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Hey, David Benardo, how'd you get to be the head of Zelectric Motors?

When you want a reliable air-cooled Volkswagen, the only thing to do is swap out that drivetrain.

Zelectric Motors hero
Zelectric Motors

When I first saw a Zelectric Motors car at the Los Angeles Auto Show a few years ago, I was immediately smitten. The company takes old air-cooled Volkswagens and Porsches, and turns them into the classic electric car of your dreams. Depending on the battery, a Zelectric EV can get 180 miles of range with a top speed of 150 mph. The coolest bit? It has a manual transmission. The lower the gear, the more torque is available. You can throw that baby in first gear at a light and have all 120 pound-feet of twist at your disposal. Prefer not to row your own? That's cool. The rebuilt Volkswagen transmission can just hang out in third gear all day long.

David Benardo is the guy who made this kind of awesome a reality. Born in San Francisco, Benardo first went to art school with the hope of designing music album covers. However, a job at an ad agency intervened and he ended up as a creative director for various agencies in the Bay Area for more than 30 years.

Zelectric Motors
Karen Morrison

In 2006, Benardo and his wife Bonnie Rodgers started thinking about ways to turn their vintage VW Beetle into a fast and dependable car; not two words that are usually associated with "vintage Volkswagen Beetle." Fast-forward six years later and Zelectric Motors was born.

I interviewed Benardo over email to find out just how he started this company and what may be in store for us in the EV future.

What was your first car?

Growing up, we lived on a huge hill and made wooden coasters (two-person bobsled-looking things on wheels) from all sorts of broken things we'd find in the neighborhood: wagons, tricycles, minibikes, skateboards. We just wanted to go as fast as possible down this half-mile-long hill. We wore our bloody shirts to school proudly the next day.

I grew up next door to a number of car builders -- one built Manx dune buggies, another was a full-time mechanic and always had a hot-rod project going on in his spotless home garage, the other next-door neighbor had a decade worth of teenagers that rebuilt anything they could get their hands on before going off to become engineers at NASA, my best friend's house a few doors down always had something on the grass that went from cinder blocks to candy-apple paint over the course of a year. It's also where I restored my dad's truck (1961 GMC short bed pickup) into my hot-rod when I was around 15.

What was your first automotive job and how did you get it?

Well, Zelectric Motor is it. I'm just getting started. I haven't come up through the ranks like most of the builders here in Southern California. But the passion is there, it's been in the works for decades. A few years ago Bonnie and I decided to regroup and follow an idea we were both passionate about. Our approach was, what if we were 20 years old again but with a better business sense and none of the career and kid responsibilities we had in our actual twenties. So now, older, wiser and pretty good at brand building, we set out to find smart people to collaborate with to build our dream car.

Take me through an average day at Zelectric.

As a creative director I worked on campaigns with a number of other professionals including writers, photographers, designers, printers and fabricators. I've taken the same approach with our Zelectric car builds and assembled a crack team of mechanics, engineers and restorers. While I'm involved with the overall design of the build, details are left in the hands of a small talented crew for each car. So I spend most of my time guiding projects from one stage to the next. These are time-consuming builds with many hands involved, and I'm the client contact person as well. My wife Bonnie finds cars, manages the business side and posts most of our social content.

We decided early on it would be best to focus on the vintage VW models because it was the car I understood, having owned them for the past 30 years. They're also loved by millions, lightweight, collectible and have a huge built-in network of support in parts, clubs and devoted restoration shops.  I had looked into converting our 1965 VW microbus about 12 years ago.

What is the most tedious thing about your current job?

The thing I hate most is having to sometimes tell my clients it's going to take longer than expected for them to get their car. Every build seems to take longer than planned. That's the nature of dealing with 50-year-old cars and newfangled technology. Each build is a little better than the last and we seem to spend more time on each new build.

How does tech affect the future of your job?

This venture started with tech so, no surprise, if affects everything. And that's why it's fun. I think there's a whole new world of possibilities for all the vintage cars out there. And with all the production electric cars coming out, there will be a whole new breed of hot-rodder in the next 5 to 10 years. In fact it's already happening. We're now starting to use Tesla Model S battery modules from parted-out cars. There are people in their home garages right now taking apart Nissan Leafs, Kias, Teslas and the like and getting those systems to work in all sorts of contraptions. Many may look awful and have limited range, but they're building new rides out of salvaged cars.

Our builds, however, are not experimental, we mostly use off-the-shelf components that have been proven dependable. After all, that's what I wanted since the beginning; a lovable iconic car that I didn't have to wrench on all the time.

What automotive trend makes your blood boil?

The only automotive trend that makes my blood boil is the disembodied bass coming from who-knows-where. How can they drive in traffic like that? Or modified exhausts. I'm all for power and torque and whatever real sound comes out of that. But I'd really like to put a banana in the Harleys that set off car alarms or the 10-year-old 4-door imports with fart cans scraping the pavement.

Zelectric Motors

At least the old air-cooled motor is easy to take out. Just four bolts and it's free.

Zelectric Motors

What is the one project that you've always wanted to tackle professionally but have never been able to do?

I get emails every day from someone that wants their dream car made electric. What I hope we can be involved with in the future is a smaller, more affordable electric power system, something a father/daughter can put in an old Mustang.

If you weren't working in the automotive industry, what would you be doing?

When I was a kid, I designed t-shirts with skateboarding graphics, that led to posters for high-school plays, then identities for software companies, and earlier this year I designed the motor bay and graphic interface for the all-electric ICON Derelict VW Thing. These have all been passion-filled design projects. So, I'd be designing something, somewhere