Environment

Parted Out? The future of car components in an EV world

by Aaron Robinson
7 July 2021 6 min read
The preservation of classic cars relies on availability of belts, hoses, spark plugs and myriad other parts. Will suppliers continue producing them?. Photo by Sandon Voelker

This is the latest in a series of articles on the future of classic cars in an electrified world. We’ve examined the impact of internal-combustion engine bans in Europe and explored what regulations might come into effect in the United States. This week, we get more granular: what is the future of the myriad parts that keep gas engines going?

Barely a month goes by that some automaker doesn’t announce that their future lies in electric vehicles. Last week, Renault said that more than 90 percent of its production would be electric by 2030, joining a growing list of auto brands that have committed to abandoning fuel burners for full electrification before the decade is out. Auto suppliers, the companies that produce the belts and hoses and water pumps and spark plugs that make engines run, are furrowing their collective brows, wondering whether there is a future for an industry that has been around for more than a century. As a car enthusiast, it’s hard not to feel like a dinosaur as it watched the meteor blaze across the sky.

“Just in the last two months, the phone calls I’ve been getting have really heated up,” said Mike Spagnola, vice president of OEM and product development programs for the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), the industry trade group for makers of aftermarket components which includes classic vehicle parts suppliers. “I like to work on gasoline vehicles, but you can’t ignore the fact that this is coming.”

Well, what is coming, exactly? We know that some luxury brands like Cadillac and Jaguar have said that they are building their last gasoline powered vehicles. Cadillac says that it will not replace any of its internal-combustion engines as they go out of production and the brand expects to be fully electric by 2030. The world’s largest automaker, Volkswagen, which despite the pandemic built more than 25,400 vehicles every day of 2020, is shoveling $33 billion into a massive electrification effort. All work on internal combustion engines at VW will stop in 2026, the company says, and it promises to make its entire supply chain completely carbon neutral in the process. VW is so big that the company figures that it alone is responsible for 1 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions.

The companies that produce the belts and hoses and water pumps and spark plugs that make engines run, are furrowing their collective brows, wondering whether there is a future for an industry that has been around for more than a century.

However, we also know that there are 278 million vehicles registered in the United States as of 2019, of which a mere 1.5 million are electric and another 3 million are hybrid. In 2020, pure electrics represented only 2 percent of the 14.5 million light-vehicle sales that year. SEMA figures that in any year, between 12.5 million and 13.5 million older vehicles get scrapped, meaning it would take more than 20 years to turn over the entire U.S. fleet of fuel-burning vehicles—and that’s assuming we went to 100 percent electric tomorrow and the scrappage rates remained constant, which they aren’t.

In fact, scrappage rates are going down as cars last longer and new cars get more expensive, making it worth it for owners to repair their older vehicles. As of February 2021, the average new car price was $41,066, a substantial layout in a nation where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income in 2019 was $68,703 and the average income was much lower.

So, a flood of new electric vehicles—130 models spread across 43 brands by 2026, according to one study—are landing in a market in which a tiny percentage of sales are currently electric and in which most people, when they buy, go for pickups and crossover SUVs. “If we reach 20 percent [electric] by 2025, that would be aggressive,” says Brian Daugherty, chief technology officer for the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA), an industry trade group for auto suppliers. “I personally think it will be lower.”

Unsold electric cars may pile up on dealership lots. Auto manufacturers may appeal to government for help (it certainly wouldn’t be the first time). Massive price subsidies, along with an expected drop in battery costs and increase in battery recycling, could make electrics more affordable, but the public recharging infrastructure still lags. Some states struggle even to keep the power on during heat waves and snowstorms. Only one thing is certain: nobody seems certain what will happen over the next decade.    

The implication for owners of classic vehicles seems less murky, as it’s likely that little will change for them so long as gas stations don’t disappear (a revolution that nobody expects for at least several decades). While original-equipment parts suppliers are contemplating a future without engines, suppliers of parts to classic vehicles, a $900 million annual market, according to SEMA, will go on.

“Bigger suppliers are switching their R&D dollars,” says MEMA’s Daugherty, “but as long as someone can make a profit making a part, they will do it. Rubber belts, spark plugs, hoses—those are fairly easy to make. Where you may see a problem is in parts that are less common.”

Suppliers may consolidate their product lines for engines, cutting the number of clutch types or spark plug part numbers they make, leaving some older vehicles out in the cold. This will come as no shock to owners of obscure classics, who have long struggled to obtain parts, but those who drive more common vehicles may, too, be left without adequate parts support.

The good news, says industry analyst Charlie Vogelheim, is that new technology such as 3-D printing will make obtaining some parts easier. “With 3-D printing you can bypass some of the past barriers to getting parts made, like tooling costs for molds and needing to buy a huge number to make it work out financially.” Adds Vogelheim: more entrepreneurs like Corky Coker of Coker Tire will come along and “create profitable industries around keeping old cars on the road.”

But current 3-D printing technology has its limits. It can’t make a cylinder head or high-stress suspension components like tie-rod ends. At least, not yet. Even so, figures SEMA’s Spagnola, any serious shortage of engine parts would be “years and years and years away. Superchargers and air intakes will be made for many years to come.”

Which may be little comfort to the owner of a 1965 Mustang—already a 56-year-old car—who is planning to pass the car on to his or her children as a family heirloom. Timelines are long in the classic car world. Will a 1965 Mustang still be drivable in another 56 years?

Well, there is always electric conversion.

As with new electric vehicles, electric conversion of classics is in its infancy, but it is growing. The annual SEMA show in Las Vegas in November is where makers of aftermarket, restoration, and hot-rod components come to show off their latest products. Joining them in 2021 will be an increasing number of electric-conversion suppliers, and sprinkled through the halls will be a significant number of all-electric show cars. For the first time, the show will have its own section for electrics, and “dozens of people have contacted me about it,” says SEMA’s Spagnola.

 “You can’t deny the power,” says Spagnola, who recently rode in a 1000-horsepower electric prototype from Faraday Future, a Chinese-owned electric start-up. Currently, the quickest-accelerating production car on the planet is the 1020-hp Tesla Model S Plaid, which can hit 60 mph in just over 2 seconds straight off the showroom floor.

Going fast never goes out of style, especially at SEMA, where independent companies like AEM Electronics, a well-known supplier of dash displays that is now building electric-motor controllers for EV conversions, will share the electric spotlight with major automakers like General Motors. Last year, GM showed off a 1977 Chevy K5 Blazer with what it called a pre-production version of an electric crate motor that will be sold through Chevrolet Performance. The original 400-cubic-inch small-block V-8 was replaced by a 200-hp electric motor from the production Chevy Bolt mated to a four-speed automatic. Total range: 238 miles. While the power may not sound like much, its more than the original engine (175 horsepower) and it comes with the instant torque delivery of an electric. More powerful versions of GM’s eCrate package are surely on the way.

The blazing meteor seems to promise both radical, violent change as well as huge promise for the automobile as we know it. The dinosaurs may not survive, but new creatures will flourish that are likely to be just as interesting. In the end, notes the analyst Vogelheim, electrification may force the classic-car community to divide into those who want to preserve old cars as they are and those who just want to drive them, regardless of the power source.

“Is it about authenticity or mobility?” he asks. Each classic car owner will have to decide where he or she lands on that question, but it seems likely that, at least for the foreseeable future, the roads will be big enough for both.

Comments

  • Don Homuth says:

    In the early 20th century, local blacksmiths, saddle and tack makers and the whole equine supporting industry disappeared within about two decades. Before that the steam engine supplanted the water wheels and horse-turntables providing power at small scales. Paradigm shifts are not always easy or comfortable for those invested in the previous technology. But the new one is inevitably better in the long run. It’s just that those displaced don’t care to be. ICE vehicles will, in the long run, be treated rather like horses are now. Curiosities to be displayed, and perhaps run now and then at special events and venues set aside for them. Not in our lifetimes, but the shift seems inexorable.

  • Scott McPherson says:

    power conversions for classic cars will surely become a cottage industry followed by a more robust industry and the cool factor will always be there, helping to fuel it. Growing and shrinking pains will take place. One factor that will have a hand in this is the price of gasoline. If the government gets more involved that alone will change the timeline and in all likelihood , this is a certainty. Then there are driverless cars which in my opinion should be a big part of this discussion. So far is has been less of a discussion but potentially a bigger game changer for the future of what is or is not in your garage.

  • Frank Pavlovcic says:

    In 50 years, the 3D printing technology will be able to construct large precision metal parts. They can already manufacture gas turbine blades out of Inconel. Simply submitting a blueprint that could be made into a CAD file would enable the manufacture of complex metal parts. Maybe advanced technology would create carbon fiber parts with the temperature, pressure and strength needed. As long as we remain free to innovate and profit from it, technology will prevail. No freedom, no future.

  • Jerry says:

    What the author fails to mention is that, in reality, only makers of engine parts will be affected. Electric vehicles still need tires, wheels, suspension components, glass, wiring, lights, and every other part not directly used in an ICE engine. There are literally millions and millions of ICE engines in vehicles, junk yards, garages, etc, so although the prices may increase, there is little chance of shortage for a long time to come. Then there is the whole heavy equipment industry. Does anyone think that there will be electric bulldozers and other earthmoving equipment any time soon? Parts makers for heavy equipment can develop nitch products to service the ICE vehicle market if no one else is doing it. And if the classic vehicle market doesnt fade away, companies like AMD will just start producing engine parts along with body panels. The author says that classic vehicles will be relegated to only being used for special events and shows, when in reality, they already are. Few people use a classic vehicle as a daily driver today. I mean really, how many times do you see a 57 Chevy, 70 Chevelle, or 68 Charger sitting in a Walmart parking lot, or driving down the road? UFO sightings are more common. Some people have collections that never get driven because they just have too many vehicles, or they dont want to decrease value by accumulating miles and stone chips. Articles like this are alarmist in nature. Although ICE powered vehicles will disappear from dealer lots and peoples driveways, classic will be around for a long time to come.

  • Jim Neiburger says:

    This reminds me of the hand wringing “ convertibles will disappear forever “ discussions in the automotive and other media back in the mid-nineteen seventies. Or the discussions that everyone would be mandated to ride public transportation some thirty years later. As long as there is a market for goods and services, there will be providers. You can still have your horses shod by your local farrier and have a wooden wagon wheel built by a wheelwright. You may have to look a bit harder, travel a distance, and pay a good price, but it will get done. Some day, a fellow may come and deliver high octane, ethanol free, collector car quality gasoline to your private small tank for your ICE powered vehicles. You may have to engage a metal fabricator or machinist to manufacture a new part for one of your old cars. Many of us do this already. So, let’s stop the worrying, support our suppliers, and enjoy what we have now as well as in the future. We will be ok.

  • John Presson says:

    HA!!! My 1969 Dodge Charger 440 R/T is definitely not a UFO….and I drive this baby regularly…….but not to Walmart Parking lots…only on perfect weather days !!!

  • Ken Sousa says:

    Having run up the white flag and surrendered the future to the EV, you guys are making hay by writing all these articles about what to do about your now obsolescent ICE vehicles. Nobody has, to my knowledge, addressed the two real issues that restrict the EV “revolution”. From where are the copious amounts of electricity to power our vehicles going to come? First environmentalist activists have killed the nuclear source and they have spiked the further development of hydroelectricity. Recognizing that solar energy will not be sufficient to meet the demands, will we regress to an earlier time when there was no light in the night? Second is the concern we should all have regarding range and recharging. In an urban environment that is not an issue, but in a larger venue like say California, it definitely would be. Even if the state were to finance (with gasoline tax money) the construction of recharging stations, it still takes a substantial amount of time to effect a recharge. That becomes a gating problem in the EV technical revolution that nobody seems to address. I have driven many times in my ICE vehicles from the Bay Area to L.A. and San Diego. There is a major truck stop at the north end of the Grapevine and my ICE cars are usually thirsty at that point. I pull in up to a pump, swipe my ATM and pump my fuel. This usually takes less than 15 minutes. If I am low on battery charge in my EV, how long will it take to provide it with sufficient charge to complete the trip or, worse, to fully recharge the batteries? If there are many vehicles needing recharging, no matter how many recharging stations the state has provided, how many will be in line waiting to charge their cars before mine? It just doesn’t practically work.

  • Mike Moore says:

    Great article and thanks . I have seen just what a 1.5 year of covid has done to the parts industry. Extreme shortages of non std parts such as Olds, Pontiac cams and lifters, even BB Ford parts. Now 6-7 months delivery . Lots of SBC, SBF and LS parts but the not so common aftermarket parts have dried right up. Shut down is quick , restart is agonizingly slow. But the best example is the lack of chips for the Big three. Millins of cars built awaiting a tiny thumb sized part. I am not a believer of doom and gloom however feel things will get tough especially for electronic pcs. GM for instance 3 years ago obsoleted the head unit for C6 Vette temp /ac control. They manufactured 215 K of those cars and that part fits every last one of them . Production only ceasing 8 years ago with the parts shutoff 5 years ago. By 2008 the first ones( 2005/06) were failing , which became a chronic situation and now impossible to find. It will only get worse but lets hope that after-marketers can repair them.

  • Glenn Stephens says:

    I daily drive a ’76 BMW 2002 and a ’64 Corvair. Look for me at a Walmart, Home Depot, or supermarket near you.

  • Aaron D Evans says:

    The most educated comment here. Exactly, the power grid is already on the brink of collapse nationwide. It cannot possibly sustain every citizen trying to charge there car. Theres almost no infrastructure there at all. And range is laughable. It takes hours to fully charge an EV. Now hmmm. Where does all this power in an EV come from genuis? A massive polluting coal burning powerplant spewing tons of pollution into the air. Hmmm… where’s the tradeoff here people? You dont get more out then what you put in. They all pollute the same. Its all a control grab being pushed by guess who…China and our guy holding hands with them.

  • Steven Blaske says:

    Alarmist articles and stories are very common, but this one seemed reasonable and balanced. Change does come, but usually much slower than originally predicted. In 1981 I went to work for a company which made products for the (financial) check processing industry. They had been doing so for decades. I read articles that said that digital processing of credit cards, debit cards and checks would soon reduce and ultimately eliminate paper checks. What actually happened? I worked there for 20 years and in that time the number of paper checks processed continued unabated. Every 5 years or so I would read another story that said the end of paper checks was near. I don’t know what current check processing volume is, but we all know that there are plenty of paper checks still being written. Sure, they will eventually be museum pieces, but it will probably take 50-60 years rather than the 10-15 years predicted by so many self proclaimed ‘seers’. The same thing is no doubt true about electric cars and , even more so, truly autonomous vehicles. If the average ICE auto is on the road for about 15 years now and if only about 3% of new vehicles currently sold are electric (and maybe another 1 or 2% hybrid), then think about how many ICE cars and trucks will still be on the road in 2040. Just because all the manufacturers are lining up to say that all their vehicles will be electric BEVs by 2030, do we believe they all will succeed at that?
    As the owner of both daily driver ICEs, sports car ICEs, and a plug in hybrid daily driver with about a 50 mile all electric range, I have to say that the latter is easy to drive, easy to maintain, inexpensive to “fuel” and all around quite practical. I am not afraid of the electric transformation. I am more afraid of manufacturers of low volume selling models failing to support owners with replacement metal body panels, glass etc. I am already being told of 5-15 year old models that manufacturers are not “standing behind” and no private supplier having an incentive to develop or stock a fender or headlight assembly for. If you have a Fisker Karma, that is a concern, but what about Ford or GM products? I’ve thought about buying a Cadillac XLR (manufactured from 2004 to 2009), a model I have long admired, but I read with alarm that owners can’t find many parts already.

  • Robert Jenson says:

    I have the best of both worlds! My 2015 Hond Accord Hybrid is currently enjoying 52+ mpg, and with a 15.8 gallon fuel tank, gives me theoretical 821+ mile range before needing to refuel. Granted that on long trips it won’t get such mileage over mountainous or wind swept terrains, but it sure will “beat the pants” off the solely electrics at this point. In addition, if stuck in traffic pileups, my batteries will still be available for the service they were intended, not dead from long periods of running the heater in snow, or the A/C in the heat.

  • Plank says:

    I’m buying parts for my 1940 Ford all the time…new, re-maned, new old in original package. Not to worry ICE aficionados….the parts for our vehicles will be available long after the EV folks are trying to figure out which fossil fuel to burn to run their slot cars.

  • eighthtry says:

    Hard to see how electrics are better across the board. The change from horse and buggies was huge. One had instant longer range and higher speeds. Plus one could have the family along for the same ride. EV does not provide the sea change that the original autos did. In fact, it can be argued that the infrastructure, ala gasoline stations, will not support them. The time to recharge is way too long. Plus everyone will need somewhere to charge overnight. Like an individual filling station for each user. Electricity demands will be through the roof, and we already cannot build nuclear plants to meet it. Wind and solar are not base load supplies. We now know that even forever clean and cheap hydro can’t be run if there is no water. I hate to be negative, but infrastructure will be incredibly expensive. Don’t get me started on electric commuter planes. We can barely keep the planes we have out of each other’s way. And finally, these trillion dollar budgets will have a day of reckoning. Printing money to solve a problem that may be there in fact may be more expensive than our printing presses will handle. And trillion dollar budgets are not going away. Free money is here to stay. I can keep going.

  • Dana lambie says:

    Here in northern CA we are already experiencing days at a time without power delivery from the grid for a variety of reasons. To have Shasta lake so low and lake privileges even lower, they do not have enough water to generate electricity as of a week ago or so. Even lake mead outside Las Vegas is 25 ft away from the same situation. Where is additional power to charge EV going to come from? Imagine Las Vegas with out power!?! How many years worth of lithium resources does the earth contain?

  • Todd Heinrich says:

    A common praise for an industry becoming extinct is “gone the way of the horse and buggy”. 100+ years after horses were replaced by cars: The equine market directly contributes $40 billion to the US GDP. There is a $122 billion indirect contribution, and the industry also provides nearly 1 million jobs.

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