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That classic VW Bug could be an electric vehicle

Episode Summary

As high gas prices fuel demand for electric cars, people and companies are getting creative.

Episode Notes

Classic cars are a staple of California culture, but they have a dirty secret – they're gas guzzlers. And with gas prices so high, collectors are beginning to convert their cars into electric vehicles. In this episode, L.A. business reporter Ronald D. White talks about the creative ways that Californians are getting their hands on electric cars.

Episode Transcription

Gustavo: Mark Wagner is used to getting attention for his classic VW bug: Mint condition. Convertible. Beautiful. But his favorite part is when people notice what's going on in the engine.


See, a few years ago, Wagner made a change, and his '62 ragtop went from sounding a little like this....

[Gas engine rev]

to sounding like this

[Electric engine rev] 

Mark Wagner: What's funny is how few people notice that it's quiet. They're like there's something missing. It's fantastic when they figure it out.

Gustavo: That's right: he went electric.


Gustavo: I'm Gustavo Arellano, you're listening to the Times, daily news from the LA Times, it's Tuesday, July 5, 2022. 

Classic cars are a staple of California culture, but they have a dirty secret – they're gas guzzlers. So now collectors are beginning to solve that problem by making the rides electric – and everyone else wants in.


Everyone wants an EV these days. Gas prices, the whole global warming thing, and, I mean, the cars are just cool. But today my colleague Ron White tells us the lengths some Californians are going to get their hands on one. 

Ron, welcome to The Times. 

Ron White: Thank you very much, Gustavo, thank you.

Gustavo: So the first person I knew who ever bought a Tesla was my cousin Plas and I remember when he bought it, we made fun of him for buying what we thought was going to be a loser car. And here we are, uh, almost a decade later. And the demand for not just Teslas but electric vehicles, it's completely out of control.

Ron White: The demand is very high. There have been reports that as many as one in four people are saying that they want their next car to be an EV. You will find incredibly long waiting lists for these companies. But my wife has an EV. Her lease ran out a year ago. There are no new versions of her car and she's very loyal. She loves her car. So she wants another one just like it. And they're not available.

Gustavo: So if there's a demand, you'd think there'd be a supply. I mean I // learned that in high school economics, but we know that the past couple of years have messed up that old economics rule. So what happened.

Ron White: // We started writing about this in 2021. When the supply chain disruption occurred and. There weren't enough ships. There was incredibly high demand probably because we've been so pent up in our houses for so long at the time. So there was booming demand. But these companies are having a big problem firing up their production.


Ron White One particular company. It's got a very snazzy new EV pickup truck. They were promising to build 25,000 this year. And as of may, I think they were about 5,000. So the production problems are tremendous. 


Ron White  A lot of the ocean bound shipping companies mothballed their fleets and then had to restart them. And. The first time my //  memory that the entire supply chain was a mess. It was the factories in China that continued to close because of COVID. It was a lack of shipping. It was a lack of dock workers to unload the ships, the trains that move the cargo once it's left the ship they were also backed up as much as three, four miles at times. There's a shortage of truck drivers. 

Ron White Pretty much any part of the supply chain that you can think of wasn't working properly.

And that was a very rare thing.

Gustavo: Every step of the way. That was just incredible. Then on top of all that people just wanted those EVs more than ever before.

Ron White: Have you looked at the fuel prices to. And it's terrible. every day is a record, regular gasoline in California is selling for an average of $6,, which is just unbelievable. When you think about. What makes this //  worse is that in the past had spikes before, but they went away after a while. They didn't always come back down to where they were, but they came back down. This is just continuing to go up and up. And there's no end in sight to it. We are now about to have a total of, I believe 98 companies who are in the development stage and are planning EVs. // They range from luxury additions to unfortunately not enough of those that are affordable. It's something that probably would've changed car buying quite a bit, if not, for these other factors that were having to deal with.

Gustavo: Damn // And so because of that, people are starting to get creative about getting EVs and you've been writing about some of the ways they've done that. And one of the things that people are doing now is converting their regular gas cars to EVs. So how does that happen?

Ron White: We went down to one of California's premier EV conversion companies. It's called EV West,. which is Down in the San Diego area run and owned by Michael Bream.

Michael Bream: Here's the rear pack front pack, whole drive. Here's our Tesla motor control system cooling system. electric power steering assist.

Ron White: The guy running it is a hot rodder. He says that first and foremost, and it has a secondary thing. He's an environmentalist. He manages to salvage ed batteries from wrecked Teslas, you would be surprised at the number of wrecked Teslas that are out there.

Gustavo: Oh boy.

Ron White: Talked about, yeah, conspicuous consumption. He had a situation where a guy had just bought one, wrecked it and said, do you want it? And he just had bought a new one the next week. So this is ridiculous. So anyway, he's at any given time he's got four or five of these things sitting out there. Looking very forlorn and being picked apart for the batteries, especially.

Mark Wagner: Probably 10 years ago. I realized, yeah, all I want is a classic Beetle, but with an electric motor in it. And then it dawned on me, somebody must do that.

And what he does is for one of the people we wrote about Mark Wagner and his 62 rag top VW. 

Ron White: He takes about a third of the battery and it's getting him about a hundred miles per charge, which is fine for him and his daily commute. 

Mark Wagner: boy, it was a good time to convert my car. I mean, it was, it saved me money right away, anyway, but now with gas prices being what they are, it's, you know, everybody's paying a hundred bucks to fill the tank if, you know, if not more.

Ron White:The EV conversion of the VW was about $16,000. So it's not cheap in some of these situations 

Michael Bream: Your customer is typically gonna spend $20,000 on the parts and typically $20,000 for installation tax and an option or two here or there. A heater air conditioner. You're going to round out around 45 grand out the door.

Ron White: They also had, uh, Tony Hawk's Stingray up on the racks

Michael Bream: So this is Tony Hawk's carts in 1964 Corvette, 

Ron White:  That was a luxury conversion but He is able to mate the electronic vehicle drivetrain and in some cases preserve the aesthetic of the original. Like the gas gauge is now the battery monitor and that sort of thing. So it depends on what you want and how much you're able to pay in some cases.

Gustavo: Yeah, the price tag is so high for these conversions…so do you have any insight about why people are willing to shell out so much money for these old cars?

Ron White: Some of these older cars are just falling apart.

They're very hard to maintain. You look at Tony Hawk's car. He was actually driving it down to the EV West garage and it limped into the parking lot and it died. He's like, “This is why I'm here!” So part of it is to preserve the ability to continue to enjoy the cars without worrying about breaking down in the middle of nowhere.

The other part of it is environmental. If you've ever been behind a classic car with your windows open, you will get a whole bunch of fumes and so it's not fun. So this is a way for them to enjoy their classic car, guilt free.


Michael Bream: A car like this being electrified can do more to excite car guys and car people about the coming change to a sustainable energy. I think there's just a sense of independence that comes with this, that because of the war and supply chain issues and all that, I think it makes this more attractive..


Gustavo: So…I’ve got old cars, a 68 VW bus, 73 Eldorado convertible, a 79 Ford ranger pickup. They're beautiful. And then all of a sudden they break down, but I don't have $50,000 to convert them into electricity. Not yet. At least one day, maybe.

Ron White: The thing about it is that if you go to a place like EV West you are paying a lot because these are really skilled technicians that are doing these things. But one of my favorite places to look for this is YouTube.


 It's a do it yourself paradise. People who are converting their EVs.

Clip 1: today. We're gonna show you how to convert this 1969 Karmann Ghia into an electric vehicle using ed

Clip 2: everything is here, man, for a DIY EV for, you know, a few thousand bucks

Clip 3: we're gonna set ourselves a challenge. Can we convert this Volkswagen beetle from petrol to electric in a day?

Ron White: They claim to have done some for about $5,000 there's one guy who was claiming to have done it for under $2,000.

And what depends on is keeping your expectations in check. You’re not going to very likely get a Tesla range on your conversion. And if you're willing to settle for a hundred miles, which is pretty good, or even less, it's going to be much easier for you. So that's an important factor, but there are options that people can investigate.

Gustavo: After the break, how the Netflix of cars might actually make electrifying affordable.

[ break 1]

Gustavo: Ron. Not all of us are gearheads. Not all of us know how to navigate YouTube, even me. And so some people just go on waiting lists, but you actually talked to someone who found a way around the Tesla waiting list.

Ron White: Bonnie Velasquez had actually ordered a Tesla and was just tired of waiting for it.


Bonnie Velasquez: I had decided that I wanted a Tesla specifically because I commute. So at the first of the year I ordered one through Tesla and there's a wait, it's very hard right now for people to get cars.

Ron White: And she heard about this company called Autonomy. She thought it must be a scam throughout the whole thing. She just didn't believe this. When she called, they said we need your driver's license. Do you need anything else? No. They got back to her in a day and a half and said, okay, your car, your Tesla Model 3 is all ready. Come get it.

Bonnie Velasquez: So I scheduled it the very next day on the app. I just click the button, pick it up the next day, 9:30 in the morning. And we drove out there.

Ron White: She still is not really believing this. He went down with her husband. She's told to go to a parking garage in Santa Monica, which is just fueling her ambivalence about this whole thing and thinking this is crazy.

Bonnie Velasquez: We pull in and there's two guys standing there with all the Teslas. And at first – and I've told my husband either we're getting scammed or whatever, we're going to figure it out, but it will be worth it because if this is a real thing, this is a really good deal.

Ron White: And there it is. It's got a bow on it. It's a Model 3. They showed her how to use it. And they said bye-bye, and she's got it. 


Ron White:  It's a subscription service in that you’re not tied in for three years. You only have to keep it for three months. The way it works through Autonomy is that your down payment is lower than it would be. If you got it directly as your Tesla, your monthly price is less than the monthly price for Tesla. The only drawback is you have to like a Model 3, that's all they have right now. Not everybody likes the Model 3, but she was thrilled.

Bonnie Velasquez: it looks pretty cool that you're able to get one so fast. Cause most you can get them right now. So if I'm like, oh, look at you, you've got your car. And I'm like, that's just cause I'm dope.

Ron White: And some of these people are folks that live in apartments. EVs have gotten into the point where they're like a gasoline powered car. It's got 358 miles range or something of that sort. So she really only has to charge it once a week. So it doesn't matter that she doesn't have a charging station in her apartment building or a garage where she can charge her own car. So she's extremely happy. And she's getting about the same range as you got in her old gas car.

Gustavo: Where's Autonomy getting its cars? 

Ron White: They are taking advantage of people who were tired waiting for Tesla cars.

Each of these cars are built to specifications for an exact person. And if you've been on that list for one year, two years, people do drop out even though they've put down a thousand dollar deposit.

And so he has been able to acquire those dropout cars, and he didn't want anybody to think that he's somehow jumping ahead of Tesla owners who were waiting. These are not cars that have gone anywhere. The person who applied for them just dropped out, was tired of waiting.

And so he has been able to acquire these at the manufacturer's suggested retail price. And the thing about EVs, is that unlike any other car, which has just begun to depreciate it as you drive it off the lot, these things are depreciating.

So he figures that he'll have this car out there for three years and it'll probably be worth a substantial amount of money. So that's how his business model actually works.

Gustavo: So we've talked about conversions and subscriptions, but how far do each of those go towards meeting the demand that people have for EVs right now?

Ron White: Not very far. As far as I know this is the only company offering subscriptions. Again, the shortage is difficult. It's a shortage that affects all parts of the uh, automotive industry and that it's a shortage of semiconductors. I think we're down to like basically one big factory in Taiwan that makes most of the semiconductors.

It's a problem that's not going to go away. And there are even bigger problems looming in the future. It won't get any better in the coming years. If these predictions are true.

Gustavo: And we're going to talk about that after the break.


Gustavo: Ron you hinted at problems of getting EVs in the future. What would it actually take to get every American who wants one into one? And how likely is that gonna happen? 

Ron White: Yeah. I was hoping that at some point I'd be able to see some improvement, that they're catching up and so forth, but they keep developing new problems.


Ron White: So we talked about the semiconductor shortage. That's something that affects the entire automotive industry, but we are now having forecasters and EV car companies talking about the fact that they will be a quote unquote, severe shortage of battery. For these cars within the next three years. It's hard enough to start a car company as it is, but when you also have to add to it, the fact that you're going to build a factory to make batteries, which is what one car company is doing. That adds a lot to their costs .


Ron White: There is a shortage of lithium, which is the primary component to the batteries. You've got Elon Musk who teases about a lot of things, but one of the things he's teasing about right now is that he's going to go into mining to mine his own lithium in order to have an actual supply. That's something that's going to change things a little bit in terms of affordability, in terms of access to supply. And it's going to drive prices up so that the car, you may have thought you could afford, three, four years from now. It may be. It's still pretty high in terms of costs.


Gustavo: What does that do then for states like California, who are saying, we're going to have 35% of our vehicles be EVs by a certain point, we're going to outlaw new cars that have combustible engines. does that then mean? People now, hydrogen cars are going to go up. Other different types of fuels are going to start happening

Ron White: it's not going to be something that they're going to be able to reach. It's a great idea. It's a very lofty plan. but They won't be able to meet those goals if there isn't enough supply in terms of vehicles. Some of my colleagues on the times have written about hydrogen and the real pain it takes to sometimes find the station. That has it, heat affects these things somehow. They can't pump it , so hydrogen is still very far away from being a common source for this sort of solution. I'm not, I don't predict things, but it sounds to me that this is going to be very difficult, these goals, which are great but they're going to be very difficult to reach.

Gustavo: Finally Ron, this impacted market seems, as you said, like it’s going to be with us for a long time. And when there's something that you want, that's unavailable. You eventually settle for something else. So what has this shortage of EVs cost us?

Ron White: Every time there's been a fuel crisis in the past you've seen people respond to it by finding more efficient vehicles. Back in the seventies, that's what happened to the transition to Japanese cars because they were smaller, lighter and more efficient.

It's really hard to get people to trust the idea of EVs, but when prices are high, they’re willing to take a chance.

Ron White: I had a guy who was never driving anything but a big, strong, powerful pickup truck. And he just took delivery on Tesla model three that is not very common. If you live in California, like we do, it's very misleading because the adoption here is quite big. But around the rest of the country, it's not so much, it's about 8% of the actual drivers. but if you want to look at countries that are really ahead of the game, [in] Germany, one out of every four drivers are driving some kind of a plug-in hybrid, pure EV, which is something amazing. It just shows you how much farther ahead some countries are compared to us. And we're very far behind, unfortunately.


Ron White: Now the demand is there, the urge to get away from these gas prices has never been stronger. But with all the supply problems it continues to be a missed moment, even as the demand for EVs is only going to get higher until these prices start to go down. The nice thing is that you've got a tremendous number of hybrids that are getting 45-50, sometimes more per gallon. They're going to have to revert to some of those things until some of these problems sort out, I think,

Gustavo: Ron. Thank you so much for this conversation.

Ron White: Thank you for having me.


Gustavo: And that's it for this episode of the times daily news from the LA Times.

Maya Kroth was a jefa on this episode and our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian and Ashlea Brown and David Toledo. Our editorial assistant is Madeline Amata. Our intern is Suyria Hendry. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mike Heflin, and Mark Nieto. Our editors Kinsee Morlan.

Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera and Shani Hilton. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. Like what you're listening to then make sure to follow the times on whatever platform. Don't make us to put you a podcasts. I'm Gustavo Arellano we'll be back tomorrow with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.