Time is ticking for the internal combustion engine and has accelerated ever since Tesla dropped their Model S proving electric cars can look good, provide all the necessary luxuries, and of course be devastatingly quick. Tesla wasn’t the only manufacturer delivering electric cars to the public though as many other manufacturers also had products in market.
After a decade car giants are still scrambling to catch up, spending billions of dollars to do so and even now are barely able to better the products Tesla are selling. The rate at which Tesla cars can accelerate made most sports cars look silly overnight. The only problem is in the way an electric vehicle propels itself down the road. There are of course, no gears and no sound, two of the biggest differentiators and calling cards of brands who are invested in “excitement”. Brands such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, and the entire muscle car industry of which has slowly dwindled down to a few key models clinging onto dear life and their naturally aspirated V8s.
At the same time motorcycle manufacturers such as Ducati whose engines are at the very heart of their product despite moving from their famous V2 to V4 configuration, will also have the same problem soon enough.
The mountain has been climbed
Electric has just about shut down the speed argument of “who is the fastest”, and “just how fast can a car accelerate”. Consistently destroying high powered supercars (bar a few) in drag races there is no doubt electric has the advantage away from the line. For many, that’s all the performance they need and is essentially what they perceive as “performance”. Cornering is a skill that requires time and effort that most casual drivers quite simply don’t care for. As long as there’s that shock value of acceleration, that’s all that matters.
In one fell swoop, electrification has rendered internal combustion performance vehicles antiquated at face value. They do so while sounding and feeling more sophisticated which has in turn resulted in an evangelistic following that sit so high on their horses they may as well have wings.
Meanwhile, it’s left many car journalists scratching their heads wondering why this product which delivers the performance they ordinarily would’ve shouted about from mountain tops, cold. Have they been chasing the false God of Speed?
It’s forced them to rethink what performance means. It’s forced them to rethink what they want from a performance car. They come to realise that it’s not just about speed. Steering feel has always been a standard measure of a sports car’s effectiveness in delivering on its promise but now we are adding to that the very personal and emotional aspect of fun, and making us feel engaged, all at a lower speed.
We know it, they know it, but the world doesn’t care. The benefits of cleaner energy and propulsion far outweighs the need for fun and sporting transportation and the voices of media, a youth population drunk on social media, and pandering politicians, as well as lobbyist environmentalist groups are far louder. It’s on Google, so it must be true.
If the push continues relentlessly towards electrification of everything as European governments seem to be doing regardless of whether it’s the right solution or not, it’s unsure what will happen to those brands whose products are wedded to that which the electric car does away with—chiefly, sound and gearing.
There are two sides to the coin here. One side, sports cars are typically defined by their engines and cannot be decoupled. The other, the meaning of what makes a sports car is/has shifted and future generations ie customers, have little or no affinity with the combustion engine. Which side will manufacturers play? If you were business oriented, there’d be no place for sentiment and you’d ensure your product portfolio responded to customer desires and demands, meaning the latter.
I’m sure there are teams at Ford, Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini, GM, and others conducting market research into how customers perceive their halo sports car products with electric drivetrains.
Of course the relentless drive for ever faster cars has engineered brands into a corner. Electrification has meant acceleration times are no longer a mountain to climb—Tesla climbed that one a few years ago. What’s left to brag about down at the pub or to your mates? Is it lap times?
The flat six is replaced by a charged battery
Porsche has had some experience in dealing with change. In 1998 it released a brand new 911 which had replaced the characterful air-cooled engines the company had originally developed since inception to a water-cooled engine that while sophisticated, didn’t quite hit the same notes. Of course it was developed over the years into a sonorous wonder that has once again come under fire with the necessary move to turbo-charging. The sound does remain, but what if Porsche can’t produce the flat-six engine anymore? What if those European government bans inhibit sales to a point they are no longer commercially viable?
I suspect Porsche will create an electric 911 to hedge their bets alongside the regular ICE models despite the huge cost to do so. Is there enough equity in the 911 nameplate for customers to buy into? How many of the 911 buyers are real enthusiasts anyway? I would suspect that most customers are buying them for the brand cache and wouldn’t be bothered by the lack of noise out the back.
When PDK was launched on the 997 all of a sudden it was the gearbox to have with PDK sales far outstripping that of the manual. People didn’t and probably still don’t care—as much as we would have ourselves believe—about engagement and tactility and all those words we use to try and describe what fun is. As long as they have the latest 911, it has a Porsche crest on the bonnet, and they can brag to their co-workers or friends, that’s all that matters.
The degree with which the 911 has become folklore I suspect even a fully electric 911 will still be successful, it will just be so far removed from what we know today.
When does a muscle car cease to become a muscle car?
Ford are facing a dilemma with the Mustang, or perhaps they aren’t. Releasing the Mach E Mustang they’ve shown their intention to move the muscle car into the future. There’s a pony on the bonnet (hood) and some of the lines are similar but that’s about it.
The American push-rod V8 is so entrenched in the American automotive industry and at the heart of American car culture that it seems impossible to imagine a muscle car being propelled by anything else. Yes, we’ve had six-cylinder and four-cylinder variants of American muscle cars but rarely are they more desirable than their 8-cylinder siblings.
I remember my first ride in a fully restored (and modified) 1965 350 Fastback. Even walking up to this beauty was exciting, and squeezing into the back I instantly felt like a badass, like we were about to do something a little naughty. And we did. That rumbling, crackling, energetic V8 roared down the road with such ferocity you couldn’t help but laugh. But you also felt more than just the car itself, you felt the history, you felt part of a culture and as though you were somehow part of a traveling story shared between friends and onlookers.
There are reports that by 2030 the Mustang will be all electric. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, like hearing “By 2030 all beer and wine sold will be non-alcoholic”. The question is, is it a real Mustang without the V8 engine pushing it forward (and occasionally sideways)? Would it not simply become a large coupe like any other? The 911 can get away with it because its shape is so unique and distinctive, but not so the Mustang.
Like the 911 however, will the Mustang nameplate come to mean something else entirely acceptable to a completely new generation? Can “muscle car” come to mean and embody something other than a huge rockin’ V8 engine? What does it mean to be a muscle car in the electrification era?
We have to ask, does the idea of a muscle car still hold true? Has the world moved on? The answer is probably yes but there’s still something to be saved.
How are the youth of today expressing themselves? Teens now rebel through collective thoughts fostered online through social media and other platforms, speaking directly to, and influencing, politicians and corporates quick to pander to their concerns in the name of voting numbers or sales. They know how to use their voices and prefer to “bring down the house” as such rather than rebel by simply doing the opposite of what they’ve been told to do.
What of the Corvette?
GM have now announced that by 2040 their entire fleet will be carbon neutral. That presumably includes the Corvette, another American icon synonymous with a thumping V8 soundtrack, a key point of difference to its high strung European rivals.
Are they going to keep a combustion engined Corvette as a low volume seller alongside an electric Corvette until sales dictate the ICE vehicle is no longer viable? Can they keep the V8 going in low volume with enough to make carbon offset viable? Probably not, and objectively it’s not a very good business case if numbers of V8 sales are simply dwindling.
Dodge also don’t seem concerned about killing off their Hellcat V8 engines insisting the performance will stay, most likely through electric means.
It’s not just sound, gears, and vibration that’s a challenge…
Lotus seem to have gone “all in” having invested a substantial amount of money into their facilities and battery development, with help from the UK government, so much so that Alpine have created a memorandum of understanding to co-develop their technology for future models.
For a car company that prides itself is built upon lightweight sports cars, quite how they will engineering heavy battery tech to have little impact on dynamics remains to be seen, but of course Lotus are promising all that is sacred is kept.
Tesla already created an electric Lotus of sorts many years ago, in fact it was their first foray into the automotive sector by stuffing some Tesla batteries into a Lotus Elise shell. Such was the ferocity of acceleration it made quite a few sit up and take notice. It wasn’t quite a game changer due to many deficiencies and reliability issues as well as being the subject of much comedic scrutiny by a particular BBC car show, but Elon Musk is now having the last laugh.
The same story is happening elsewhere too
An electric car isn’t quite the digital product automotive marketing peeps would like younger generations to believe despite connectivity of everything and light design overload. Nevertheless it’s still lumped in with all the other industries impacted through digital disruption.
Over at The Dieline they are also asking questions of the future of print where an entire industry was seemingly disrupted overnight with the launch of the iPad and iPhone. The counter argument for print sounds very familiar:
“Yet, we can’t ignore environmental and cost concerns. The survival of print now relies on prioritizing smaller production runs, sustainable materials, and beautiful craftsmanship, ultimately transforming it from a mass-produced item into a collectible artifact.”
We might ask the same questions: how might we create an internal combustion engine which is environmentally friendly, that can be used for small or specialised product runs, that has sustainability at heart, that is treasured and collectible?
Sennheiser have reported the increase in vinyl sales has once again overtaken those of CDs in 2020…. People are slowing down, they are realising that increased effort often equals increased reward, the experience heightens, the memories created are more significant.
What’s in a name?
Automotive brands will be hoping the nameplate is enough to carry them through and they have a great challenge on their hands if they don’t get it right and deliver an exciting vehicle which matches or exceeds that of the internal combustion engined cars their legacy is built upon. And it goes well beyond 0-60mph in 1.99 seconds.
Worst case scenario, these nameplates are retired, and with it will go decades of brand equity.
My guess is they won’t let that happen, and the names will live on be it in electric or hydrogen form. If they were really smart, they may start offering factory backed electric solutions for their classic vehicles from a hybridisation or full electric angle. Yes there are plenty of independents doing that now, but a factory solution will make it a lot easier for many to accept while at the same time ensuring the value of the car doesn’t plummet.
But in the meantime, we still have plenty of existing cars to enjoy and drive and those of us who have grown up on the internal combustion engine will be able to enjoy these cars for a little while longer.
In an effort to balance the argument, governments, with the help of auto manufacturers, need to recognise the impact of the internal combustion engine will continue to rapidly diminish over time as more vehicles move to electric and hydrogen. Keeping these exisiting vehicles in good working order and visible on the road should be of interest to every brand. It’s their heritage, and the only way their new electric vehicles using their nameplates will retain any sort of integrity in the future.
There may be a very awkward period of adjustment for internal combustion engine enthusiasts and for brands. Given the undeniable link between the engine and experience it’s hard to see how many of these cars will survive as an electric vehicle. Conversely over time what these famous nameplates will mean to new generations could take on a new meaning. It will be extremely challenging for brands to create the same level of tribal passion and interest as their products will struggle to differentiate, but perhaps they will find a way, and it will be fascinating to watch it all unfold.