Pop Culture

Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Electrified Volkswagen Beetle

Photos by Brendan McAleer and courtesy EV West

Hello there! This friendly-faced little blue car is a 1954 Volkswagen Beetle, a rare early oval-window version. As it passes silently, heads swivel to look. Where is the typical clatter of an air-cooled VW engine? And is that a Jedi master behind the wheel?

Actor Ewan McGregor uses the Force – by which we mean electricity – and his little Bug whooshes off down the road, looking like the 1950s but sounding like an all-electric Porsche Taycan. Perhaps best-known for his role in Star Wars as Obi-Wan Kenobi, McGregor is a huge fan of vintage motorcycles and cars. This one is probably the most special of them.

Earlier this year, McGregor signed on as an official brand ambassador for VW. With a new standalone “Obi-Wan” Netflix series just launched, the pairing was obvious. Pretty much everyone loves Star Wars, so let’s add a little Jedi flavour to the upcoming ID. Buzz EV van to drum up interest.

But in McGregor’s case, a passion for all things VW is genuine. Interviewed for a documentary about the Volkswagen Beetle called “The Bug Movie”, he told the camera, “Somewhere in me is still that 16-year-old boy who got his first car and kind of never got over it.” That car was a Beetle.

Most people will be more familiar with his documentary work involving motorcycles. With his friend Charlie Boorman, McGregor rode some 30,396 km from London to New York, crossing through central Europe, Siberia, and part of Canada. The film of the trip is called “Long Way Round”, and it’s a must-watch even if you don’t have any interest in two-wheeled transportation.

This ’54 Beetle has a small cameo in the follow-up film “Long Way Up”, which saw Boorman and McGregor riding north from Argentina on electric-powered Harley-Davidsons, hoping to make it to Los Angeles. Before they set out, the pair visits EV West, a specialist shop near San Diego.

There, McGregor gets an update on his beloved ’54 Beetle. Beloved, but not entirely faithful: in 2018, this car broke down while he was driving it around Los Angeles, and the paparazzi caught him pushing it to the side of the road. The timing couldn’t have been worse, as it was close to McGregor’s divorce. In typical Hollywood fashion, the tabloids made a meal out of comparing the breakup with the breakdown.

Shortly thereafter, the Beetle found its way to EV West. EV West isn’t really a restoration or eco-minded operation, but a typical SoCal speed shop. Here though, it’s battery packs instead of bored-out cylinders and tuned carburettors.

EV West has run electric-swapped cars up the hill at Pikes Peak and off-road in the Baja desert races. The shop truck is an electrified “Doka” (a pickup truck version of the classic VW van), and it has sufficient power to light up the rear wheels and drift around corners. Everything is burnouts, horsepower, and wrenching to make cars faster. It’s just that the juice to do so comes from solar panels on the roof.

For McGregor’s Beetle, EV West installed an electric drive motor backed up by battery packs from a wrecked Tesla. The company sells its driveline setup as kits ranging from roughly $8,000 to $18,000, though this in-house build was likely more expensive. The motors are all bench-tested using EV West’s own procedures, and the builds are done with sympathy to the donor vehicle. No sheet metal is cut, meaning it would entirely be possible to return the car to combustion engine power, just as it came from the factory.

But why would you? In its day, a 1954 Beetle made do with 36 hp and about 60 lb-ft of torque. The carburettors on the flat-four engine require tuning, and classic internal combustion engine cars are always happiest when they are run regularly. The schedule of a busy A-list actor doesn’t always permit that.

With the EV conversion, torque is doubled and it’s available in a broad powerband. Installing the battery pack up front improves the weight distribution, and the Beetle is now far more reliable. It also runs clean. If you’ve ever followed an old Volkswagen up a hill with your windows down, you’ll know why the least enjoyable aspect of classic cars is getting stuck behind them.

The Beetle is now turn-key get-in-and-go predictable, it has improved performance to keep up with modern traffic, and it’s dependable enough to function as a daily driver. Yet at the same time, it still has that classic shape and driving experience of being in a car that defines simplicity itself. It has upright visibility and no plastic, just steel, glass, rubber, and chrome.

The Volkswagen Beetle was never supposed to be a hot rod; its popularity grew from simplicity and low operating costs. Infusing one with EV running gear is far from inexpensive, but it preserves the charm and future-proofs it.

And strangely, the Beetle has the ideal layout for electric conversions. Its rear-engine, rear-wheel drive layout seems antiquated by modern combustion-engine standards, but in the EV world, you want your motor right at the drive axle. EV West also does conversions for Mustangs and BMWs, but what usually ends up happening is the battery pack takes the place of the old engine, and the new motor goes straight on the rear axle.

In this case, it’s an old idea made new again, and an electrified trip back in time for a 16-year-old Padawan who says he never entirely grew up. A classic VW Beetle, a whisper-quiet electric drivetrain, and a familiar face behind the wheel. With his electrified vintage Volkswagen, Ewan McGregor truly does have the high ground.