Electric dreams

With the production of fossil fuel–powered motor cars to cease at the end of this decade in the UK, the electric age of motoring is well and truly upon us. By Jon Bentley

The Hon Charles S Rolls proved himself something of a futurologist in April 1900 when he experienced an early US-built electric car called the Columbia. Although it was a modest “runabout” with a maximum speed of 20mph and a range of just 40 miles, he nevertheless declared it to be, in many ways, the shape of cars to come and, in other ways, well before its time.

“The electric car is perfectly noiseless and clean,” he said. “There is no smell or vibration, and they should become very useful when fixed charging stations can be arranged. But for now, I do not anticipate that they will be very serviceable – at least for many years to come.” At the time, electric automobiles represented around 40 per cent of the US market, but range anxiety was an issue, even back then.

Electric cars undoubtedly inspired the development of early Rolls-Royce motor cars. At a dinner to celebrate his victory in the 1906 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race, Rolls declared, “No one will deny that electricity is the ideal motive power for purely town or city work. Many attempts have been made to contrive the sweet running and luxury of the electric carriage with the independence of the petrol car, but none of them can be said to have succeeded. We have decided to attack this important problem.” With the Silver Ghost, Rolls-Royce did exactly that and helped ensure the petrol engine would dominate for the next hundred years or so.

The breakthrough that would finally make Rolls’s electric vision a reality was, of course, the lithium-ion battery. This invention, generally credited to the work of John Goodenough at the University of Oxford in the 1970s and 1980s, was initially used to power laptops and phones. Nissan was the first to market a car powered by the technology, but it was Elon Musk who famously saw its true potential, tackling the market step by step. First, he practised by making a sports car that proved electric cars could be a hoot to drive. Then, he launched a luxury saloon, a market sector where buyers would appreciate the rapid acceleration of an electric car, while a high sticker price would help absorb the cost of the batteries. As costs fell, he moved on to an SUV and a lower-priced compact executive saloon. Even better, he provided the network of high-speed, fixed charging stations that Rolls anticipated were necessary all those years ago. Tesla’s revolution coincided with increasing concerns about global warming and local pollution, leading some governments to propose banning sales of new cars with internal combustion engines. Practically every manufacturer has announced plans to go electric. Even Ferrari.

Rolls-Royce’s public explorations of electric power remained in prototype form until very recently. In 2011, the company revealed its 102EX, a fully operational all-electric Phantom with twin 145kW motors. It was widely praised for its silent and seamless surge of torque that suited the car’s character. This was followed in 2016 by the 103EX, a more comprehensive, autonomous vision of how the marque might develop many decades into the future.

On 29 September 2021, however, Torsten Müller-Ötvös, CEO of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, announced the company’s first electric production car, the Spectre, with deliveries set to commence in 2023. He declared that it was the most significant day in the history of the company since 4 May 1904, when Charles Rolls and Henry Royce first met and agreed that they were going to create the “Best Car in the World”.

“Charles Rolls’s prophecy has been the subject of constant consideration during the marque’s Goodwood era,” he said. “But we have not been satisfied that available technology could support the Rolls-Royce experience. Until now.”

He noted that Sir Henry Royce was fascinated by electric motors; his first company made dynamos and electric crane motors and patented the bayonet-style light bulb fitting. In his car engineering, Royce was aiming to build a petrol-fuelled car with an electric-engine experience, including silent running, and a very torquey powertrain that feels like one imperceptible gear. It is a tradition that the Spectre will continue, while also bypassing the hybrid stage of electric car development.

“Electric drive is uniquely and perfectly suited to Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, more so than any other automotive brand,” Müller-Ötvös continued. “It is silent, refined and creates torque almost instantly, going on to generate tremendous power. This is what we at Rolls-Royce call ‘waftability’.”

Rolls-Royce has released few details of the car at the time of writing. Reports suggest the list price will be around £300,000, with an expected power output of around 600bhp and some 800 pound-feet of torque from at least two electric motors providing all-wheel drive. The car will use a version of the aluminium spaceframe architecture that first appeared on the Phantom in 2017 and subsequently featured on the Cullinan and the Ghost.

Range anxiety shouldn’t be a problem, according to Müller-Ötvös, because his customers typically live in cities and use their cars for short journeys, preferring their private jets to travel long distances. They would have charging facilities at their home and business, so the lack of a dedicated charging network, like Tesla’s, isn’t seen as a problem. One of the most common questions owners have asked the CEO in recent years is when the company will launch an electric car. “If you’re not allowed to enter city centres in a Rolls-Royce, it’s game over,” he says. “We need to keep building the cars these clients want.”

As for the name Spectre, it’s “as powerful and evocative as the nameplates that have served us so perfectly for the past century – names like Phantom, Ghost and Wraith. It’s a name that perfectly fits the ethereal and otherworldly environment within which our products exist.”

A new Rolls-Royce model is only part of the electric story, though. There is a growing interest around the world in converting classic cars to electric power. As a marque, Rolls-Royce boasts a high survival rate – 80 per cent of the cars built, according to the company – and many look destined to be converted. Inevitably, it is a controversial subject. Some enthusiasts feel the original petrol engine is the beating heart of a car and a vital element in its character. Thanks, in part, to expert lobbying by classic car groups, these historic vehicles – those over 40 years old in the UK – are usually exempt from environmental legislation in cities, so conversion isn’t really necessary, they argue. There’s also the promise of synthetic fuels that, while expensive, can be carbon neutral and capable of reducing local pollution. Classic cars may be able to run on them with no modifications at all.

The pro-conversion side of the debate is that it makes a classic motor car cleaner, faster, more reliable and better to drive – all encouraging its use. In the future, cities may see fit to ban all internal combustion-engined vehicles and an electrified classic would escape this fate. Conversions are almost always reversible; to keep a car’s original registration number, the UK’s DVLA demands converters retain the chassis or monocoque, and only change two out of either the engine, transmission, suspension or steering. A pre-1990s car, incidentally, is generally easier to tackle – there aren’t as many dedicated systems to modify, such as airbags, ABS and traction control.

Enthusiastic specialists are sprouting up everywhere. One of the leading converters in Britain is Electric Classic Cars of Newtown in Powys. Like many companies, it started with rear-engined Volkswagen Beetles because they are relatively straightforward – the motor bolts straight to the transaxle. These cars typically have small batteries of around 21kWh and 100 miles range. They have since set about converting Porsches, a Lancia Fulvia, Fiat 500s, Ferrari Testarossas and even a Gordon-Keeble. Costs of conversion range from £25,000 to more than £100,000. The company hasn’t performed a Rolls-Royce transplant yet. “We only convert cars for clients, we don’t convert to sell and nobody has brought us one,” says Jon Peck, Head of Customer Liaison. But that could soon change. “I’ve quoted for quite a few… and I do have one customer with a Shadow on the waiting list.”

Oxford-based specialist Electrogenic has converted a Silver Shadow. It followed a Citroën DS. Having successfully replaced the mechanical pump running the Citroën’s hydropneumatic suspension with an electric one, it seemed natural to convert a Shadow, as it uses a similar system.

Steve Drummond, Electrogenic’s CEO, is a Shadow enthusiast. Many people, he feels, are put off owning one due to engine maintenance costs. “Take all the complicated bits away and you’ve got one of the most beautiful machines on the planet and it just goes.”

Drummond’s Shadow is owned by the company and he is in the process of upgrading it from a 110-volt system to 400 volts. This will allow for more rapid charging at 50kW, making longer journeys possible. That is faster than the 7kW of a typical domestic charger, but some way below the 350kW of ultrafast public chargers. “Above 50kW you need to put cooling into the packs, which costs more and you’re then developing a battery pack that has fluid inside, which is more complex,” he explains.

A Shadow conversion would “start at about £50,000”, but Drummond doesn’t see the need to upgrade the suspension and brakes. Unless you are after a Tesla-beating range, the batteries, though heavy, weigh less than the engine and gearbox. With manual cars, Drummond prefers to keep the gearbox and retain more of the character of the car, but not on the automatic Shadow. Electrogenic is converting some pre-war Rolls-Royce motor cars as well, though details are confidential, and on these the gearbox is also removed. One challenge is that “the brakes work via the gearbox, which is interesting – you take the gearbox away and you’ve got no brake servo”. As for the leftover engines, they belong to the customers, who appear to be hedging their bets. Electrified classics are often sold with their matching number engine in a crate, so there’s still the option to reinstall it.

Though many in the business use salvaged Tesla batteries and motors, Electrogenic prefers new batteries with more favourable, flexible form factors and which allow for a more sympathetic conversion. Tesla motors offer speed but require new microprocessors and other components that aren’t guaranteed, and most classic car owners don’t need the performance anyway. Instead, Electrogenic buys guaranteed motors directly from suppliers in Switzerland and Germany, while developing their own electronics, battery management and charging systems.

US firm Shift EV in Albany, Oregon, converted a 1970 Silver Shadow that once belonged to Johnny Cash using a brand new Tesla Model S as the donor car. The Shadow’s original hydraulic suspension and braking system had to go, as the customer demanded the roadholding and handling of a modern car. The Tesla motor fits in the back, the car keeps a 50/50 weight distribution and now has 200 more horsepower, as well as ABS and traction control. Fitting everything in was a tight squeeze; smaller components, from steering wheel angle sensors to brake callipers and hubs, had to be sourced from other cars. The huge Tesla touchscreen is hidden in the boot and the company developed its own tiny screen, for the most important readouts, which fits discreetly into the original dashboard.

Obviously, restoration is part of any transplant. A very thorough exponent of the art is Lunaz, based at Silverstone. The inspiration behind the enterprise is David Lorenz, who started out in the hospitality business and soon began indulging his interest in classic cars. One of them, a Mercedes-Benz 190 SL, broke down while his daughter, Luna (after whom the company is named), was aboard. He decided that he needed to do something to make classics more reliable, usable and sustainable.

In 2018, Lorenz teamed up with ex-Formula 1 engineer Jon Hilton, whose career culminated as Technical Director of Renault, and who had worked extensively with KERS (kinetic energy recovery system) technology. He has developed a modular motor and control software system that can be adapted to a variety of vehicles, with torque characteristics that suit everything from a 4×4 to a sports car.

They started with an XK120 Jaguar, but the second car in the plan was a Rolls-Royce Phantom V fitted with a 120kWh battery for a range of 300 miles. A Silver Cloud followed with a smaller battery but a similar range.

The company is concentrating on top British marques, aiming to convert 100 cars a year. At the start of 2022, 40 were under the scalpel, including several Aston Martin DB6s and Mk1 Range Rovers. The price for a conversion is spectacularly expensive. The Phantom V comes in at £500,000. For the Silver Cloud it’s £350,000. The DB6 is £960,000, including the donor car.

Customers can provide their own cars or they can be guided in their selection of a donor. Either way, every car is stripped back to bare metal and 3D scanned, and all components are meticulously catalogued. This may seem a brutal way to treat what are sometimes concours cars, but the company’s Director of Communications, James Warren, says, “We’ve had some real shockers that are absolutely rotten beneath their gleaming paint. You’d never have known if you hadn’t stripped them right back.”

Every car is rebuilt with an upgraded suspension and brakes, and engineered “like a new car”, but one that retains a great deal of the touch and feel of the original. The wood is kept but refinished. Seats retain the original springs but are heated and adjusted electrically. You obviously lose the old car smell but that is a casualty of most car restorations.

There is considerable opportunity for bespoke in the rebuild – the car can be tailored as required, whether a totally historic recreation of what first came out of the factory or something that revels in newer materials and colours. Lunaz has accurately remanufactured toggle switches to provide extra controls for the modern air-conditioning system and carried out blind tests to ensure its electric gear shifter has the same feel as the original mechanical one. As for the engines, while they can be “archived”, some customers prefer to “upcycle” them as coffee tables or decorative objects.

Lorenz is discreet about the identity of most customers but does reveal that several are hotel groups. “Some of the most beautiful hotels in the world – whether in London, Paris, New York or Tokyo – want to think ahead and show that they’re caring about the environment, and it goes hand in glove that their beautiful Rolls-Royce Phantom V is electric,” he says. In one example, a Silver Cloud that once belonged to Sophia Loren is being retrimmed in cream and gold to match the colours found in a Portuguese hotel’s interior.

One private owner commissioned an electric green-on-green 1961 Bentley Continental Flying Spur. He has a collection of pre-war cars and the Bentley will replace his modern Rolls-Royce Ghost as the family daily driver, including hitting the road with his grandchildren.

As for future values, Lorenz, not surprisingly perhaps, predicts that values will increase. “We’ve only sold a couple of cars on the secondary market today, all with premiums attached to the original sale price. It’s the basic economics of anything where there’s more demand than supply.”

He definitely has his eyes on the future. “I’m not just building these cars for today. I want them on the road for the next 200 years,” he says. In the race to go electric, it looks like the new Spectre may face competition from Rolls-Royce’s own heritage.