap! Not yet, anyway. But I still want us to talk about it. I know that out in California, shops like EV West offer some amazing conversion kits and outfits like Zelectric specialize in certain cars—in their case, old air-cooled Volkswagens and Porsches. So it takes some doing, but it can be done.

I do see this sort of thing becoming more common as EVs do. After all, tons of Teslas get totaled out after just minor damage even though their batteries are still good. There’s about to be a bigger supply of these things soon enough. The bigger question will be how to do the conversions, on what cars, and both safely and cheaply.

We’re in the Wild West stages of EV conversions, so let’s help this young gunslinger pick his next electric steed. Share your thoughts with Jordan below—and expect more in the way of project car advice from us soon.

David Tracy’s Thoughts:

If I had to convert a car to an EV, there are two ways I’d go about it. (I’m going to ignore the convertible part here and keep it general). If I wanted a long-range cruiser, I’d look for:

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  1. Space for batteries
  2. Body-on-frame construction (to make chassis modification easier)
  3. Reasonably small frontal area to keep vehicle demand energy down

I might go with something cushy on Ford’s Panther platform like a Grand Marquis wagon:

Screen Shot 2023 04 13 At 10.40.19 Am
Image: Mercurhy

It’s not too huge frontal area-wise, it’s body-on-frame (so you can add crossmembers/tabs for batteries and other EV components), and it got plenty of length to package everything. 

If I didn’t want a long-range cruiser, but just a commuter for ’round town activities, I might just snag something small. Maybe a VW Type III Squareback. It’s not body-on-frame, and it’s quite compact, but it should fit enough batteries in the cabin and engine bay get you at least 100 miles without breaking the bank.

Screen Shot 2023 04 13 At 10.45.07 Am
Image: VW

There are quite a few other great options for a ’round town commuter. Even an AMC Pacer wagon would get it done; maybe even a Corvair sedan? -DT]

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Scott
Scott
10 months ago

Honda S500, S600, or S800. Maybe with a steel tube frame to hold the battery box securely (and for that matter, tie together all the bits of the Honda body).

Beautiful and unusual. 🙂

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
10 months ago
  1. BMW 3 Series convertible, be careful of subframe corrosion issues
  2. SN95 Mustang convertible that’s the newest model you can find and isn’t beat to shit (haha), swap in the IRS from a cobra, and make sure to add all the extra chassis bracing you can from the aftermarket.
  3. Jeep Wrangler
Ron888
Ron888
10 months ago

Im slightly amazed how many different suggestions there have been so far. All that doesnt make Jordan’s job much easier but it’s still cool to see

Toecutter
Toecutter
10 months ago

If you didn’t insist on it being a convertible and/or were willing to convert something older, I’d have a very long list of possible candidates and those at the top of the list would be much better choices when it comes to the amount of efficiency/range you could get.

But I’m going to limit my suggestions to those that fit your criteria:

-1990s Toyota Paseo convertible. It’s light and when the top is up it has a CdA value of 6.00 sq ft, which is almost as good as a Gen II Prius

-1990s Geo Metro convertible

-Toyota Camry Solara

-1990s-2000s Mercedes E-Class convertible

-Lexus SC430

-Toyota Celica convertible

-VW Cabrio

Here’s a list of car drag coefficients for you to look at to help get ideas:

https://ecomodder.com/wiki/Vehicle_Coefficient_of_Drag_List

Michael Day
Michael Day
10 months ago

Bangle butt 6 Series. Impossible to find running and passing smog for the $$$ but end result could be awesome. Infiniti G37, audi (you will only have to drop the engine once rather than every service) lexus 430 or dare I say it solara.

W124
W124
10 months ago

I’d go for a Corvair or some bad-engined Euro-cabrio. How about Merc SL?

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