Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

| 4 Dec 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

“Mummy, look at that old car!” says a small child as the little Fiat pulls up at the red light of the pedestrian crossing on Hyde Park Corner.

The noise of some hundred other people, and some hundred other cars, fills the air, but as the light turns green, the Fiat pulls forward with both a silence and an urgency unlike any normal 500 at just a brush of the throttle.

“Oh my God, it’s electric!” exclaims the child’s parent.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

Can this EV-converted, classic Fiat 500 steal an enthusiast’s heart?

You’d struggle to come up with a car more likely to gather approval from passers-by than this cheeky Fiat.

In a delightful pastel blue, the Italian combines diminutive cuteness with stylish chic.

Only a Mini gets close to this level of classless urbanity, but the tiny Fiat one-ups the legendary British compact by replacing the lingering, Bovril-infused stuffiness of mid-century BMC with Torinese elegance.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

The electric Fiat 500’s Tesla batteries come with a significant weight penalty

That’s true of any Nuova 500 classic car, but whereas the typical edition of Dante Giacosa’s minuscule masterpiece might draw ire in the 21st century for the noise of its clattering twin-cylinder engine and its nitrous-oxide-rich exhaust fumes, this Fiat does no such thing.

Cars are often said to ruin cities, whether through visual clutter, noise or air pollution, but this electric-converted 500 avoids all three sins to a degree not even a modern-day Tesla can match.

That’s particularly welcome on a warm day, when the Fiat reflects its Mediterranean origins: once its windows are open and the cloth sunroof flung back with ease, those inside become part of the community of a given street as much as a pedestrian, cyclist, street-seller or dog-walker.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

Subtle exterior changes hint at this Nuova 500’s updated powertrain

Even the most ardent car-hating city-dweller can’t resist this 500’s charm, and it’s equally guilt-free to drive.

Once the preserve of a few eccentric hippies fitting trays of lead-acid batteries in the boots of old bangers in their garages, electric conversions are now a multi-million-pound industry across the UK and beyond.

But can an electric conversion really be a viable solution for the hundreds of thousands of regularly driven classics across the world?

And is it a desirable one?

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

The standard Fiat 500 transmission is retained in this battery-powered conversion

A drive across London, where this 500 EV should be best suited, and a chat with varied voices from the classic car world along the way, will get us closer to the answer.

Classic Chrome in Mortlake, west London, has sold electric-converted 500s built by Powys-based Electric Classic Cars, including this one, since 2017.

It’s a very standard-looking 1967 500F inside and out; only the absence of an exhaust tailpipe gives the conversion away on the exterior.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

‘It feels extremely odd pulling away with so little fuss, and it surprises everyone who sees the car’

Inside, the battery-condition readout in the under-dash stowage bin provides an obvious clue, although the eagle-eyed will also notice that the choke and heater cables under the handbrake are gone, replaced by a two-stage dial control for the electric heater.

“We thought it would be great for London to convert a bunch of Fiat 500s, and we had a lot of interest at shows and in the press,” says Garry Shortt, founder of Classic Chrome.

“But it didn’t take off, and we just sell the odd conversion that comes back to us now, such as this one. I think they were just too expensive.”

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

This pastel blue classic Fiat 500 is surprisingly green, too

Garry is the first to admit that a converted Fiat 500’s biggest competition is a regular, petrol-powered 500, which would be at least £10-15,000 cheaper in equivalent condition.

This conversion from 2016 is offered at £26,995 today.

“We did them at cost price, at a time when batteries were cheaper,” says Garry, “I think it would be even more expensive now.”

Classic Chrome has returned to focusing on the petrol-powered Minis, Porsches and Jaguars that have always been its main stock in trade.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

London dealer Peter Bradfield is confident there’s life in petrol-powered classic cars yet

If EV conversions are the future, it seems that it’s too early for the mainstream enthusiast market.

“It might be the only way to keep these classics on the road one day,” reflects Garry, “but not in my lifetime.”

With a turn of the key on the dashboard one click clockwise there’s a muted, barely audible hum and, just like that, it’s ready to go.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

The little Fiat 500 looks like lunch to the vintage Bentleys peering through the window of Peter Bradfield’s showroom

The 500 retains its original gearbox to connect the motor to the wheels, but there is no need for cog-swapping on the road unless you need reverse: simply dip the clutch in and out as you engage second before applying any throttle or achieving any motion.

From here on in, it’s just throttle to speed up and brake to slow down.

It’s extremely odd moving off with so little fuss, and it surprises everyone who sees the car.

Without warning, it just rolls away.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

The Fiat 500 hides its electrical components very neatly

The throttle is well modulated, though, avoiding the kangarooing behaviour that can be a side effect of other EV conversions, and instead it gives itself a second or so of thinking time before delivering full torque.

When it does, however, it’s impressively brisk.

With four Tesla batteries on board, the Fiat is significantly heavier than standard, but its 65bhp is nearly quadruple the car’s original power, so it would give even the raciest Abarth-tuned 500s of the period a run for their money – certainly in its 0-60mph acceleration, at least.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

Compact, emissions-free and near-silent. This electric Fiat 500 feels in many ways the perfect urban runabout

After heading for Putney Bridge the first stop is Kensington, where the quirks of an EV conversion start to become apparent.

The noises are very different, for one: without an engine, there’s a lot else to hear that you never normally would.

Gearbox whine is the single loudest sound, while the hum of the electric motor changes in pitch in time with the indicators.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

Losing its clattering twin-cylinder engine has not stripped the Fiat 500 of its charm

Rattles are more easily heard, but in fairness the interior of a 500 is so austere there’s little to make a noise in the first place.

More disconcerting are the creaks and groans of the running gear, in particular the sound of the steering rack straining at low speeds.

This sort of thing is audible in many EV conversions, but not helped in this car by the two batteries slung over the front axle.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

The Fiat 500’s peeled-back roof adds to the happy-go-lucky experience

That extra heft has required Fiat 126 suspension to be fitted, but it’s still quite a heavy rack at low speeds.

No issue once over 10mph, but electric power steering might be a useful addition.

Yet as well as heft, the steering has terrifically quick response from lock to lock, and once in motion the Fiat offers real joy even in 30mph urban driving, darting into narrow gaps or making last-minute turns into side streets.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

In the cabin, there are small clues that this is no ordinary Fiat 500

That agility comes in handy as we steer into the narrow South Kensington mews where you’ll find dealer Peter Bradfield’s charming premises, with a pair of pre-war Bentleys in the window, another Bentley and an Invicta just behind.

Peter’s stock is at the higher end of the market and, by dint of the age of his cars, aimed at enthusiast buyers.

“They are not yet worried about how they will find fuel in the future,” Peter says of his clients and, by implication, himself.

“If a comet was about to hit the earth, the owners of cars such as these would be driving them right up to the last moment.”

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

EV-converted classic cars make most sense in cities like London

With good evidence behind him in the form of the COVID pandemic and then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Peter emphasises the unpredictability he sees in the next 20 years, particularly in areas of energy policy: “It is going to be a mixture of fossil fuels, hydrogen, electric, hybrids and whatever.

“Petrol might become more expensive, perhaps more niche, but there’s still going to be demand for it.”

Similarly, Peter queries the environmental benefit of electric cars, suggesting we’d likely create less CO2 by running our current cars as they are.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

The battery-condition display is stashed under the Fiat 500’s dashboard

Certainly, if new batteries were being made for converting classic cars, which will be necessary if the popularity of such conversions increases, the equation would never stack up.

A classic car’s mileage is so small that the CO2 saving of changing to electricity would take multiple decades to compensate for the emissions created by the act of conversion.

For now, however, most classic EVs are made using salvaged batteries, not new ones, and CO2 is only half the environmental argument.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

Fiat 126 suspension has been fitted at the front to deal with the extra weight

In cities, the issue of air quality is at least as important, and here an EV-converted classic is an unequivocal win – although, it must be said, not financially, because there are plenty of classic cars that are granted exemptions from emissions-control schemes such as London’s ULEZ by virtue of their age.

“But there’s a place for everything,” adds Peter.

“Perhaps there will be a cheerful rivalry between electric stuff and petrol cars in a few years, like there is between, say, the pre-war Bentley and Vauxhall fans.

“I don’t think people will necessarily come to me looking to sell their electric classics, but I always say that if the price is right, I can sell anything!”

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

The electric Fiat 500 provides a classic motoring experience with a modern twist

Turning back out of the cobbled mews and heading towards Westminster, the Fiat gets to stretch its legs through the quiet, embassy-lined streets of Belgravia and zips around Belgrave Square’s wide, unmarked loop.

It’s the closest we’ll get to Rome’s famously anarchic Piazza Venezia, where 500s traditionally earn their spurs – and dents.

There’s not much room to stretch out inside, and without any need to push the clutch pedal, the constant hovering of your left foot becomes tiresome.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

In the absence of an engine, gearbox whine becomes the loudest sound in this electric Fiat 500

Once back in bumper-to-bumper traffic at Parliament Square, however, any desire to use a clutch pedal disappears.

As we make progress of only metres at a time, passing tourists get plenty of opportunities to take photographs of the little Fiat, and we have a couple of conversations at red lights before reaching Westminster Bridge.

It can feel vulnerable in the tiny 500 when the roads get tighter and you are pushed up against a bus, but you’re also let out of junctions and given space to change lanes with unparalleled regularity.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

Room for a small one?

Our final stop is beneath the arches of Waterloo Station, where one of Britain’s first classic EV conversion specialists, London Electric Cars, is located.

Founder Matthew Quitter is, unsurprisingly, an evangelist for converting classics to electric power, but he’s quick to admit the challenges.

“When I started London Electric Cars, the goal was to create affordable EV conversions,” he says.

“It was a huge mistake. There’s no benefit in racing to the bottom. I had this idea you could do it for under £20k. No chance. Just no chance.”

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

Price is the biggest obstacle when converting a classic car to electric power

The amount of labour involved in any EV conversion is significant, explains Matthew, but more than that, it is the R&D involved in converting a model for the first time.

“We did a Morris Minor Traveller and put a Nissan Leaf motor in it, which more than doubled the power, quadrupled the torque and added 350kg of weight,” says Matthew, recounting one of his early mistakes.

“The chassis, the springs and the brakes were all struggling, and you had to remove a battery pack just to change a headlight.

“So we had to start again with a smaller motor and battery pack.”

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

London Electric Cars founder Matthew Quitter has learned that classic EV conversions can’t be done on the cheap

As a lifelong classic car nut who owns an electric-converted Minor and a petrol-powered Triumph Spitfire, it became clear to Matthew that focusing on classics was the answer given both the passion and the budgets that owners have to look after them.

“We started to get new customers who love how a classic car looks, but hate them for their lack of reliability and their fumes,” he says.

With rising component costs also having an impact, Matthew now quotes £100,000 or more for a conversion on a model he’s never tackled before.

But a basic update on a more familiar car, such as a Morris Minor, a Mini or a Land-Rover, starts at £30k.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

‘Our’ electric Fiat 500 next to an Austin-Healey at London Electric Cars

It’s not just costs that have changed in the past five years, however: the DVLA has also become much stricter on the practice.

“They started to get so many enquiries that they freaked out a bit,” says Matthew.

“For a short period of time, they just shut it all down. Now they send an engineer.”

As a result, any electric conversion must now be careful not to modify the chassis or monocoque of a car in any way, or it may find its V5 withheld and require re-registering under a ‘Q’ plate.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

The Fiat 500 has never struggled with tight urban parking

“All I used to hear was ‘sacrilege!’,” smiles Matthew, “but we’re not doing anything that is so substantial that you couldn’t reverse it, and with some of the cars we have we’re doing so much restoration work that we are almost turning it back to original form before we convert.”

Pleasingly, Matthew isn’t too high-minded about his conversions, considering himself just the latest in a long line of hot-rodders who have looked to make old cars more powerful and reliable.

“It’s entirely up to the owner, and always has been,” he says. “There are people who will tell you that you’ve ruined a car just for changing the steering wheel.”

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

This EV-converted classic Fiat 500 is in great condition

Leaving Waterloo and taking the Fiat back to Mortlake is just a case of following the South Circular, but the route tests the car’s ride.

The 500 felt composed north of the Thames, with the extra weight taking away the bounciness of the standard car.

But the poor surfaces south of the river reveal there’s only so much you can do with limited suspension travel and small wheels: big potholes or sunken manhole covers are spine-shattering, and best avoided.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

Belgrave Square in London provides entertaining respite in the nimble Fiat 500

After a few hours in the 500, the novelty of its electric propulsion begins to fade, and instead it’s just a Fiat that’s easier to drive, less noisy and less temperamental.

Given that a standard Nuova 500 features an engine even many owners aren’t that keen on, this car seems an ideal candidate for an EV conversion.

The move generally makes far more sense in an urban context – both for the benefits to air and noise pollution, and because of the shorter journeys.

In this trip to Central London and back, the Fiat used just one bar of the four on its battery-charge indicator – and that was with plenty of back-and-forth for photography.

Classic & Sports Car – Electric Fiat 500: shock therapy

Electric classic cars have their place in an ever-changing world

For many classic car enthusiasts, including me, an electric-converted classic doesn’t quite scratch the itch for evocative historic motoring if it were the only old car in the garage.

But as part of a small fleet of classic cars, I can definitely see the sense in it.

It might not be that distant in the future when petrol becomes a lot more difficult to buy and more expensive – maybe even limited to keeping a home supply in a 45-gallon drum.

So, a two-car garage of an internal-combustion-engined classic to savour the joy of petrol power and an electric one in which to do the daily grind? Yes please.

Images: Jack Harrison

Thanks to: Classic Chrome; Peter Bradfield; London Electric Cars

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