A Mini Converted To Electric Power Could Be The Best Classic For City Living
Photography by Will Broadhead for Petrolicious and SWIND
The issue of electric cars is a contentious one for a lot of enthusiasts; whether road going machines or indeed the various racing classes that now exist for battery-powered vehicles of both two and four wheels, the mention of electric cars can often earn a scoff as a response.
My personal experiences are that of the Zero bikes that compete each year at the Isle of Man TT, and the speeds now reached by the fastest of these machines are delivering lap times that many competitors would be happy to put their name to on an internal combustion bike, albeit only over a single lap. I can listen to the sensible arguments for and against the continued evolution of electric power with an appreciation for both sides of the coin, and while many of us can appreciate the new tech being applied to new cars, I wonder how many of us might draw the line at electric powertrains replacing the internal combustion engine in classics.
One man that does have an opinion on this and knows quite a bit about ICE and electric powertrains is Raphael Caille, Managing Director at Swindon Powertrain. You may know them as builders of customer engines for many of the teams in the British Touring Car Championship and for having powered many a championship-winning car in the process— they are now the official engine supplier for the series. It is some accolade, and an indicator of the meticulous work that goes into building racing engines.
The firm’s most recent activity is also its most controversial. After seeking to diversify and building an electrically-assisted mountain bike in the process (one that’s capable of 60mph no less), the engineers set their sights on developing a powertrain capable of propelling a car. Not just any auto would do though, and they chose the classic Mini for their platform.
Of course, the Mini is an instantly recognizable shape, and though the issue of putting an electric powertrain into something this beloved could be seen as sacrilege, Raphael and his team point out that the heart of the Mini was never really its power plant—and it’s not like these were limited production machines to begin with. “Put an electric motor into a Ferrari, and you are removing its soul, not with the MIni” says Raphael. It’s a fair comment, and he is also quick to point out that the Minis that they use as donors are not concours examples, but ones not too far from heading to the crusher’s. So, in a way, these conversions to electric power are protecting Minis that would otherwise be recycled into washing machines.
The two sides of the situation could run and run though, and I was more interested in driving the thing than philosophizing about it, and after a fabulous tour of the engineering facility at Swindon I was more than ready to get some seat time. To the outside observer, the SWIND Classic is like any other other restored Mini. All the work is done to a wonderful standard (the sourcing and restoration of the shell is included in the cost), and from the outside you wouldn’t know that it was anything more than a typical thorough job. Under the bonnet though, sits an 80Kw electric power plant, capable of 107bhp. It isn’t face-warping power, but it’s a respectable amount of grunt for a car that is going to do most of its work in the hustle and bustle of city streets, where the 125-mile range will bother you least.
Behind the wheel, the clean cockpit and single large dial is quite obviously Mini. It feels right as rain, and aside from the digitized clock and gear lever with only forward and reverse for options, you wouldn’t know you were in an electric car. There aren’t rows and rows of new tech shoehorned into the cabin, and when I ask if this was something that was considered (you know, all the modern gizmos and touchpads), Raphael points out that this is still a classic car, not an i8.
My first impression once rolling is that it’s very easy to handle, with a nice progressive accelerator that doesn’t jolt you forward like a golf buggy, but still gives you that wonderful instant and constant torque if you want it. The biggest surprise for me was the stopping distance; the design employs energy harvesting under braking, and the “engine braking” experienced when you come off of the power is quite staggering, something to get used to. While I was learning its tolerances, I often found myself releasing the accelerator earlier than I needed to.
I have to say that driving the SWIND Classic felt wonderfully true to the characteristic of the original Mini: nippy and exciting, with the joyously misleading sensation of velocity that you only get with a truly small car. I’ve always loved the way you can throw these things around, and the SWIND offering does not disappoint, particularly as the electric incarnation has improved weight distribution over the original. Indeed, my only small criticism of the whole experience was that the switch between power and power harvesting could have been a little smoother, but before I could say anything to that effect, Raphael was already explaining that this was something they were working hard to refine.
So, an electric power plant in a classic car? It’s not a brand new concept, but still a very young one, with only a few places building more than one-offs. In this instance, with the Mini, the conversion is just plain logical. The SWIND team have managed to retain the character and soul of the design of Sir Alec Issigonis, while improving on the weak points of the full package. For a car that was revolutionary and forward thinking at the time, I feel that this is a respectful and fitting progression; a means for tired old Minis to be more than little nuggets of nostalgia, but rather visions for the future.