Automakers must feel like they have something to prove with electric cars. Every new concept and production EV we hear about has supercar horsepower, a ludicrous 0-60 mph time and an interior that looks like the H.R. Giger version of an Apple Store. What if I just want something simple, small and easy to navigate a city with that just doesn’t happen to run on gasoline? After driving a very special electric Mini, I have found an EV future I’m quite happy with.
(Full Disclosure: Mini brought this special electric conversion classic over from Germany for the New York Auto Show and let a handful of outlets drive it around Manhattan for a bit. Jalopnik was one of them.)
This classic Mini was an appropriate choice to show off during the New York Auto Show. Mini, struggling in some ways with America’s newfound and bottomless appetite for SUVs, is about to go in hard on electric cars. An all-electric Mini is coming in 2019, and some within the BMW Group have even suggested the brand could eventually go all-electric in the U.S.
I’m not sure I’d bank on that quite yet, but after driving an electric Mini myself I’d say the concept really works.
Yet this car is not from Mini itself. It’s a 1998 model, one of the last of the classic Minis before BMW bought the brand, and it’s owned by German builder Moritz Burmester, who did the EV conversion himself over about six years. And he’s no stranger to classic Minis, having owned more than a dozen himself.
On this car, Moritz ripped out the original 1.3-liter engine and threw in a 10 kWh battery pack, giving it a range of about 65 miles. Not bad for a homemade city car, and neither is the fact that it will do up to 70 mph.
From the outside, besides a few stickers and badges, you’d never know Moritz’s Mini is electric. That pretty much goes for the inside, too—it’s standard old-school Mini fare in there, including the manual gearbox. It did include a small electronic instrument panel on the dash to monitor range and temperature and all those good things. (And it had a tachometer, but obviously it didn’t work.)
I got in, switched the car on and put it a forward gear—second gear, no clutch necessary—gave it some throttle, and I was off, zooming through the city with only a belt whine and tire noise in my ears. Having a clutch but not needing to use it was a weird sensation, and Moritz admonished me for sticking the shifter in neutral at stoplights when I didn’t have to. Old habits!
So what’s it like when you get on it? First, let me say that you now have an official mandate from the editor of Jalopnik to drive a classic Mini at least once before you die, if you have not already. Put it on your bucket list and get it done. I don’t care if your jam is supercars, Japanese tuner cars or American muscle. You will have a lot of very memorable fun in one of these. And you’ll get a lot of attention.
Moritz’s Mini brought all the benefits we’ve come to expect as EVs have gained popularity, like flat, instant torque. After a tad bit of hesitation, it just goes, simply shooting forward with little drama. No need to keep the revs up to maintain power, because there are none. Like any classic Mini, this car lacked power steering, but is tiny enough that it didn’t need it.
It’s meant to be a go-kart, just an electric one in this case. And Moritz’s car doesn’t feel like some garage build—it feels like it was always meant to drive this way.
Beyond the electric gear, it’s all Mini. The tiny size turns you into a maniac behind the wheel. You’d think you’d be scared to be in something so small, but weirdly, the opposite happens. Even in Manhattan, we were small enough that I could duck and weave around SUVs and parked delivery vans like they were cones in an autocross course. Much more so than even the current Minis, these old ones are so very compact that they can navigate anything in a crowded city with hilarious ease. It’s more fun at 20 mph in a city than some supercars are around a track.
I walked away—sadly, I might add—thinking Mini may be onto something if it goes heavy on city EVs. Smart is about to go all-electric in America, but its Car2Go service will not follow suit. Maybe Mini’s up for creating the network of city EVs we need.
And as more and more cities look to ban diesels or internal combustion engines entirely, this experience left me optimistic about converting old cars to EVs. Sure, it’s not quite the same as having engine noise roaring in your ear, or being able to wrench on an engine. But if it’s a solution that can keep older cars on the road to be enjoyed for decades to come, I’m all for it. I know I’d take an electric version of my old BMW E30 over a lot of newer cars.