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The titans of combustion are going electric

14 December 2019

Think of the quintessential combustion engine: The most powerful, most iconic, loudest, fastest — whatever metric you like. Regardless of how you judge this question, you’re likely picturing one of a handful of designs and brands. And whichever one it is, chances are it’s not quite as committed to combustion as you might think.

The changing face of Mustang: V8 coupe to electric SUV

Australians have a long history of V8 adoration. There’s something about these big burbling petrol engines that resonates with our national conscience; just look at the mythical figures we’ve built out of Peter Brock and Mad Max. We’ve been right onboard with the muscle car identity since it emerged from the US in the ‘60s.

There’s perhaps no greater symbol of the V8 muscle car than the Ford Mustang. And now it’s officially gone electric. I should confirm, combustion Mustangs aren’t going anywhere — at least for now. Petrolheads around the world can still get their five-litre fix, but the Mustang brand isn’t quite so committed to it as it once was.

The Mustang Mach E was revealed shortly before the LA Auto Show this November to deeply mixed reactions. Not only has the Mustang’s defining feature — it’s engine — been swapped out for an electric powertrain, but the iconic coupe silhouette has been substituted for a low-slung crossover SUV. Auto journalists have been mostly positive on the change, but fans certainly haven’t. The YouTube live comment feed makes that abundantly clear.

The Mustang Mach E
…and fans reactions

This all comes the same year Ford revealed their iconic F150 pickup truck range will soon include an electric model.

Electric utes pt. III: train-pulling torque


Whether you’re invested in the Mustang brand or not, it’s a jarring switch, and a clear message from Ford: even the dearest icons of combustion culture aren’t immune to the EV transition. And Ford aren’t the only major US automaker sending that signal.

HUMMER going EV?

Rumours have been circulating recently about another big-engine icon making the switch to electric: the HUMMER. 

GM have confirmed plans to manufacture high-end electric pickup and SUVs from 2021, but reports from Reuters and Detroit News have suggested that the move will include models badged under the HUMMER brand, which has been inactive since 2010.

HUMMERs are known for two things: their enormous size and their abysmal fuel efficiency. Different models’ engines varied between petrol and diesel, V8 and straight-five, but they all consumed vast quantities of fuel. 

While GM never released official figures, various auto magazines estimated the HUMMER H2’s fuel consumption at around 4km/litre when it was discontinued in 2010. Needless to say, it was never a car for environmentalists.

Not exactly subtle

HUMMER going electric would mark a massive shift for American big-engine culture. Just like the Mustang, it’s an icon of the combustion engine; people bought it specifically because it was so huge and gluttonous. The symbolic value of turning it into an EV is not to be ignored — but we’ll have to wait a little longer to know for sure whether it will happen. After all, these are just rumours.

But there’s another iconic American brand known for its big engines, and their electric shift isn’t a rumour — it’s confirmed for Australia from next year.

Meet the Harley LiveWire

Mustangs and HUMMERs are iconic, for sure, but they aren’t as synonymous with cars the way Harley-Davidson is with motorcycles. A lot of people would struggle to name any manufacturer besides Harley. Their bikes helped set the stage for low-riding rebel culture in the ‘60s and they’ve been an icon of the industry ever since.

The rumbling V-twin engine is an essential part of the Harley-Davidson brand, so it came as a surprise when they announced the LiveWire all-electric motorcycle last year. They are the first major motorcycle manufacturer to do so.

LiveWire 2018

The LiveWire isn’t a traditional Harley — and not just because of the electric powertrain. Its design pulls more from cafe racers and sportsbikes than old-school American cruisers, and extended trips will be a stretch on the 152 km of mixed highway/city range. Thankfully it will also be capable of DC fast charging, so long rides aren’t entirely off the table.

The future for electric motorbikes in Australia


But LiveWire buyers won’t be using it for long cruises; they’re much more likely to be drawn to its 100%-off-the-line torque and unmatched performance in the Harley lineup. The Livewire is expected to clock 0-100 km/h in just over 3 seconds — That’s close to F1 levels of acceleration.

A winning Formula for motorsports

Coincidentally, Formula One is another automotive icon making a shift to electrification. Well, not F1 specifically — rather Formula E. Formula E began in 2014 as the all-electric alternative to F1, and it’s been moving from strength to strength ever since. 

Formula E racing in Hong Kong

While F1 fans lament a stale contest dominated by Mercedes, Formula E has been generating momentum thanks to its tight inner-city circuits (made possible by EVs’ much quieter motors), active viewer participation via ‘Fanboost’, and much less predictable race outcomes.

Sponsors and motorsport fans have been flocking to the emerging contest. Viewership and revenue has grown every year (70% of Formula E fans are under 35) and both Mercedes and Porsche have signed on to join as teams from the 2019-2020 season. Meanwhile F1 viewership continues to decline.

Nobody is suggesting Formula E will replace F1 anytime soon, but the trends are clear: motorsport isn’t a combustion-only game anymore.

The same can be said for the changes from Ford, GM, and Harley-Davidson. Each new electric model paints a similar picture of the future. Brands that once knelt at the altar of the combustion cult are making deliberate shifts toward electrification. 

Whether any specific model pays off is almost irrelevant; the symbolic shift is happening and can no longer be ignored. EVs aren’t just for inner-city efficiency or niche applications; they’re making their way into the heart of the automotive industry and the institutions that have defined it.

One way or another, it’ll be exciting to watch.

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