Zelectric’s David Benardo (left) chats with an old VW mechanic.
“What year is this?” asks the gentleman passing David Benardo on his way into the Bali Hai on Shelter Island. He has noticed Benardo’s pristine white Volkswagen Beetle convertible parked outside, and as he leans in, he says, smiling, “I had a ’78 Super Bug.” Benardo has just finished telling me that old Volkswagens are conversation starters. “You’re immediately approachable. You’re kind of like the good guy. People have a lot of memories attached to these cars.”
“Well, it’s sort of a ’65,” he answers. “But look.” He lifts the rear hood, revealing a 100-horsepower electric motor where the “maybe 40-horsepower” gas engine used to be. The $62,000 retrofit — which brings the fully restored Beetle’s price up to $110,000 — is the work of Zelectric Motors, the San Diego-based business he runs with his wife Bonnie. “It sounds crazy,” he says, “but we put in 300-400 hours on each car,” and there have been “zero issues” with the 25 cars — Beetles, Things, VW buses, and Porsches — that Zelectric has produced over the past seven years.
Excited, the gentleman calls to his female companion. “Come see this! It’s electric!” She declines, saying “I don’t know nothing about no cars,” but another passerby does know. “I used to tune these,” he says, marveling.
“Well, there’s nothing to tune here,” says Benardo. “My wife and I have always loved these cars — they make you feel happy driving them — but not the upkeep to keep them running. The driving force was to drive the car as often as possible and not have to work on it. It was a personal project that kind of evolved into a business.” Right now, he’s booked through the next 18 months. His clients, almost exclusively Boomers, pay a nonrefundable $5000 deposit to hold a place in line.
“How fast will it go?” asks an old-timer from the window of a passing ’58. “As fast as you’d want to go in an old Volkswagen,” replies Benardo. “Over 100. Wanna race?”
The company recently put a Tesla motor into a Porsche 911, with dramatic results.
“I had a ’66 for a lot of years,” says a woman as she passes. “Candy apple red, black ragtop.” This one has red leather inside to match the rim on the wheels, and was recently won by a woman who lives outside Atlanta after it was used as an incentive by the fundraising platform Omaze.
“I had one right out of high school in ’67,” says another woman, stopping with her Bali Hai-bound date. “Then another in ’72. Then a convertible in ’77. Sold it because I couldn’t get over the mountains” — something Benardo’s version can do with vigor. (“It’s not a sports car, but it’s much more sporty than it was.”) “We’re baby boomers, but we’re joining these younger people in the environmental movement, like little Greta — she’s our heroine. We’ve reduced our air conditioning, stopped eating red meat, and this” — going electric — “is our next step.”
Benardo smiles on their beefy forbearance. “That’s a bigger step than this,” he says, gesturing at the Beetle. “This is the fun part.”