The Specialty Equipment Market Association trade show in Las Vegas is extravagant, it is inspiring, it is perhaps the greatest automotive pissing contest you’ll ever witness. It’s an annual gathering for every somebody in the car world to show off the fanciest thing they can create on four(ish) wheels.
My business partner, Rich Benoit, and I thought we finally had something radical and bold enough for the event. We didn’t just want to exist there. We wanted to steal the show. That also meant we needed a car that could actually move under its own power. Most of the cars at SEMA get pushed onto the expo floor, but nobody’s happy about it. The shame of an unfinished ride is something to avoid at all costs. And yet with 30 hours until our transport truck arrived, we were approaching the city limits of Shamesville.
After two years of patiently converting a Tesla to an internal-combustion-engine muscle car—we’ll get to why on earth anyone would do this—we were down to just hooking up the fuel lines but were caught waiting for fitments to arrive in the mail. And they weren’t going to make it in time.
Rich and I have been revitalizing Teslas for about six years now. It started when Rich, an intrepid tinkerer, wanted a Tesla Model S but didn’t think it was reasonable to pay $100,000 for one. His solution: Take a couple of salvaged Teslas and put them together. Simple, right? Start with a flooded electric vehicle—good for its shell, not its corroded batteries—and wait for a second Tesla with a battered shell and a good set of Duracells. After a year and a half of wrenching, our first fully functional electric car emerged for a total of $6,500. It also launched our YouTube channel (Rich Rebuilds) featuring odd and eclectic EV projects in 2017, and eventually the Electrified Garage, our sister company that performs EV maintenance, repair, and conversions for the public.
After a couple of years, we were running out of Tesla projects and started building up cars that we simply wanted to enjoy. We resurrected a BMW i8. We gave a 1932 Ford Model A an electric powertrain from a crashed LAPD motorcycle. And we restored a neglected twin-turbo Audi RS7—too beautiful not to save. Not every project had a battery, which upset the die-hard EV hive, but we love all things automotive.
All the while we were buying up salvaged Teslas (we’re up to 17 in various stages of destruction). Despite our well-documented love for Tesla, the feeling isn’t mutual. We buy so many wrecked Teslas because the company won’t sell us its house-manufactured batteries and motors. We know it’s (mostly) not personal, because Tesla won’t sell to anyone, not even a certified tech who’s outside the company.
Usually that’s not a problem, because insurance companies act like touching even a slightly damaged Tesla would result in widespread hair loss. Fools. They write the cars off as a total loss for salvage, and then we rehabilitate each Tesla for a tidy profit or part it out.
We’re never sure what we’ve bought until we can check out the internals, but most of these are low-risk purchases. There was one, however, that seemed like a true lemon. This 2015 Tesla Model S P85D looked like it was in great shape and could be more than another parts car. We happily put down $23,000, only to discover that the insurance note of minor water damage actually meant it had gone for a swim. Just like a cellphone dropped in water for too long, the submerged electronic boards made this vehicle a very expensive paperweight that no amount of rice could revive. Worse, we had a battery and motor shortage for this model because it was particularly safe and seldom crashed.
So we had this gorgeous vehicle with barely a scratch on it that could not move under its own power—because there was none. So a terrible idea was born.
Well, Chevy would sell us a motor. It was a simple statement. It was also blasphemy, sacrilegious to Tesla’s environmental cause. We laughed for a good long while, and were then overtaken by deafening silence. One should not put a gas engine in an electric car. But we knew we had to do it.
We’d toyed with the idea when Tesla first emerged on the scene, and we knew we weren’t the only ones who thought of jamming a gas hog in the frunk—the front trunk. In fact, Joshua Dodge, our welder on this project, had bombarded our inbox for almost a year with emails saying he wanted to see it happen, and that if we didn’t do it, he would.
Our goals were simple: an LS small block, a manual transmission, and no discernible difference from afar. The questions that followed were not simple. Where will that motor hide? How will we cool it and feed it air? Can you cut a Tesla in half without the chassis failing? Can you still run Tesla’s computer without the Elon Duracells? Where does the new fuel cell go? Will the aluminum chassis handle the flex from the heat and torque, or reject the V-8 transplant? Will Elon Musk take us to court? Can they still track the car if we think we disabled the LTE/Wi-Fi?
In December 2019, we pulled the car out of storage and stripped the interior and computer to begin measuring everything to see where a new drivetrain might fit. The first order of business was to remove the air-conditioning unit and frunk. Then we could determine how much room we had for a motor and test the space with foam engine mockups.
Instead of actually buying a crate motor from GM, we spent many a night eBaying for potential donors to keep costs down. Eventually we landed on a 426-horsepower 6.2L Chevy LS3 motor from a wrecked 2011 Camaro SS. To everyone’s surprise, it fit like a glove in the Model S frunk-turned-engine-bay, and the hood latched in place on the first try.
While that V-8 hogs all the attention, the crux of the build was actually creating a tunnel for the transmission and driveshaft down the middle of a car that comes with a flat underside. The flat floor is most obvious when you notice the lack of a center console hump in early Teslas. This was a specific request by Musk, a subtle flex highlighting the lack of a certain bulge most every other car on the road needed.
Once the 1,200-pound battery pack and its 16 corroded modules were dropped, the real fun began. We brought the shell to Joshua’s garage to go under the knife. Technically, Joshua was a stranger we’d only met on the internet. But he said he had significant welding experience and really enjoyed our YouTube channel. Seemed legit enough that we didn’t worry about being murdered in an alley. On our first visit to his garage, we saw walls covered with the body panels of Nascar vehicles Joshua had built. We knew then that we’d make this daydream a reality.
The Tesla body is mostly aluminum to offset the batteries’ weight. But aluminum is softer than the typical carbon steel used for auto frames, and we needed to cut a seam down 70 percent of the length of the car to make way for a driveshaft. This posed the challenge of maintaining the structural integrity of an area that was also never designed to absorb the heat and torque of an LS motor. So to avoid creating a frame that wanted to fold in half, Joshua added a rib cage of bracings to the underside.
Our team fabricated and fitted motor and transmission mounts and had a custom rear axle built. Once the drivetrain lined up, we saw one last major complication: How would we install a shifter that didn’t smash your fist into that 17-inch touchscreen? Our intention was to keep the vehicle looking as close to stock as possible on all fronts, so that at least from a glance, if you didn’t hear the thunderous babble of a V-8 idling, you would assume it was a regular Tesla. The touchscreen had to keep its spot, and if we couldn’t hide the shifter, at the very least it needed to look good. Originally we thought it funny to have a huge gated shifter with a Tesla battery cell as the grip, but ultimately we installed a short throw shifter to keep a safe distance from the screen.
Once this was in place, we felt confident not just that our build was in the homestretch but that we finally had a car that could mark our arrival at SEMA. Four months remained until the show. Surely that was enough time.
While we were piecing together the drivetrain in one garage, Chad Hrencecin and Bryan Maynard from the Electrified Garage had the shell in another. They pulled out nearly 3,000 feet of wiring, keeping only what was needed to power the normal features of the car from its touchscreen, and wired up a new fuse block in the glove box.
Bryan also fabricated our heat shield, a 10mm aluminum face with a 1/8-inch composite glass-fiber core. Despite pulling the engine in and out a dozen times to perfect the fit, we needed to finish the wiring when it was time for the shielding to go in. So Bryan had to cut and mold the shielding around the motor by hand while it was in place.
An LS3 doesn’t move on the power of our hopes and dreams, so we needed a fuel cell. Fortunately, the Model S’s trunk has a sub-level void that can also be used for a seven-seater configuration to let two kids in reverse jump seats dangle their feet into the rear hatch. Sorry, kiddos, we filled the space with a 14-gallon gas tank and chased a line to the filler cap into the Tesla’s rear taillight, where the charge port used to be.
Then there was the problem of how to cool the motor. Another flex in this Tesla’s designs are the solid, no-grille front ends. It’s more aerodynamic and signifies that they don’t need air flowing to a motor. We wanted to keep that appearance, but our motor very much needed air. EVs do, however, have giant batteries that need to be cooled, lest they start a fire. Our Tesla has an air duct for the batteries’ radiator tucked into the bumper, so we kept the original vents and rerouted the air to the engine and its radiator.
We now had something that looked like a functioning vehicle. The drivetrain was installed, and the body had been “upgraded” for it. But with a month to go, there was still a lot to do before we could arrive at SEMA with a motor that made noise. Stock Teslas are largely silent; ours had to be different.
We had to put together an exhaust system, wire up a Haltech tuner to communicate with the motor, reupholster the interior for the transmission hump, and add structural bracing above the LS3. All the while we were waiting for at least 24 more parts to arrive, most being fitments for the fuel lines—nonnegotiable for firing up the motor. Great. We could alter or fabricate our way out of most problems, but not this one.
Normally we’re a chipper group of people, but two weeks out, our garage felt like a funeral home. We were eating meals in there, napping on-site in a Mercedes Sprinter van conversion, and showers? Meh, no one was coming near us anyway. The lack of sleep started to make us feel numb inside, but we could see the finish line again. Then we got a call that the fitments were delayed. There was no way our Tesla could drive onto the trailer under its own power for the trip to Vegas.
There was one last option. We didn’t like it, but it gave us a shot. We could buy three days by driving the Tesla ourselves from the Electrified Garage in New Hampshire to SEMA. Truckers are required by law to stop every eight hours, but as a group of madmen we could drive around the clock and then finish it with Geddy Getz, a local LS specialist.
After 2,733 mind-bending miles (seriously, check out how weird it gets on our YouTube), we pulled into Geddy’s driveway on Monday morning at 8 a.m. We had until 5 p.m. to deliver the car 20 minutes down the road to the SEMA floor. Taking our box of fitments, Geddy tuned the motor so that it didn’t run too lean and sound like a clangorous mess of sputters and backfires, or too rich that it bogged itself down and smelled like a BP tanker spill. Either option would be as embarrassing as pushing the car to its booth. We had precious few hours to find the balance, and then…the cylinders started to align like the planets to an astrologer. The sound was snappy, throaty, and downright mean.
We drove into SEMA with two hours to spare. It was time to scare and confuse people with something they’d never seen or heard before. Our work isn’t conventional, but you have to respect it—we received praise and admiration from a lot of our industry heroes that week.
It’s funny, we’ve been looking at the Tesla T on hoods of ever-so-quiet cars for the better part of a decade. But when our eyes drift to the side exhaust on our Model S, they begin to moisten from the inky smoke of 376 cubic inches ready to lay down now-444 ponies. We’re brought back to the thing that made us love automobiles in the first place: the thunderous sound of power.