In the early days of the automobile, an individual garagiste might endeavor to build his own version of this newfangled machine that sounded like the future. Romantic, yes. But before too long, such humble operations were uniformly steamrollered by the arrival to the game of organized capital and with it the cost and vicissitudes of automation.
We’re kind of in that place again, except it’s different. A hundred and twenty years after the backyard blacksmiths and early Henry Ford–type operations embraced internal combustion as the new medium, a world of electric carmakers has arisen where inspired individuals can once again try their hand.
Make no mistake, competing at the level of today’s big dogs, including Tesla, remains a bridge too far. Way too far, in fact, farther away than Neptune (the planet not the New Jersey beach town).
But small money dreamers today see potential in this revitalized and still immature field. With quality electric motors available off the shelf and the electric car’s comparative simplicity, many things become possible, especially if your idea is to start with an existing gasoline-powered car that you want to make electric. In that sense, it’s like 1898 all over again. Or like the rise of speed and custom shops in the 1950s and ’60s.
Either way, we’ve driven and been delighted by such battery-powered mashups of old and new before—for instance, the Jaguar E-Type Zero, an electric conversion of the classic Jaguar roadster prepared by Jaguar Land Rover and first showcased as a wedding car for those swinging Windsors, Harry and Megan, who drove it off into the sunset after their royal wedding. A conversion now available through the company’s Reborn program, it benefited obviously from the involvement of a modern carmaker. But like many homespun efforts before it, it proved the concept.
Take an old car people like, electrify it, and you wind up with something people still like, a machine that is exactly as handsome as the car it repopulates with batteries and electric motor(s), but one that’s less obstreperous and cranky to operate, not to mention cleaner, cheaper to maintain, and quite possibly faster. Several companies on the West Coast will convert your air-cooled VW or Porsche to electric operation and some will convert anything. From what we understand, people who’ve popped for them are pretty happy.
So when we heard Branford, Connecticut’s Bugeye guy, David Silberkleit, was launching an all-electric Sprite, based on the baby Austin-Healy built between 1958 and 1961, we were more than a little intrigued. With new, larger premises across the street from his old shop, the Bugeye Guy has been steadily expanding his operation to the point where he says he has now sold a total of 256 of the tiny, four-cylinder BMC cuties, mostly reconditioned under his own roof, making his claim to be the largest individual seller of Bugeyes in history more difficult to doubt than ever.
So, David, why an electric Bugeye? “Well, you hear a lot from wives: ‘I love the car, but it stinks of fuel all the time.’ [With cars that aren’t used] routinely you get leaking fuel-sender gaskets. Even without working on the cars all day because I’m at my desk, I still smell like fuel.” Yet gnarly odors are only part of it, Silberkleit explains. Carburetion and electrical issues confound many owners, too, especially when cars sit unused for long periods.
“After being in this business for 12 years and having these cars come to us with those kinds of chronic issues that are in effect built-in, we have learned and worked very, very hard to try to make them as drivable and user-friendly as possible. And it is a very, very difficult task no matter how many times you do it. The key [for the electric enterprise] is to try to produce a reliable drivable platform so that people can really enjoy these cars.”
The first step, then, is to ensure that the chassis—steering, suspension, and brakes—are up to snuff. “[W]e are taking something that was never meant to be compliant with life on modern roads,” which is to say “going out on the highway at even 75 mph, and keeping up with traffic on a four-lane interstate. So, as part of making these electric, we are addressing many of the drivability issues of the drivetrain, making sure it will stop from 80 mph effectively, and ensuring it will ride well at 80 mph without wandering and being twitchy. All of those things are amplified when you turn [a classic] into something capable of competing with modern vehicles, so you have to make sure everything’s right.”
The chassis is brought “up to compliance,” Silberkleit expounds from memory, “with the optimized front sway bar, disc-brake conversion, upgraded front lever shocks—but still using lever shocks, to keep the integrity of the original design and [because] I think there is an advantage from the standpoint of ride quality. New rubber, so that it’s the supple and has the best grip. New rear leaf springs so that we get the best ride quality in the back of the car. Adjusted ride height. It’s complicated, but I think we got it all right, and we made it into a very sound platform. Then the harder part starts, which is adapting all this stuff to make it drive.”
Once the gasoline car’s engine and transmission are removed, the electric motor can be installed and mated, sans gearbox, to the rear end with a custom propeller shaft. A large controller unit is installed under the front bonnet and cooled by an antifreeze heat exchanger, while the motor itself hides out under the transmission tunnel. No gearbox means no gears (forward and reverse are your two choices) and no gear lever, but the hole from which the shifter would have once sprouted is occupied in the car we are about to drive, humorously, by a bottle of Scottish beer.
The 20-kWh, 50-cell battery pack is located in a box inside the trunk where the fuel tank would be, hard to access as ever because of the Sprite’s lack of a trunklid, and offering a range of just over 80 miles. Silberkleit expects he will offer a longer-range option, deploying used battery packs from Tesla, which ought to take range to around 130 miles. The current battery pack takes eight hours to charge at 240 volts, while you’ll need 24 hours to reenergize from an ordinary 110-volt household outlet.
Operating at 144–170 volts, a proven HPEV AC51 motor spins up to 10,000 rpm in the FrogE, producing 88 horsepower and 108 lb-ft of torque. Designed to work in small and medium cars, it features regenerative braking and will push the FrogE Sprite to 60 in around 10 seconds, roughly twice as fast as the 948-cc BMC A-Series engine it was born with. It can also propel the little roadster to road speeds of more than 100 mph, historically the province of fire-breathing racing Sprites only. It is warranted for two years.
Progress is monitored with surprising accuracy thanks to a custom speedometer that works in tandem with a small GPS device installed on the dashtop. Preserving the look of the Sprite’s simple but elegant gauges and dash layout was a high priority, so it—and a tach—have been commissioned with Sprite fonts, which make them look correct, except for handsome light-up needles that allow drivers to see them at night, which is more than any ordinary Sprite driver might expect.
“It has to have the integrity with that original feeling and spirit,” says the Bugeye Guy, so in addition to the dash, the original seats and door panels remain. However, small, additional gauges are installed to monitor the 12-volt low-charge battery, while another keeps you up to the minute on the state of the big battery pack’s charge. Modern inertia-reel safety belts are pleasant and easy to use, we note, as we prepare for a test drive in an Iris Blue FrogE, just the second conversion off the line.
“So this particular guy had a Tesla, and he had this Bugeye in his garage for 10 years, sitting there idle, in disrepair. He read about our electric conversion and he thought, ‘Well, this thing didn’t work when I parked it. I’ve got to do something with it. It’s a dead asset in my life.’ He had bought a Tesla, he loved life with his Tesla and he said, ‘Why don’t you guys convert it for me?’ So it was a perfect opportunity for us to continue to refine what we believe is a very attractive pathway for these cars. We removed a leaking, low-oil-pressure engine and put in a motor that will last for arguably 200,000 miles without ever needing anything as long as you feed it juice. There’s something very elegant about that.”
Underway, the Sprite feels both of an electric car and a Bugeye Sprite. Quiet and quick, there’s a whirring sound and a noticeable but not unpleasant level of regenerative braking from the motor. The brakes are a little spongy, but the regenerative function reduces the need for using them around town. Otherwise, the chassis feels tight and well sorted, all the new suspension pieces helping handle what is just a 75-pound weight penalty for the electric conversion (that iron-block four and gearbox were that heavy). And it truly goes, feeling even more unexpectedly quick than it is.
Being more of what Charles Kettering once called “a pliers and screwdriver” type of operation, there’s not a lot of computer simulation or intense mathematics going on Bugeye Guy that might prove it, but we thought that the Sprite felt like its center of gravity had been lowered, and it actually cornered better than previous gasoline-fired ones we’ve driven. Of course, the possibility remains that the sensation was the result of it having just been freshly rebuilt. Weight distribution is improved, Silberkleit asserts, to 50/50 from 51/49. Driving at 80 mph on the interstate was an extreme open-air experience, to be sure, but it didn’t seem implausible, dangerous, or unpleasant. You could live with this car for running errands and trips to nearby parks and picnics. Silberkleit says of the electric conversion, “I think it’s the best product we’ve ever made, but I also think it’s the best thing to happen for the marketplace and for our demographic.
“I love old cars [as they are] and there are plenty of younger customers who love these cars as we do, but as a business owner in this reality of 2019 and the way our consumers in general are aging, the people who grew up with early ’60s late ’50s sports cars, it’s an aging demographic by and large. Because of the way the automotive industry is evolving so dramatically to insulate the consumer from the driving experience, the only way to compete in that universe is with this kind of constant reliability of an electric motor.
“There are people out there who will say what we’re doing is sacrilegious or something just short of that. But on the other hand, if [electrifying old sports cars] invites new people into this arena who wouldn’t otherwise come in and join us, then this is what we need to be thinking about. And for that reason, I believe this is the best thing we’ve ever done. I’ve been beating my head up against the gasoline reliability wall for a long time.”