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In this Update: Trip Report: EV West, ICON4x4 • EV Links of Note


SoCal Trip Report: EV West, ICON4x4

I won't bury the lede - if you have just 30 seconds, these are the key takeaways: 
  1. An Indie Car OS doesn’t solve problems that restomodders have today, but there might be something to building a connected car analytics platform for aftermarket fleets;
  2. Insurance and title/registration compliance for conversions is no biggie (at least in CA);
  3. Everyone building today is low volume, high-end, depreciation and electric obsolescence FOMO impact conversion resale and make buyers second-guess, and the only “crate motor” game in town is scavenging wrecked Teslas (we assumed this, now confirmed). We need sourcing and a business model that reflects this reality.
This is a longer update, but I promise it’s worth it if you like field research findings instead of endless speculation and shoegazing.

Since I know you like photos, let’s start with photos:
From Top, Left to Right: (1) Some forthcoming Icon Derelicts; that red number is a Hudson '42 Bigboy Cab Pickup, designed by one of automotive's first-ever woman designers, Elizabeth Ann Thatcher; (2) Icon World Headquarters. It's almost all shop inside; (3) Some recent Icon restomods; the VW Thing in the middle is electric; (4) Two salvaged Tesla Model 3 cells at EV West; they're 6' long and elegantly engineered powerhouses; (5) EV West's Michael Bream folding up the side panels of the VW Box Cab he took me for a spin in. Don't be fooled, it's damn near as quick as my old Model S.
Full trip report:

Day 1: EV West, San Diego

  • EV West appears to be the most active outfit mainstreaming electric restomod. Michael Bream is co-founder and former racer. The Today Show & NBC Nightly News ran a quick segment with Michael this past weekend (yep, that’s the same VW box cab he gave me a ride in – it’s quick).
  • EVW’s customers primarily request VW Beetles, Vans, pre-73 911s 💸, and a few other mainly German rear engine variants. The shop is deliberately small, just four bays in an industrial park with a staff of about a dozen, and that scale certainly helps explain why they have a “4-5 year wait list” for in-house conversions. (Zelectric gets to cut this line as a preferred retailer.) Meanwhile, they’re happy to sell conversion kits to hobbyists worldwide. EVW’s powertrain inventory depends on a patchwork of suppliers and scavenged Teslas, and shipping Li-Po batteries requires careful/expensive crating and packaging, so lead times for full kits are at least 4-6 weeks —often double that. (The $20K kit for converting my Fiat won’t arrive until mid-April). We really need to investigate other sources, like HSR Motors. This whole endeavor appears to be industrial improv.
  • Bream strongly advocated for going high-end; there is no way to price a conversion into the entry level today. This is not news. Bream points out that Zelectric makes a lot of money on some conversions, some money on most, and occasionally loses out (like, they discover a Beetle that's Bondoed or fiberglassed deep down and becomes a throwaway). It's a lot like flipping houses. And that's the closest thing to a business model anyone has.

Day 2: Icon 4x4, Chatsworth (LA)

  • One of my new favorite people is Jonathan Ward (JW), CEO of Icon. He answers his own email and manages his own calendar. I don't know what I did to earn a 40 minute chat about the market and then about a 50 minute tour of the entire works, but maybe this is how he acts once he decides someone's neither a moron nor a smart threat. (I'm somewhere in the middle, minus the threat part.) He was really gracious. I met one of his customers (a vineyard owner) taking delivery of an FJ44, saw a few upcoming projects I've promised not to talk about, and saw what a unique package of talent he has under one roof. You'd have to be crazy to try to start a direct competitor. Crazier than JW.
  • We sat down first to talk about what I'm up to and my 0% industry and hardware experience, and how the R Motors journey has gone so far. Some insights he shared from his handful of EV projects and general industry wisdom:
    • EV tech is moving fast. It's perceived by customers like a smartphone, and JW is really concerned about tanking resale value – much like your old iPhone 6 being almost worthless. Also, so many builds are 1 of 1, bespoke, and non-modular, and are therefore costly/impractical to upgrade. "Fucking idiot work" is how he put the practice.
    • JW sees up to ½ of his future builds going electric in the next few years as long as modular, non-1 of 1 techniques can mitigate obsolescence risk.
    • We both agree it's weird and vulnerable to be dependent as a maker on a supply chain built from wrecked Teslas. Even completely blasted P100Ds sell for 65-80K on salvage titles. Harvesting these is exactly what EV West and HSR are doing. 
    • He knows the people behind GM's eCOPO project and is convinced that was a SEMA show-only stunt and they have no spine for shipping EV crate engines. This counters some breathless press speculation I’ve posted here before.
    • Tier 1 supplier BorgWarner is a dark horse aftermarket player, as they’ve become acquisitive in electric power-anything tech.
    • Icon doesn’t need an indie OS today – he has already shipped some digital displays in some builds (like the Mercury Derelict), and most of the retro stuff they do hides any digital behind a false panel or door. Analog and originality still rule, but 2019 technology is just below skin-deep.
    • JW does want something that can give Icon insight into how his customers really use his creations. Something that can also proactively notify him (or the customer) about maintenance or trouble, and perhaps deliver service in the field. Call it a Mixpanel for Motors. This concept also got some validation from Eric Hutchison of Electric GT, who is doing all sorts of shit, including electric conversion of airport tugs. 🤯 (We weren’t able to connect in person on this trip; I can’t pin him down – more in a future update.)
    • Two words: Electric Motorcycles.

      (I don’t think we pivot, but it would be a helluva lot simpler to convert old Moto Guzzis and Honda CB750s.)
    • Icon has some seriously crazy shit soon to debut. If you like cars, puppies, America, and freedom, you owe it to yourself to follow them on Insta.
I tried to get a meeting at Singer Vehicle Design because, well, $300K+ Porsche restomod. Didn’t work out; hoping for a follow-up call.

EV links of note

  • EV West and Icon both have made use of the Andromeda EVIC 7” tablet to display custom digital instrument clusters. This is primarily for EV readouts, but it can pull anything off the car’s CAN Bus you program it to (like speed, door lock/unlock status, etc.)
  • Perhaps “Mixpanel for Motors” is a restomod variant of – an API for connected cars 2014 and newer that fleet software operators like Turo and Getaround use.
We are going to continue to pursue EV restomod and software opportunities in parallel. Still critical is settling on a platform to target for cost effective conversion. We need to move away from paying full retail for salvage Tesla parts. Fleet analytics software deserves continued scrutiny and hypothesis testing; not worth spirited pursuit unless there's ample scale & differentiation.

I'm also thinking about converting cars and immediately listing them on Turo vs. trying to sell each new build. The more cars we can make $100+ on in daily rentals, the better our cashflow. Plus, if a Turo guest goes gaga for a ride and wants to buy it, what better lead gen than an extended test drive of an amazing ride?
Here is a titanium door handle. Icon really does sweat every detail.

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