The first time I read about an old Porsche being electrified, bemusement was soon replaced by a creeping sense of unease. Was this the beginning of the end? There is an almost unarguable case that the heart and soul of a classic car is its engine, the technical pinnacle and real source of its character. To replace it with an electric motor is to remove something absolutely essential. But we are bearing down fast on the moment when the free and easy use of petrol and diesel becomes socially unacceptable, financially prohibitive and, eventually, wholly verboten. It's no longer possible to ignore the fact that alternatives are needed now and will be all the more so in years to come. Enter then, to audible gasps from the dress circle, Electrogenic and its ICE-free 356.
Electrogenic is one of the better-known British firms spearheading a rapidly growing industry in classic conversions, having been founded in 2017 when the whole concept was still fairly alien. Co-founder Steve Drummond is a mechanical engineer with a background in designing power stations, while partner Ian Newstead is a vehicle restorer whose specialism has always been air-cooled Volkswagens and Porsches. The pair met over a flat-four and had long bemoaned that engine's lack of performance and modern-day usability before a plan was hatched to electrify Steve's own Beetle. After two years of R&D, refining existing technology and coming up with countless solutions of their own, Electrogenic opened its doors.
One of its first customer cars was this 356 C, converted some 18 months ago using a 144-volt 80kW motor that offers the equivalent of 107bhp and 235Nm of torque, over l00Nm more than the original 1600cc engine. Uniquely, this compact, low voltage motor is mated to the car's existing four-speed manual transmission, offering greater acceleration at low speeds while preserving as much of the car's driving character as possible. The gearbox is simply connected via a bespoke aluminium flywheel and competition clutch to cope with the increased torque. The choice of the lowest-powered of three motors used by Electrogenic also means apposite performance for such a car while eliminating extra cooling requirements for either the motor or its substantial front-mounted battery pack.
This fully reversible conversion increases the car's kerb weight by around 50kg, a gain that is more than offset by the additional torque of the EV drivetrain. The batteries also serve to offer a significantly improved distribution of that weight while providing more than 160 miles of real-world range. Which is plenty in a 356.
Oddly for a company making such a name for itself, the majority of Electrogenic's business is actually in creating white label EV solutions that it then sells to third parties. Converting customer cars began more as a means of development before the pandemic saw its corporate clients recede temporarily and the demand for private cars increase exponentially.
"The business is about developing the technology to go into vehicles and selling that," explains Steve. "We do the conversions to develop the tech and get it perfect. But it's hard yards making money on conversions."
The preferred route for Electrogenic's Porsche conversions is therefore to provide the technology and training to independent specialists but, for the time being, all works are being conducted in-house. Build time is in the region of three months, beginning with a consultation process that establishes the precise needs of the customer in order to tailor a solution that finds the right balance between performance, range and price. The cost of a conversion is around £45,000 before VAT, a substantial figure in isolation but considerably less than the sums being asked by some rivals. And the upshot is a future-proofed classic, with usability and reliability on a par with modern machinery while maintaining some, if not all, of the character that still sets it apart.
On the move, the combination of gearbox and electric motor is initially bewildering with no engine revs to consider despite the regular deployment of a clutch. Interestingly, it is possible to stick the car in third and drive around all day as if it were an automatic. This would be a boon in towns and cities but a challenging country road is undoubtedly its happy place and being able to row through Porsche's notchy four-speed transmission is integral to that.
It feels like heresy to suggest it but, after a while, it is possible to overlook the fact, if not forget fully, that you're driving an EV, surrounded as you are by everything else you'd expect from a 356, right down to the working instruments, enormous diameter Bakelite steering wheel and perfect period upholstery. Add to that the exact same steering weight, body roll and just-adequate braking as you pitch ponderously into a fast bend and philosophical musings about heart and soul seem secondary. A counterintuitive takeaway from one short test drive was that an inherently slow, less dynamic car like this is better suited to EV conversion. Less is lost in terms of the outgoing powertrain, while there's more to appreciate in respect of old-world aesthetics and ergonomics.
It's an odd experience, but in almost every sense a very positive one. If you were faced with the prospect of seldom, if ever, driving your 356 or being able to drive it daily in this iconoclastic form, it would be a simple decision for a lot of people to make. "Until you've driven it, you don't know," says Steve. "After 40 years as an engineer, I get frustrated with the internal combustion engine because you can do so much more with the electric motor. You can't appreciate that until you've got behind the wheel and realised that it still feels like the original car, but now it starts first time, is immediate and responsive and you never have to muck about with the jets on the carburettors. Now I can't drive an old car without thinking it'd be so much better being electric!"
Electrogenic have built 25 cars so far and its order books are full beyond Easter of 2023. Its approach is starting to find traction, then, and several of their cars are being used as daily drivers on substantial commutes. Even if such products are only part of the solution for keeping classic cars on the road, we'd do well to get behind them. Especially while the early adopters are funding development for the more sceptical masses.