Business /
The Start-Up

‘We’re basically giving out heart transplants for cars’

Andy Martin speaks to Justin Lunny, the vehicle enthusiast giving classic cars a new lease of life in the electronic age

Lunny had the spark of an idea to convert old engines after watching the royal couple in their electric Jaguar E-Type

The marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle has had many far-reaching consequences. The career of Justin Lunny is one of them. Lunny once lived in Windsor, right across the street from the Castle. He used to watch Prince Philip driving a four-horse-powered carriage through town. But what really inspired him was the 250-odd horse-powered vehicle Harry and Meghan were driving on the day of their wedding: a sky blue Jaguar E-type convertible. A design classic. But also, crucially, fully electric. As it turned out, Jaguar weren’t quite ready for mass production and this prototype, the “E-type Zero”, was shelved. But a seed had been planted in Justin Lunny’s brain: if you could do that with an E-type, why not other similarly eye-catching classic cars? So it was that the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle was also the day that Ionic Cars was first conceived.

Lunny’s grandfather, Reginald Tredwell, was a fearless motorbike despatch rider in the Second World War. The young Lunny fancied following in his tracks, but his mother steered him away from bikes towards four wheels. He became an automotive prodigy: by the age of five he could identify and correctly name cars in the distance, even in the dark (from the shape of their headlamps). “I was probably an irritating kid,” says Lunny, “but at least it wasn’t ‘are we there yet?’”

He passed his test at 17 and his first car was a Renault 5. He and his father used to buy and sell Renault 5s and do them up in the garage. “My Dad had a love of French cars. They were real works of art back in the day. Look at the Citroen DS – they had curves for the sake of curves. It wasn’t all about streamlining.”

We don’t cut the vehicles up. Would you cut up a Picasso or a Renoir painting?

After his A-levels he went to Hewlett Packard as an A-level intern. He ended up staying there for nine years. After HP he went on to a couple of software companies and set up, and finally sold, a couple more to do with fintech. But his heart wasn’t really in it. It was only a means to an end. His dream was still to do something with cars. And then Harry and Meghan and their E-type put him on the right road.

Wedding wheels: the Jaguar E-Type outside Windsor (Getty)

Lunny has spent the last two and a half years working on the concept and making it work. “I’ve had many Porsches in my life,” says Lunny, with the same kind of passionate nostalgia another man might reserve for his former girlfriends. But what he really wanted to know was: could he buy an electric one? The answer was either “No” or “Yes, but…”.

“There are converters out there who will cobble one together for you,” says Lunny. “But it’s not an engineered solution.” They simply stick in a Tesla motor and carve up the car to make it fit. Lunny decided it had to be done properly. Ionic refuses to “cut” either the body of the car or even the engine space. “We don’t want to vandalise or deface,” he says. It has to be the original car, fully restored, in perfect order. But with the addition of an electric drivetrain. The engineering has to fit the car rather than the other way around. “We’re giving them a heart transplant.” It’s the ultimate in upcycling.

Lunny’s Mercedes 280 SL Pagoda should be on the road by the end of the year (Ionic Cars)

What Lunny has done for the Porsche 964 he is now doing for the Mercedes 280 SL Pagoda, a convertible, which should be on the road later this year. “Our cars have to be beautiful,” he says. By the spring of 2021 they will have a fleet of vehicles already engineered and ready to paint. Always providing you can cough up the requisite £250-300k, you can pick out your own colour and even specify a vegan leather interior, if that is your preference – which looks and feels just like leather. “We can even make it smell like leather, if you want that,” says Lunny.

Lunny was a car prodigy from a young age (Ionic Cars)

The next contender for the Ionic treatment is a Land Rover, Series 2a, from 1970. Lunny is an admirer of the Morris Minor, both in terms of form and colour, but alas it’s not sufficiently high-end to work in business terms.

For him a car is first of all a work of art (or it isn’t). “That’s why we don’t cut them up,” he says. “Would you cut up a Picasso or a Renoir?” He regrets that contemporary cars tend to be rather lookalike and functional on account of stringent rules to do with safety and crash protection. “You don’t want all cars looking the same, do you?” he asks, plaintively. “You couldn’t design a Pagoda now. So we want to keep the old ones.” The restored and electrified cars should last another 30 or 40 years.

Ionic are aiming at a similar customer base to Tesla, but “We’re aiming at thought-leaders who have an eye for beauty,” says Lunny. “They’ll be driving their Teslas, but you and I, we’ll be driving our Porsches and Mercedes.” I get kind of choked up being included, if only for a moment, in that “we”.

The Porsche 964 was one of the first cars to be converted (Ionic Cars)

Lunny appreciates that it’s a lot of money but he reckons there are plenty of people investing half a million in classic cars that are still petrol-driven. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense because within a few years you won’t even be able to drive them in town. So what’s the point?”

Lunny’s vision puts the emphasis on romance and glamour. He harks back to the golden age of the Michelin Guide. “You have to dress well just to get in the car,” he says. “Then you have the pleasure of driving a beautiful car to some Michelin-starred restaurant for lunch. You can enjoy motoring again. And you have the knowledge that you’re doing it in a way that is sustainable.”

Lunny junior is aged five. The apple, in this case, has not fallen far from the tree. He was recently heard to say: “Daddy, let’s travel in style today – let’s take the Pagoda.”