Electrogenic's Porsche 356 brings EV tech to a classic car – smart or sacrilege?
The electrification of classic cars is a dividing issue. One camp believes it to be sacrilege; that removing the engine from a historied vehicle and replacing it with anything other than a fully restored (or heavily upgraded) take on the same is the only way a classic should be treated. Matching-numbers perfection or nothing, basically. The other camp believes that a vehicle is another way to express yourself. Wanna make it purple with spots? Feel free! Want to put a Saab engine in place of a Citroën lump? Go ahead. Electrogenic is very much in the latter camp, because it takes the internal combustion engines out of classic cars and replaces them with electric powertrains specced to the customer’s desire.
In the case of Electrogenic’s Porsche 356, that meant peeling a very-much-loved 1.6-litre flat-four motor from the rear and replacing it with an air-cooled 120bhp 173lb-ft electric motor hooked up to a 36kW battery giving it a 140-mile range. This, if some are to be listened to, removes the car’s soul. What most electric conversions do is remove the gearbox, making the chosen car a very quiet, lightning-quick one-speed automatic – not so in the case of Electrogenic’s 356. You can keep the four-speed manual, and use it to meter out torque as you would a ‘normal’ car.
When the team gets your car, they’ll drive it to see how it should handle, then remove the oily bits. After that, they’ll 3D-scan under the hood and see how much space there is to fit EV… stuff in there. Here’s the smart bit – the first of any kind of vehicle becomes a sort of test bed. They know the kit works, but Electrogenic will keep an eye on the car’s systems to make sure it’s integrating with the classic car tech smoothly. With the setup sorted, eventually customers will be able to order a kit that a local/trusted mechanic can fit to their car.
Getting in the 356, you wouldn’t know anything’s been messed with. It was only when Electrogenic’s rep told me that the car was already on and in gear that things became ‘different.’ As there’s plenty of torque from the off, you can set off in whichever gear you’re in. I set off in second, the car made no complaints – just foot down and go. It would have been happy accelerating away and staying in second, like a normal EV would be in its usual single-gear setup. However, when things started getting a little faster, I could feel it was reaching a ceiling. Shifting up for a bit more grunt isn’t quite the same as a traditional manual. While you need to dip the clutch and swap ratios, there’s no need to blend the throttle back in. Instead, once the lever’s in place, you need to fully reengage the clutch, then reapply the pedal on the right. Think of it as you would an old robotised manual – when you pull the paddle (or shift, in this case), wait for the gear to be fully engaged before getting back on it.
It’s a small adjustment, but it helps the little 356 keep its character. You can barrel into corners, knock it down a gear, balance it gently round a bend, then fire yourself out the other side. Lap after lap, the 356 kept me engaged, and excited. It helped that there was plenty of power for such a small car to play with.
Despite the engineering being kept conventional by a design team of Fiat engineers Nebbia, Fessia, Giacosa and Tranquillo Zerbi the idea behind this little car was to bring something of the luxury automobile to people who could not afford a large luxury car. Sale price for a new 508 Balilla was 10,800 lire which kept it affordable to middle class buyers.
The following year, 1933, Fiat created an upgraded Sport model of the car called the 508S. This model’s engine was upgraded to produce 30bhp and the sports version was given some more stylish coachwork notably a spyder by Ghia and an Aerodinamica 2 door coupé.
Now, losing its distinctive four-cylinder motor thrum will have upset some people, but that’s not to say the tiny ’leccy Porsche is noise free. Its powertrain comes with a distinctive hum, one that gets louder the faster you go. It’s not a scary noise, nor is it irksome at speed. It accompanies your pedalling as you go. It gives the car a different, but rather wonderful character.
The rest of the driving experience is as close to a ‘pure’ 356 as you can get. Its steering is direct, and gives you plenty of feedback. At low speed, though, it’s heavy – after some laps on track, my right shoulder was complaining. It felt light (yes, even with all the EV bits in there), and was an utter joy to flick from corner to corner.
Some are going to hate the idea of Electrogenic’s 356. They’ll get all huffy about heritage, originality and purity. What they won’t take into account is that the person who actually owns this car chose to go this route. That for them, the 356’s design is perfect, and its drive is just as entertaining with electrons running to the rear wheels as it was with petrol.
Thing is – the Porsche 356 rather suits the EV treatment. And, when you think about it, electricity is going to be more readily available than petrol in the coming decades. Like it or not, Electrogenic might just be on to something. But no one’s telling you to convert your classic Porsche, are they?
Source: GQ-magazine, Alex Goy