To go forward we first have to go back, way back, to 1965. Back then magazines ruled the roost, and Popular Hot Rodding decided the best way to serve their readers was to pick up a cheap long-term project car to try out various engines and speed parts. A mere $250 netted them a rather run-down and basic 1957 210 Chevy that was eventually named Project X. We know they planned for this to be a long-term project, but I doubt they ever thought it would still be a project car 56 years later. X has had just about everything you can imagine from Chevrolet stuffed between its yellow fenders, but it’s 2021 and time to take a rather large leap—to electrification.
Why Do an EV Conversion on a Classic Car?
Yeah, we know some of you will hate it, just like they did when the car first tried EFI or was changed after being in Hollywood Knights, but that means you’re missing the point of Project X. The ’57 Chevy has always existed to change and try out new things, and there’s nothing newer than going electric. Last year Chevrolet introduced its eCrate program as a way to give hot rodders options. Is Chevrolet Performance moving away from internal combustion engines? Nope. Heck, Chevy just released a 1,000-hp ZZ632 big-block crate engine. What Chevy is saying is that it wants to show hot rodders what’s possible for their favorite classic hot rod. It’s all about options, and for this dance with bleeding-edge EV tech, our 1957 Project X is leading the way once more.
You see, that’s what makes Project X so unique. It was never designed to be finished, just to keep changing with the times. As GM’s Al Oppenheiser told us: “Remember, most classic cars were inline-sixes and low-output V-8s. Someone, at some point, put a small-block in ‘dad’s car’ and made it theirs. Now the younger generation has a way to keep ‘grandpa’s’ V-8 generational by making it an EV. It’s a way to keep the classic car culture alive for the new generations of car people. “
Related: The Untold History of Project X
Back in the mid-2000s GM did a complete rebuild of the car, and at that point everyone thought X was done. Former GMer and current President at Performance Racing Industry (PRI) Jamie Meyer is remembered as saying, “No one will ever outdo what we’ve done with Project X, but who knows, someday maybe someone will do something like put an electric motor in it.” You see, even at that point people knew Project X would keep changing along with the evolving hot-rodding industry. After all, the other option would be for it to stop and get retired, put out to pasture, if you will, and that would be a shame. Project X has shown generations of hot rodders numerous possibilities of how they can build their own cars, and we see no reason why that tradition should end. We joke that in another 20 years, X will be flying around with a Mr. Fusion fused to the trunklid.
Where to Have an EV Conversion Done?
Now, an EV conversion on a classic Chevy isn’t like building an RC car. It’s also something that hasn’t been done very often and a task that requires a certain specific skill set. To make this even more challenging, the ’57 Chevy had to be done for the 2021 SEMA Show in Vegas, an event that was just five weeks away. To tackle this Herculean task, X was shipped to Vic Cagnazzi Racing in Mooresville, North Carolina. Cagnazzi had just started a new branch of his racing business called E-Crate Solutions, and GM felt he had the manpower, skill, and equipment to pull off this transformation in just over a month.
A few years back X had a makeover by the guys at Hot Rod Garage. The all-aluminum 425-hp 427-cubic-inch big-block was yanked and replaced with a Roots-blown B15 Chevrolet Performance LSX crate engine and given more of a pro-street look.
Related: How EV Motors Work, Tech Differences, and More
The car had been sitting in the corner of a warehouse, and when it showed up, it was a bit of a mess and would barely idle. Project X has changed so much over the years that about the only part of the car we can guarantee is original would be the rear license plate it has always run. (Who swiped the front plate, and whose wall is it hanging on?) Well, true to form, it was time for X to change once more, this time with a proof-of-concept propulsion system to demonstrate what the next generation of eCrate Connect & Cruise may offer.
Before the team at Cagnazzi could get started figuring out the new parts, it had to strip off the old stuff, which started, appropriately, at the gas tank.
Eventually the team worked its way forward to the blown LS engine.
For the most part these are the parts removed for the EV conversion, but we also ditched Project X’s Strange rear in favor of a quick-change unit. Why? Well, we’ll get to that in a bit.
With all the parts out of the way, Michael Lyons, Cagnazzi’s chief of engineering, fired up the Gom Optical Measuring Techniques ATOS Core blue-light 3-D scanner. If you see little white “eyeball” stickers on the car, that’s for the scanner. Cagnazzi has its own CNC machining facility, and by having the entire car 3-D scanned, it would be able to quickly churn out one-off rapid prototyped parts for the project. If you want one of these scanners for your garage, you’ll need to save up around a quarter of a million bucks.
The result is one of the most detailed 3-D scans of a ’57 Chevy ever. The team then went on to scan all the parts so it could “virtually” build the car, decide what parts would go where, and figure out what changes would have to be made to X to make the new parts fit. Being able to virtually build the car saved time, and with our abbreviated five-week build schedule, we needed every minute we could beg, borrow, or steal.
Where to Put the Batteries in Project X?
The biggest challenge was packaging in the 400-volt lithium-ion battery packs. There’s four of these prototype super-secret batteries powering X, and together they weigh in right around 700 pounds, but weight over the rear axle isn’t really a bad thing. Oh, 400 volts DC is no joke and will kill you dead, and it will hurt the whole time you’re dying. Given this shocking fact (sorry, couldn’t resist), safety was the No. 1 rule in the shop.
Thanks to the 3-D scan of the car, the team came up with a battery plan. Back when GM rebuilt X, it narrowed the frame rails; to fit the batteries, they needed to be put back in the original locations while allowing X to keep its massive rear tires.
So new frame rails were added, starting right behind the rear tire well. The Cagnazzi team also made a support to handle the two upper batteries. All of this was designed in CAD, the parts CNC cut out and then welded up. Again, the time spent 3-D scanning the car really saved valuable time during the build. The batteries provide 400V with 30 kWh of energy. High Voltage thermal management and charging systems are carried over from the eCrate Connect & Cruise Kit, which is already developed and planned for release—a great demonstration of versatility of the eCrate package.
We can’t show you the proof-of-concept prototype batteries, but this gives you an idea of the layout. The two lower batteries sit laterally in the recessed trunk floor, the two upper batteries were mounted longitudinally on the support we showed you earlier, and they were all held in place by custom CNC-machined hold-downs designed by Cagnazzi. The batteries run in series and into a control box mounted in the trunk on the driver side. The overall pack is a 2p96s setup: two cells in parallel and 96 of these pairs in series.
From the bottom you would never know there’s no gas tank in X, and 700 pounds along with the instant torque of the electric motor should make doing wheelies pretty easy. We’ll find out after the 2021 SEMA Show when we get to the testing stage.
Does an EV Conversion Require a Transmission?
The Strange Dana 60 was ditched in favor of this sweet quick-change piece from Diversified Machine. Elite Tube and Fab supplied the tubes and brackets. Why? Well, for this first go-around, Project X will be direct drive, which means the electric motor will hook directly to the rear with no transmission in between.
So to change X from a cruiser to a hard-launching drag car, we just pop the cover and swap out the G-Force quick-change gearset. There’s a 0.571 gearset for cruising (overall ratio of 2.36) and a 1.75 gearset for max off-the-line performance (overall ratio of 7.22). The whole process of swapping gears takes just a few minutes.
The direct-drive layout makes for a really long driveshaft, so for safety we went with a two-piece driveshaft like many modern cars and trucks have. There’s a crossmember right around where the trans crossmember would be, which supports a bearing where the rear driveshaft mates to the shorter forward driveshaft. No exhaust meant we had tons of room under the Chevy.
One really cool thing the Cagnazzi team did was figure out how to put the system’s charging port in the tailfin where the old gasoline fill neck was located. The system has an onboard 7.2-kW charging system along with a 1.5-kW DC-to-AC inverter.
Again, using the 3-D scans, the team was able to design the new motor mounts for the Chevrolet AC motor.
Mounting an electric motor isn’t much different than mounting a gasoline engine. In fact, because you don’t need to factor in a large oil pan or headers, it’s a lot easier.
Chevrolet sent us over this mockup case so the team could work on all the brackets, wiring, plumbing, and the rest while the actual permanent-magnet three-phase AC motor was being geared at GM. Look close, and you can spy the sweet billet engine mounts that were whittled out of aluminum on Cagnazzi’s CNC machines. The drive unit GM provided is derived from an upcoming GM production EV consisting of GM’s next-generation high-efficiency three-phase AC motor with an integrated traction power inverter.
Let’s be honest, the new electric motor is pretty tiny in the ’57 Chevy’s voluminous engine bay. To fill it up a bit, the team decided to stack some of the parts above the actual electric motor. These all have to do with the engine’s power management systems and do things like convert the 400V power to 12V so it can charge the normal Delco battery that will in turn run the 12V accessories. All that power makes heat, so many of these components are liquid cooled.
Just like every car being built for SEMA, Project X needed a lot of wiring done, and all from scratch. Aside from the team that Chevrolet sent to the shop to help, Modern Racing sent over a couple of technicians to help sort the miles of wire. Oh, to make things more challenging, supply chain issues meant they could only get white for most of the wires. To help keep track of everything, every wire was labeled at each end with a tiny number. Good times.
While Modern was working on the wiring at the front, the Chevrolet team was working on the wires in the trunk, which controlled not only the batteries but also the car’s ECU. This whole deal was a “first,” and given its prototype status a lot of on-the-fly engineering was done to get all the systems communicating and playing nice together.
With an EV, there’s no drive belt to run accessories. Even if there was, the electric motor stops when the car stops. This means everything that typically runs off a drive belt needs to be electrified, like this AC compressor. The upside is that because there’s no drive belt, the accessories can be mounted wherever it makes the most sense. Here the AC compressor is mocked up while the Cagnazzi CNC department made the brackets. Pro-tip: Any cable with orange loom is high voltage and needs to be shown the proper respect.
Even modern internal combustion cars have electric power steering these days, so the solution was easy for Chevrolet to address. A Bosch electric PS pump was mounted low and just in front of the motor.
On an internal combustion engine, the hot water from the engine is used by the climate control system to warm the cabin. With an EV this won’t work, so for cabin heat there’s a small, electrically powered unit to provide hot water for the heater core.
Do They Make eCrate Systems for EV Conversions?
The permanent-magnet three-phase AC motor finally showed up to the shop, so the team got busy installing it in place of the mock-up unit they had been using. Obviously, this weighs quite a bit less than the engine we removed. In fact, due to the rear-mounted batteries, the weight of the car remained about the same but is biased to the rear, perfect for dragstrip launches. GM modded the motor, changing it from a transaxle setup to one with longitudinal mechanical power so it can drive the back wheels like a traditional gas engine. The goal with this new kit is for hot rodders to be able to do the conversion while keeping the “engine in the front driving the rear wheels” arrangement of classic muscle cars. The internal gear ratio was changed from 11.6:1 to 4.5:1. Also, this next-gen eCrate Connect and Cruise prototype features an internal DC-to-AC inverter. Estimated power is 340 hp, which might not sound like a lot to hot rodders, but given the near-instant torque output (325 lb-ft), it’s quite a rush when the throttle is mashed.
This isn’t the electric motor in your RC car. In addition to cooling, it also needs an oil pump to keep it properly lubricated.
Just like an internal combustion engine, an EV needs a proper cooling system with no fewer than three separate radiators to cool down the various systems, including the batteries, which are also liquid cooled. There’s also a system to warm the batteries if outside temps drop too far. Add it all up, and the EV has a more complicated cooling system than most internal combustion vehicles. To hold the coolers and the AC condenser, Cagnazzi fabricated this core support using flush-mount rivets.
Three Derale Performance radiators, one front and two rear and each with their own high-CFM fans, were mounted to the fabbed core support. If you look below the radiators, you’ll see two of the many pumps that send coolant to the various systems.
Anyone that works with high-voltage DC power will tell you it demands respect. Special care was taken with any high-voltage lines that had to pass through metal bulkheads.
The old inner fenders had cutouts for the headers, so the Cagnazzi team fabricated new inners to clean up the engine bay. Unlike the old panels, these were designed so the main sections could be removed without having to pull the hood or fenders.
As we explained earlier, there’s a typical 12V Delco battery in the engine bay that runs all the 12V accessories. Above its closeout panel, the team installed a mechanical cutoff switch. In the trunk there’s also a master disconnect switch so the 400V batteries can be safely isolated during any needed service.
Chevrolet made these sweet rear quarter panel emblems for Project X, with the 400 representing the system’s voltage while the traditional V part now references voltage instead of the V arrangement of pistons. The emblems showed up unpainted from GM, so the team next-day-air shipped them to Todd Berry in Alabama, who painted them and had them shipped back to us the next day.
The interior of Project X stayed almost identical to how it was when we started, with three notable changes. See that big red button on the dash? Well, that’s the “Oh expletive!” cutoff switch in case something goes sideways.
Classic Instruments worked over the gauges to be appropriate for an EV. The fuel gauge was replaced with a battery charge gauge, the volt gauge now reads lower voltage, the rpm on the tach was raised, and there are two water temp gauges for the various EV cooling systems.
Does an EV Conversion Still Require a Shifter?
Even though Project X’s electric powertrain is direct drive, it still needs a system for putting it in park, drive, and reverse. The solution was to re-engineer the shifter control panel out of a C8 Corvette to control the process. This took more than a little work to make happen, but the GM engineers and Cagnazzi team were able to make it work.
Less than 28 hours until Project X needed to be loaded up and heading west to Vegas, the team pulled an all-nighter (a SEMA build tradition for many shops). Most items on the to-do list were small things like tidying up wiring, checking coolant line connections, and doing paint touch up.
With the inner panels in place, the new EV motor and control boxes look pretty good. You can see the X closeout panel the team made to block off the hood’s old air intake for the throttle body. There’s a lot going on here, but we think it looks well laid out. It will certainly get attention when the hood is popped at an event.
With the hood closed, you would never know we touched the car.
Project X still has its iconic style and classic lines, but with a modern EV powertrain it’s ready for the 21st century and beyond. So is Project X done? That would be a hard no. It will never be done, and there are already plans in motion to increase X’s range and power output, with talk about twin motors and other performance tech that’s right now on the drawing board. After all, so long as there’s new hot-rodding parts to be tested out, Project X will be there to try it.
Project X ’57 Chevy EV Conversion: Concept Features
- All-electric next-generation Connect & Cruise eCrate Propulsion System Concept—Electric Drive Unit derived from upcoming GM production EV with next-generation motor
- Integrated DC-to-AC inverter
- Estimated power 340/255 (hp/kW)
- Estimated torque 325/440 (lb-ft/Nm)
- Modified gear ratio 11.6 to 4.5
- Open differential converted to spool
- Potential for PTO off front of drive unit
- Longitudinal driveline
- Proof-of-concept lithium-ion performance battery system with 400 volts and 30 kWh of usable energy (located in trunk)
- High Power Lithium Ion pouch cells arranged in 2P96S fashion.
- Integrated cell heating and cooling system with battery management system
- Onboard 7.2 kW charging system
- Onboard 1.6 kW DC-to-DC inverter
- Quick-change rearend: 4.125 ring & pinion with 0.571 or 1.75 gearset resulting in overall ratio of 2.36 or 7.22
- Wilwood brakes w/ ABS system
- Rack-and-pinion steering with electric power steering pump
- Iconic yellow exterior
- Custom billet specialties 15-inch wheels
- Custom interior with Corvette C8 push-button shifter
Build Team at Cagnazzi E-Crate Solutions
- Victor Cagnazzi
- Michael Lyons
- Parker Grove
- Todd Berrier
- Adam Badgett
- Fred Badgett
- Gene Dehart
Build Team from Chevrolet
- Prashant Ahire: Project Management
- Russ O’Blenes: Director, Performance & Racing
- A.J. Hamley: eCrate Electrification Engineer – Controls lead
- Adam Maloney: eCrate Electrification Engineer – Electrical Systems lead
- Steve Yocum: Design Lead
- Mike Ernest
- Steve Richie
- Sean Sheehan
- Cole Leether
- Performance and Racing Propulsion Lab
- Pontiac PPO (Janellen Preston and team)
- GM Production Electrification Team
Source: Read Full Article