This article is part of our series on the Future of Transportation, which is exploring innovations and challenges that affect how we move about the world.
Among the more than 1,000 vehicles at the Specialty Equipment Market Association’s display of automotive innovations in Las Vegas last month, a fuss was being made over a classic Ford 100 pickup truck that, at 43, was older than many of the show’s attendees. The buzz was not because of a stylish aesthetic or historical significance, but rather the contrast between the truck’s retro looks and its very modern electric motor.
Anyone can buy the motor, known as the Eluminator e-Crate, for $3,900, but the pickup is a one-off. It was custom built to show enthusiasts they too can turn geriatric gas-guzzlers into efficient machines.
Customers can buy it “to put in whatever car they want to build,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford performance motorsports. “Classic Mustangs or a Galaxy or F series truck — they can buy the motor and install it.”
Ford is not alone in imagining a future in which people swap the combustion engine in their car for an electric one. In 2019, General Motors tucked a 450-horsepower motor and other components from its Bolt E.V. inside a 1962 C-10 pickup; in 2020, General Motors put the e-crate it is developing into a 1977 K-5 Blazer.
In London, where drivers of older gasoline-powered cars pay extra to drive in certain parts of the city, London Electric Cars, a specialist in bespoke conversions, keeps busy modifying cars that are 20 years or older with electric motors it buys from salvage yards.
“Last year we finished an old school Mini. We put in a Nissan Leaf and the performance was unbelievable, so much above and beyond the petroleum engines,” said Barry Stephenson, a technician at the company. While a conversion isn’t cheap — it costs between £25,000 and £50,000 (about $34,200 and $68,500), Mr. Stephenson said some customers are willing to make the investment, motivated by a desire to not contribute to the pollution and waste generated by the production of a new car.
“A well-maintained used car can be made so that it is no longer consuming energy and creating pollution,” Mr. Stephenson said. “To reuse and maintain them and enjoy them is really important to us.”
Emission-free and mostly maintenance-free, E.V.s are also fun to drive, with rapid acceleration and smooth handling, said Pat McCue, whose company, MLe Racecars, worked with Ford on its F-100 truck modification. Converting to electric can also increase the life of the car, since many gas engine parts are no longer necessary and a lot of associated maintenance is eliminated.
“If you have half an open mind and you drive one of these cars around, you’re going to get out smiling,” he said. “People are going to get so used to the idea of the E.V. grin.”
Generating buzz for electric cars, especially among hardcore devotees of combustion engines, is important to Ford, which has set a goal that 40 percent of its sales will be electric vehicles by 2030.
With that in mind, souping up the F-100 was a tease, a way to generate enthusiasm, according to Phoebe Wall Howard, auto reporter for the Detroit Free Press. It may have worked too well. After the F-100 was revealed, tweets flooded the feed of the Ford chief executive Jim Farley, imploring him to turn the vehicle into a consumer product.
“It changed the passion level, using the F-100,” Ms. Howard said. “Ford showed that if you buy the electric motor, you can take something you love from your childhood and go back to the future.”
Putting electric motors where people don’t expect to find them is not confined to older cars. In motorsports, where innovations like disc brakes, airflow enhancing bodies, seatbelts and roll cages were tested before they hit the general consumer market, manufacturers are demonstrating electric racers.
Formula-E is best known, with its international series of televised races, but electric racers are also seen on drag strips and in endurance competitions. In 2022, the National Hot Rod Association will hold its first series for all-electric vehicles. Even NASCAR is considering an exhibition series with electric cars, according to Sports Business Journal.
“Very often when motorsports adopts something it broadens the adoption of it,” said Russ O’Blenes, G.M.’s director of performance and racing propulsion. With electric motor drag-racing expertise from Mr. McCue’s company, G.M. created the Chevrolet eCOPO Camaro and put it on a racetrack in 2018. It could deliver 700 horsepower and cover a quarter mile in 9 seconds. Even so, Mr. O’Blenes said some spectators weren’t ready for electric racing then. “Now, more and more people are interested.”
When G.M.’s e-crate is released, it will be part of a complete implementation package including batteries and a computer management system. According to Mr. O’Blenes, the company feels this is the best way to ensure modifications are done safely. Ford’s e-crate, released earlier this month, is the motor only; buyers must acquire, design and install the ancillary components.
Bozi Tatarevic, an automotive journalist, said that will not dissuade customers.
“Most of these are done by enthusiasts,” he said, so the e-crate is a “fast pass” for those who want the ease of going to a dealer, buying the motor and putting it into a car.
Ford says it will keep an eye on how the e-crate is being used by monitoring social media and other online forums; user feedback could influence future iterations of the motor and associated products. That’s because even though do-it-yourself modifiers are a small part of an automaker’s customer base, they are likely to be the company’s most technically-savvy customers, said John McDonald a former manager at G.M. who now runs Caeli Communication, a crisis and leadership consultancy firm.
“They deeply understand how you produce the product, why it is engineered the way it is,” he said. “They’re going to be very quick to give you feedback that is specific and actionable and that’s the feedback you want to get.”
The speed at which battery technology and social media are coming together makes crowdsourcing an effective way to find innovators in the field. That is how Mr. McCue, who is also a high school teacher in Bothell, Wash., came to be the person both G.M. and Ford relied on for their showy concept E.V.s.
Mr. McCue’s very first electric conversion came out of his automotive class at Bothell High School. The two-year effort got the attention of Foundry10, a Seattle-based philanthropic research program that studies methods of learning.
With a grant from Foundry10, Mr. McCue’s next class project was an 800-volt electric dragster called Shock and Awe that at 166 miles per hour held the speed record for a car with doors until Ford’s electric Mustang Cobra 1400 beat it in 2020.
“In the electrification world, everything is so new and there aren’t established experts,” Mr. Rushbrook said, explaining how Ford decided to involve Mr. McCue, his brother, Peter, and the racecar driver Jeff Lane in the F-100 integration.
Partnering with a high school teacher running a small company may be an unusual move for a major carmaker, but to Mike Geylin, editor in chief of EVReport.com, when technology is advancing quickly, expertise gets noticed.
“One thing the industry has learned slowly is ‘not invented here’ is a real quick way to go out of business,” Mr. Geylin said.
When the automobile era began more than a century ago, most cars were powered by lead iron batteries or steam, not gas. “As gas cars became more reliable and less cantankerous, when gas cars became more convenient to drive, they took over,” said Leslie Kendall, historian and curator at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. “It’s happening in reverse now.”