The new 2020 Shelby GT500, at 760 horsepower, is the most powerful, street-legal Mustang Ford has ever produced. But last week, the automaker pulled the wraps off another version of the classic "pony car" that makes it look almost anemic by comparison.
Not surprisingly, Ford introduced the 900 horsepower Mustang Lithium at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas, the annual gathering hosted by the Specialty Equipment Market Association where performance has long been king. Everywhere you turned at the Las Vegas Convention Center last week, you would find hot rods, sports cars, drag strip racers and the parts and accessories to give them even more muscle.
But what took SEMA show-goers by surprise is the fact that that the Mustang Lithium — which Ford describes as a "one-off prototype" — doesn't have a classic V-8 engine under its hood but a twin-motor electric drive system. And it isn't alone. Chevrolet came to SEMA with a prototype called the E-10 powered by an "eCrate" electric drive system that may soon be added to its own performance parts catalog. SEMA itself set up an exhibit showcasing the potential for electric drive technology.
"The aftermarket industry is endlessly creative, and it's just beginning to wake up to the potential performance of electric vehicles," said Chris Kersting, president and CEO of SEMA, which represents companies that make or trade specialty parts and accessories used to customize cars and trucks.
SEMA members are expected to generate $44.7 billion in business in the U.S. alone this year, up from $42.92 billion in 2018. To put that into perspective, the movie industry generated a record $41.7 billion last year — worldwide.
The aftermarket organization's members are a diverse group, producing everything from in-car air fresheners to roof racks and trailer hitches. But performance is the heart of SEMA and one of the segment's biggest money makers.
Walk through the halls of the convention center and you'd catch whiffs of high-octane gasoline and plenty of talk about crate motors, turbo and superchargers and the other, traditional accoutrements of performance. Until recently, there was little discussion of electric drive technology, Kersting told CNBC, simply because there haven't been many electric vehicles on the market.
Over the last several years, a small cadre of SEMA members have begun exploring the opportunities battery power offers. Hawthorne, CA-based Unplugged Performance now offers an extensive array of "mods" for various Tesla products, including brake and suspension upgrades, exterior parts and panels and, if you wish, a complete makeover of their interiors.
"It's the wild, wild West when it comes to electrification," CJ Whelan said in an interview. His Colorado start-up, CJ3 EV, will take your BMW 3-Series, Chevrolet Camaro, Porsche 911 — even a '37 Ford hot rod — pull out its gas engine and replace it with a completely new electric drive system.
"I was born with gasoline in my veins," jokes Whelan, who said he sold his software company last year to open CJ3 EV. "I decided to pursue my passion in automotive. I still love gas cars, but the technology in electric vehicles has come so far in the last 10 years I decided to try this," he said.
While Whelan is still getting his business off the ground, SEMA CEO Kersting said there is so much demand for what are called "restomods that most companies have five years of orders."
For now, businesses targeting electrified vehicles make up little more than an asterisk on the sales charts when it comes to SEMA overall. Kersting said many of the start-ups focusing on that niche aren't even reporting their income yet. But he said the segment will grow fast as more vehicles come to market — something that will justify more aftermarket companies to develop their own parts and accessories.
How fast that will happen is anyone's guess.
That said, it's relatively easy to bolt on a new turbocharger or swap out transmissions and rear axles on a conventional vehicle to increase power. It remains to be seen if SEMA's aftermarket wizards will be able to work the same magic with batteries, integrated circuits and electric motors.
But there's no question they're going to try. And automakers like Chevrolet are looking for ways to help. The E-10 Concept it showed off at SEMA started out as a 1962 C-10 pickup truck. Its gas engine has been replaced by an electric drive system originally meant for the relatively mundane Bolt EV. But the heavily modified system now makes about 450 horsepower, according to Chevy, and can launch the truck from 0 to 60 in a quick 5 seconds. More impressively, Chevrolet estimates it can shoot through the traps after a quarter-mile run down a drag strip "in the high 13-second range."
If there's interest, what the bowtie brand has dubbed the eCrate motor could soon be available to enthusiasts and restomod businesses like CJ3 EV.
As for Ford's Lithium concept vehicle, the automaker says it will serve as a "test bed," and several well-placed officials close to the Mustang product development team told CNBC the automaker is seriously considering a way to produce an all-electric version of the coupe that could take on the likes of the Porsche Taycan.
"Ford has made no secret of the fact that we are electrifying our most popular nameplates," Hau Thai-Tang, its chief product development and purchasing officer, said in a statement. "This one-off Mustang prototype is a great opportunity for us … to showcase to our customers what a new electrified powertrain can do for performance in a car they already know and love."
And that is all but certain to mean an even bigger presence at the SEMA Show in the years to come, Kersting said.