Volkswagen Magazine

Innovation

Quick, clean, and classic.

California’s Zelectric is turning old Beetles into state-of-the-art electric cars with a classic retro style

Text & Photos Matthias B. Krause

An unusual problem calls for an unusual solution.

In this case, the solution is a bicycle bell on the left-hand wing mirror. David Benardo rolls down the window and stretches his tanned arm out towards the bell. One ring is all it takes. The pedestrians wandering aimlessly along the harbourside jump out of the way in surprise, their heads turning to follow the path of the classic bright-red Beetle that has just snuck up behind them. Benardo smiles. “It’s the same every time. The electric engine is so quiet that pedestrians and cyclists just don’t hear me coming.”

At first glance, Benardo’s car looks just like any other lovingly restored classic Beetle. A 1963 model with an original folding roof and vintage-style luggage rack – perfect for a quick jaunt around the harbour in San Diego, not far from the Mexican border. Today, bathed in the afternoon sunshine, huge grey naval ships and shiny luxury yachts vie for the tourists’ attention. Yet however old the car may look from the outside, its inside is filled with state-of-the-art technology. Instead of the unmistakeable metallic rattle of an overworked boxer engine, you hear the almost silent whirr of a powerful electric engine. With 63 kW (85 hp) power and 163 Newton metres of torque, the engine breathes an astounding amount of life into the e-Beetle.

»  It’s the same every time. The electric engine is so quiet that pedestrians and cyclists just don’t hear me coming.  «

David Benardo

Volkswagen and in particular its Beetle – or Bug as some people call it – embody the spirit of West Coast America. Back in the 60s when the first baby boomers were learning to drive, the Bug was the unassuming car of the people, the antithesis of the huge, hulking street cruisers. The publicity team at Wolfsburg took advantage of the car’s underdog image with a series of cheeky adverts. One campaign told you to “Live below your means”, while another ad promised, “And if you run out of gas, it’s easy to push.”
“The Beetle is a car that Americans know and love, just one look at it brings back a flood of great memories for them,” says Benardo.

Perfect amalgamation of style and environmental awareness: a Zelectric Bug in San Diego.

The Beetle campaigns from the 1960s are considered some of the best ads of all time. Advertising expert Amir Kassaei explains why.

Benardo remembers the first time he saw a Beetle, parked in his neighbour’s drive. He later went on to buy one of his own, followed by a Karmann Ghia, two more Beetles, and a classic 1972 Volkswagen T2 Transporter campervan. Finally, he bought the holy grail for all “VeeDoubleU” fans in the US: a ’65 model Samba, the legendary T1 special edition with 21 windows. But however much Benardo enjoyed his collection of classic Volkswagens, one thing continued to bug him: “I could do easy repairs myself, no problem. But always having to adjust the valves really got on my nerves.”

He started to wonder why old cars always had to smell of oil and petrol. As a former art and advertising student and art director at a number of big ad agencies, he’s all about the aesthetics – form over function, through and through. Not for him the idea that a classic car is only a true classic if it runs on the original combustion engine. “Electric engines are clean, reliable, maintenance-free and a lot speedier than the original engines. It’s the ideal solution for me.”
The idea of implanting an electric engine into his classic Beetle came to him when reading about a pilot project at Stanford University where Volkswagen engineers had installed an electric drive system into a Volkswagen campervan. An interesting project but unfortunately not a profitable one back when it was set up eight years ago. “The electrification of the vehicle alone had cost $40,000,” says Benardo, “and none of the components had been tested out on the road in day-to-day driving.”
Since that time, costs have fallen dramatically – particularly for high-quality lithium-ion batteries, the most expensive component in an electric engine. When it came to his fiftieth birthday, Benardo found himself asking, “If you could be 20 again, what would you do differently?” His reply was that “I would have founded my own company installing electric engines into limited edition classic cars”. So that’s exactly what he did. Benardo quit his job as a partner at an advertising agency in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and moved to San Diego on the coast of California. Which is where he is now, sitting at the kitchen table in his modest home, reflecting on his earlier life.
“I’d just had enough of always trying to come up with a new way to sell things with no substance. The e-Beetle is different. It’s an idea that just makes good sense.”

» Electric engines are clean, reliable, maintenance-free and a lot speedier than the original engines. It’s the ideal solution for me. «

David Benardo
The rear engine has 63 kW and a range of up to 110 miles (177 kilometres).
The lithium-ion batteries are installed at the front in the luggage compartment and behind the rear seats.

This passion is clear to see when you look into his overflowing garage, where you’ll find the red Beetle, a prototype that Benardo and his wife Bonnie showcase at auto shows. A project always starts with the search for a suitable vehicle. From both a technical and design point of view, Benardo prefers Beetles from the years 1958 to 1966.


After a suitable vehicle has been sourced, the petrol tank is removed and the engine is taken to pieces. Then the mechanics install one battery pack in the luggage compartment at the front (for 12 lithium-ion cells) and one in the storage space behind the rear seats (for 25 cells). The electric engine is mounted directly onto the original gearbox. Now, all that’s missing is the controller, the oil cooler, the DC-DC converter used to charge the original 12-volt lead battery that still supplies power to the vehicle electric system, and finally the charger for the lithium-ion batteries.

The dashboard charge display is the only clue to the electric power of the e-Beetle.

“The transformation process is similar to putting together a hi-fi system,” says Benardo. “You hunt down the best components until you find the perfect sound.” Once you have set up the basic structure, the cabling process takes the most amount of time in the conversion process. Generally, the mechanics try to change as little as possible from the original condition so that the car can be changed back into its original state if necessary. In order for it to harness its new power, the Zelectric’s suspension system is reinforced and the vehicle is fitted with new shock absorbers, anti-roll bars at the rear, and disk brakes on all four wheels. A charge display in the dashboard is the only clue that the car in front of us is an e-Beetle.

Here comes the Bug: Ever since the 1960s, the Beetle has embodied the lifestyle of West Coast America.

When you look underneath the bonnet, it’s like looking at a sketch in the design studio. Against the matt black of the rear panel, the brushed aluminium cooling plate, the matt black controller, and the reinforced orange electric cables give the engine compartment a classic stylish feel.
Benardo believes strongly in the power of his aesthetics: “There are a lot people who install electric engines into classic cars. But they’re normally just tinkerers who end up with a big mess of cables.” The only thing that he isn’t pleased with is the position of the charging socket to the right of the engine. He would rather have it hidden behind a folding rear light.


If everything goes to plan, Zelectric aims to convert up to two old Beetles a month. Zelectric has already attracted around 35,000 followers to its social media accounts, as well interest from television and newspapers. The Zelectric Bug has also played a starring role in a reality TV show! The only thing putting some potential customers off is the price, particularly given that the car has to be charged for up to 16 hours for every 150 kilometres of driving.

Facts and Figures

Length: 4,070 mm

Width: 1,540 mm
Height: 1,500 mm

Weight: 1,005 kg

Time from 0 to 100: around 11 seconds (unofficial)

Top speed: around 90 mph (145 km/h)

Power: 63 kW (85 hp)

Torque: 163 Nm

Power to weight ratio: 11.82 kg

Battery capacity: 22 kWh

Battery technology: Lithium-ion iron phosphate
Range: between 90 and 110 miles (145 to 177 km)

Charging time: from 0% to 100% via a household plug: around 16 hours. One hour of charging time equates to around 12 miles (19.31 km)