Converting classic cars to electric drivetrains is one of the most contentious aspects of the EV world – which is already controversial, judging by the conversations we have on social media about it. Our 2020 feature on the subject of EV conversions inspired much conversation, and a lot of it quite heated. But there are many good reasons to electrify an old car, and Dublin-based AVA has been exploring the possibilities for a few years now. WhichEV travelled to Ireland to find out about AVA and drive one of its most inspiring conversions – the Croxford Defender.
AVA and the Cool Planet Group
The AVA workshop is located in an estate that almost feels like it shouldn’t be a place of work – the Powerscourt Estate, just outside Dublin in Enniskerry. AVA is part of the CoolPlanet Group, a company set up to help companies reduce their carbon output via the judicious application of technology. But CoolPlanet isn’t about worthy emissions reduction. The company’s name implies the need to cool the planet Earth and prevent global warming, but also that by adopting green technologies, we can have lifestyles that are “cooler” in an emotional sense as well.
This is where AVA and Studio AVA enter the picture. This side of the company aims to take classic cars and use electrification to make them not only better for the planet, but better in most other ways as well. “We build very, very beautiful and interesting electric cars,” says Norman Crowley, CEO of the CoolPlanet Group and AVA. “I've been a car nut all my life and I'm lucky enough that I was able to buy some classic cars, but they're heartbreakers. They're beautiful to look at. But so unreliable, and because of climate change I didn't want to be driving around in a big, loud V8, and so I found myself using the cars less and less.”
This led Crowley to consider electrification as a way forward. “In 2019 we started to ask the question, if these were electric, would they go much faster?” he says. “They would also be way more reliable. And that was the beginning of the journey.” Helping Crowley along this journey was another conversion company, which has now become arguably the most famous in the UK working in this area. “We met Richard Morgan from Electric Classic Cars, and at the time it was just Richard and a friend of his in a in a shed in Wales. We were the first investor in Electric Classic Cars and we've been a very happy shareholder since the very beginning,” says Crowley. “Now ECC has become Vintage Voltage.” This is the Quest TV series about converting classic cars to electric, which stars Richard Morgan and ECC.
The Infamous Ferrari 308
When we published our first feature on electric classic car conversions, the car that caused the most controversy was a red Ferrari 308. Crowley also had a red Ferrari 308 converted alongside the car in our feature. “It's a 308 from 1981, and how it started off is a funny story. It was neglected in a barn, and somebody had stolen the engine and gearbox out of it, so it was really unloved. It was one of our first projects to convert it and what you see now is a very, very quick Ferrari. It's probably the most reliable 308 in the world.”
“Ferrari purists come to us and say how could you do that to that car?” continues Crowley. “But when they drive it, they get shocked by a couple of things. It goes from zero to 60 in about 3 seconds, so much faster than the original and its much more reliable. The conversion has also improved the handling. The 308’s weight distribution was never perfect. So one of the things you can do when you move the batteries around is you can have perfect 52 to 48 weight distribution, which it now has. So it goes faster and handles better. What more do you want?”
Classic Conversions with a Story
One of the most eye-catching conversions AVA has performed since then is a recreation of the famous Tara Browne AC Cobra. The original had a multicoloured paintjob by Dudley Edwards, who also decorated Paul McCartney’s Magic Piano. Tara Browne infamously died in a car crash and is reputedly the inspiration for a verse in the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life”, describing the circumstances of the accident.
Unfortunately, this car wasn’t present when we visited AVA, although we have seen it at Salon Prive last year. Instead, we had a drive in the aforementioned Ferrari 308 and two Land Rover Defender conversions. One is a short wheelbase car called the Arctic Defender. “The Arctic Defender’s story is: can we build an electric classic that has the lowest carbon footprint of any vehicle that's ever been built?” says Crowley. All AVA’s cars have a story behind them like this. “One of the things we do is we work with quite famous car designers such as Peter Brock, who designed the Corvette Stingray and the Shelby Daytona.”
This brings us to one of the reasons why you might want an electric classic conversion rather than just buying the latest Tesla, BMW or Polestar. “Peter says that modern cars are like watching a bar of soap drive down the road,” says Crowley. “The challenge for AVA is can we make cars that are the opposite of that, that not only are beautiful, they're fast, they're safe, but also they have this deep story that creates a deep connection.”
Stuart Croxford: Inspiring the Croxford Defender
This brings us to the other Defender we drove during our visit – the Croxford Defender, which was inspired by British Army veteran Stuart Croxford. “Stuart was injured in Afghanistan, and he used to drive military Land Rovers quite a lot,” says Crowley. “We were so impressed with Stuart's story that we said, why don't we work with Stuart to build the ultimate electric Defender?”
“In 2012, I was my third operational tour in quite quick succession,” says Croxford. “Unfortunately, I was hit by an improvised explosive device, which shattered both my feet and badly injured my driver.” Croxford went through rehabilitation, but injured his right leg again when sailing, which led to him deciding to have it amputated below the knee. He was then working as a training consultant, when one of his clients suggested he talk to AVA. “I got a phone call saying, Stu, I think you should jump on a call with an electric car company, to which my response was I know nothing about electric cars!”
However, Croxford and Crowley hit it off, and the plan for the Croxford Defender was formulated around a vehicle that paid homage to his military service. “The British Army has relied on Defenders for four decades,” says Croxford. “In Canada, we train in Land Rover WIMKs, which are stripped down Defenders with no roofs with a weapons-remote platform on the top. They are used as reconnaissance vehicles. The Defender was so iconic in my career in the Army.” This made it the perfect fit for this project. “The team at AVA were able to look at how my story came together – my regimental history, even the colour of the Defender that AVA designed all reflects the journey that I've gone through both my military service and also my recovery journey.” For example, the car incorporates carbon fibre inspired by Croxford’s prosthetic limbs. “Being able to reflect that in the vehicle has been amazing.”
Croxford Defender: Technical Details and Driving
The Croxford Defender is based on a standard long wheelbase 2015 Land Rover Defender, which had an original 2.2-litre diesel engine and a gearbox with a central transfer case. These latter were removed, but the rest of the drive line was retained. Torque boxing differentials were added front and rear, and the EV motor was then installed where the transfer case used to be. This is a Tesla Large drive unit, as found on the rear axle of a Tesla Model S or X. Croxford has to regear it because it isn’t driving the wheels directly in the Croxford, whereas it does in the Tesla vehicles.
The batteries sit in the engine bay, and optionally in the rear as well. The Croxford has a 60kWh unit at the front and another 30kWh unit at the rear, but other AVA Defender designs miss out the latter, for a shorter-range vehicle. The Croxford’s two packs provide up to 200 miles of real-world range. AVA has also had to provide electric replacements for functions previously performed by the petrol engine, such as the vacuum assistance for the brakes and the hydraulics for the power steering. The Croxford only has 22kW AC charging, but future models with have DC charging up to 77kW.
Driving the Croxford Defender is a mixture of modern and retro, as you’d expect for a classic car conversion. If you’ve driven Defenders before, they are not known for their speed. But this one is different. With around 450hp and 450Nm of torque, it’s quick. Very quick. The car can hit 60mph in about five seconds, but it weighs around 2.3 tons and sits on quite fat tyres, so you really don’t want to hit sharp corners at high speed. The driving style is more fast but relaxed, rather than frenetic and involved. But you can surprise a few people with the turn of speed available as you enter a highway.
With the 200-mile range available, comfortable Recaro seats (only four of them), and a hifi head unit that supports CarPlay, the Croxford Defender is a much more refined experience than your average working Land Rover. But it still has four-wheel drive and huge amounts of power, so will be perfectly capable going offroad just like the original. In fact, it’s likely to be even better in this respect, and not having to worry about gears makes it much easier to drive.
The Croxford Defender Challenge
To go with the launch of the Croxford Defender, Stuart Croxford will be cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats, starting on 7th May. The Defender will be the support vehicle on this journey, which will be 1,226 miles in total due to not taking the most direct route. You can view the route and details of each stage on Komoot. The ride will be performed to raise money for Blesma, the military charity for limbless veterans. Donations can be made via the Croxford Defender Challenge’s JustGiving page. Once this challenge is complete, the Croxford Defender will be auctioned, and a proportion of the proceeds will also go towards Blesma funding.
Electrifying Mining Vehicles
AVA isn’t just doing one-off bespoke conversions like the Croxford Defender, however. The company has found a huge potential market producing electric vehicles for the mining industry. “We were asked about a year ago to convert a Toyota LC70 Land Cruiser to electric for a mining company,” says Crowley. “We were very curious about why they wanted to do this, because most of our customers are kind of high net worth. When we got into it, it was completely fascinating. Your average underground mine has about 400 pickup trucks or what they call light vehicles. They all use diesel, and that has caused a lot of problems. They deposit DPM diesel particulate matter into miner's lungs, which is a very serious issue.”
“They also go quite quickly underground, so there's a safety problem, too,” continues Crowley. “In fact, 20% of all deaths in mining are caused by vehicles, which is incredible. So an electric vehicle seems to solve all the problems. The DPM is gone. We can control the speed automatically. We can even make them stop automatically. That has led to a crazy opportunity where the major mining companies in the world actually want to deploy about 6 or 700,000 vehicles over the next three years. So we're working with two major programmes that are using our power train, our energy software, our ADAS Advanced Driver Assistance Software to make mines safer and more healthy for miners.”
The Future of Classic EV Conversions
Safety is a key concern for AVA, and something that Crowley thinks the classic car EV conversion industry hasn’t considered enough yet. “Just think about the risks from converting a car,” he says. “The first thing is we make the car go much quicker, particularly 0 to 60. The next thing is these are high voltage electrics going into an old car. And so what we've done with the last six months is completely changed the safety protocols around our vehicles. This includes simple things like that the batteries are now more than a foot away from the front and the back of the vehicle, to comply with EU legislation.”
“The other thing is that the battery systems themselves now comply with EU legislation,” continues Crowley. “That might sound boring, but it's important. If you have an accident in an electric car of any description, it can go on fire, but also it could make the whole vehicle live with 400 volts. If you have an accident and somebody from the fire service comes along, they could get an electric shock off this vehicle, which could hurt them. So we've really tightened up on all of that legislation that's led to a lot more cost in converting. We have started to push other converters to consider this as well, because as there are more of these vehicles on the road, we don't want anything happen. Because this legislation exists, it's easy for us to comply with it. It just needs more engineering and a little bit more cost.”
Apart from this need for more safety consideration, Crowley expects a bright future for EV classic car conversions. “We see two things happening in EV conversions,” he says. “We see the sector growing up, being safer, being better, and more refined. And then the other thing that we're doing is creating vehicles with meaning. That could be working with Peter Brock and Ian Callum on a re-imagining of their most famous cars, or it could be some crazy fast ground up build.” Or it could be the Croxford Defender – a great example of a classic EV with a unique story that will mean no journey taken inside it will be run-of-the-mill.