Classic cars will always be desirable. Whether it’s an American muscle car from the sixties or a European off-roader from the seventies, there will consistently be a market for historic vehicles. However, these aging vehicles are subject to obstructed driving experiences compared to vehicles of the modern day. Whether it’s poorly-calibrated suspensions, unresponsive steering, or an overall lack of performance, cars of older eras just can’t come anywhere near the technological prowess of modern cars. While some find an allure in these drawbacks, others would prefer if these vehicles could see a second lease in life.
California-based automotive firm Zero Labs is taking the latter stance. Founded in 2015 by businessman Adam Roe, Zero Labs restores and electrifies classic cars, but the firm does it dissimilar to that of other companies. Instead of retrofitting an aging chassis with EV components scattered about, the company implements its proprietary EV platform into classic cars. While developing an electric platform specifically for older vehicles is challenging, CEO Adam Roe believes it’s the only way to properly electrify a classic car.
Zero Labs: At The Drawing Board
Whenever automakers electrify classic vehicles, the most common production method is mating electric components to the donor vehicle’s chassis. While this does get the job done, this approach can lead to imprecision and an improper driving experience. For instance, there are examples where the car’s electric motors utlize a transmission, resulting in massive range losses due to friction. Pair this with battery packs sporadically placed around the vehicle, and the result can be a disarranged concoction.
“Ideally, for an electric car, you want the batteries to be as low and as centered (between the two axles) as possible, and the retrofit technology compromises that: you’ll have batteries positioned higher than the axle. So it throws off steering, it throws off roll center and it makes it more dangerous,” Roe told HotCars. The goal of electrifying a classic car is to revitalize it to conditions at or better than the original all while increasing performance and drivability. Zero Labs’ philosophy is that if the restored product significantly lags in some areas, it simply won’t do the classic car justice.
Zero Labs’ answer to this problem was to develop its own EV platform that would reside underneath classic vehicles. “So the platform is really designed to fix all that. How do we address steering, brakes, upgradability, durability, suspension, safety, and other attributes at the same time without making a Frankenstein mess of the car itself? The platform is the most elegant solution because it takes care of all those components at the same time; you get everything in one package,” Roe said. While this solution would help iron out all the flaws with a retrofitted EV chassis, an issue arose: scalability.
The issue with designing a skateboard EV platform for classic cars is that scaling will be difficult as all models have differing dimensions. For example, Tesla uses two platforms: one for the Model S and X and one for the 3 and Y. These four vehicles all can’t share the same platform because two have massively different wheelbase and width dimensions. Effectively, Zero Labs’ platform could only work for a few vehicles. Considering this, Zero Labs had a choice to select a vehicle class compelling enough to first start working with.
A Classic Electrified: The Ford Bronco
After some deliberation, Zero Labs began working with classic SUVs as its first fleet of cars to electrify. Within that domain, the firm decided that the original Bronco, and vehicles of similar dimensions, would make for the most compelling builds. “Our plan is really to cover the classes of the vehicles in the order in which we are making them. So what I mean by that is we started off doing SUVs, because you have to start with something. On a personal level, that was the one I felt was the hardest to start with— no one had ever electrified a Bronco before us and for good reason, it’s hard,” Roe told HotCars.
After selecting the Bronco as the first vehicle to work with, Zero Labs had to implement a system to begin producing the SUVs. Most importantly, Roe and his team needed to find and procure each Bronco set to become electrified. “With classic vehicles, there are some things to support more scaled manufacturing, but for the most part, they’re fifty to sixty-year-old cars that are all over the world in weird places that you wouldn’t expect: barns, people’s horses, and abandoned garages. So you can’t really buy them in bulk because nobody owns them in bulk,” he said.
“Classic vehicles have gone up in value significantly, especially if the originating manufacturer has re-released that model. So for example, we do Land Rovers, Series 2 and Series 3s, and we also do Defenders, and the new Defender that came out made the prices of the old Defenders go crazy. The originating price of the starter vehicle has gone up a lot. So in doing so, that’s made them more rare and made them a little more difficult to find,” Roe told HotCars. “You really have to find them and buy them when they’re available, and there are definitely ebbs and flows of availability in the market.”
Vintage Ride, New Technology
Once Zero Labs settles upon a donor car, the team can inject its EV cognizance into the aging vehicles. “You’re really getting what is essentially modern technology purpose-built for this car. You have independent front and rear suspension, you have perfect steering geometry that’s speed adjusted, you have a CAN (controller area network) and telematics so you can tell how your car is doing and where some issues may be, you have DC fast charge— everything’s integrated, designed, and purpose-built,” he said.
“You get this peace of mind that you’re getting something that has been thought through very well by experts.” Zero Labs offers a 100kWh, liquid-cooled battery pack for both the Bronco and Land Rover, allowing for a range of 235 miles. Mated to the battery pack is a dual motor setup pushing 600 horsepower. As a cherry on top, Zero Labs’ products are CCS charging capable, meaning that these restored rides can fast charge next to Volkswagen ID.4s at Electrify America stations.
As for Zero Labs’ technology, the firm tries to keep a mixed relationship between partners and in-house research and development at its site in Hawthorne. “We develop as many things as we can in-house, and that will be continuing the case. But there are things that we would never develop: we aren’t going to develop our own motors; we’re just not big enough for that. Down the road, would we ever do that? It’s possible. But I like to keep a bit of flexibility for us,” Roe told HotCars.
“You learn from Fisker Automotive that when you get locked into one manufacturer, like if we had a motor investor, and that motor turns out to not be the best solution for our platform, we could be in trouble. So we generally try to maintain a sort of an agnostic approach to technology, and this is best the technology that we are using for this particular solution at this particular time, but that might change when a better technology exists,” he added. Focusing on the future, Zero Labs wants to ensure that the technology within its platforms isn’t the end-all goal of its products. To make this possible, Roe wanted to allow buyers to install newer and better components to their vehicles down the road.
“That’s why our batteries and platforms are upgradeable. We don’t have to solve it forever, we just have to make something good enough for the next five years or so, and then we expect a better technology to come along and we’ll upgrade that when it’s available,” Roe said. By opening up this possibility, Zero Labs could support these products through hardware updates for years to come.
The Finished Project: The EV Ford Bronco
In the end, the resultant product comes equipped with a potent powertrain and an entirely refurbished interior and exterior. To complete the package, Zero Labs takes a more traditional approach and offers an analogue gauge cluster, rather than large LCD panels. Despite having the platform underneath, very few visible discerning factors separate it from the original. “It really is the best of both worlds: you keep what you love about the classics, but you’re using a technology that is far more scalable and far more secure than trying to do this “one at a time” stuff,” Roe told HotCars.
While the vehicle that heads out the door is powerful, refined, and built upon the latest tech, along comes a hefty price tag. Depending on the build, prices start at $225,000 and trend upwards to over $400,000. Though Zero Labs isn’t necessarily trying to compete with anyone— simply put, it offers a unique product that is nearly irreplicable.
What’s Next For Zero Labs
After working on the Bronco and Land Rovers, Roe and his team learned that once the first platform was complete, translating it to other vehicles actually is more manageable than initially imagined. “You make one platform and then you realize they’re not that different in terms of architecture, so we can make other ones very similar to that in a matter of hours. When we feel that we’ve covered all those, then we can move to other classes like that. So right now, we’re doing about 6 or 7 SUVs, and we’re already doing about 2 or 3 pickup trucks. We’re probably going to cover about 10 pickup trucks— you want to find the ones that are the most popular, the ones that people have a big passion for,” Roe said.
As Zero Labs continues to cover the classes of cars, Roe also sees this as an opportunity to help future-proof these aging vehicles. With a trend towards decarbonization and an increased focus on reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, Roe says that electrifying these vehicles is one of the best ways to preserve their presence. “In the short term, we’re going to continue to own cars, and I think especially when it comes to electric cars, the old cars aren’t going to be carried forward,” Roe added. “We have to find a solution for what we are going to do with the existing cars and how we are going to carry them forward.”