End of an era as Europe's car 
culture shifts gears to go green

Market forces and global warming are driving change

By Jon Van Housen, Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Tue 18 Jan 2022, 11:37 PM

Europe’s haute couture in fashion is renowned worldwide, but just as remarkable has been its love for fast and beautiful cars. Celebrated by iconic characters ranging from opera maestro Giuseppe Verdi to Rowan Atkinson, who plays Mr Bean, Europe’s love for and creation of magnificently muscular cars is legendary.

Whether in Monza, home to the Italian Grand Prix, or the French Riviera, Monte Carlo, Dubai and Beverly Hills, the unmistakable sound of a highly tuned, high-powered gasoline engine turns heads and excites passersby.

It has always had that effect in an era that began with design geniuses like Karl Benz then continued on with Ettore Bugatti, Ferdinand Porsche, Enzo Ferrari and Ferruccio Lamborghini. All of those men’s names live on in brands that still produce supercars, but the days are clearly numbered for the internal combustion engines that powered those names to renown.

Much of the roar is being tamed as Europe’s carmakers go electric. Market forces and global warming are driving change: Ferrari had a recent shakeup at the top due to no pure electric ready for sale, while Tesla is preparing to open its massive new plant near Berlin and Volkswagen, the top-selling auto group in the world, doubled deliveries of electric-powered cars last year. And when you say VW you are not just talking about modest family cars, but the owner of the legendary nameplates Bentley, Audi, Bugatti, Lamborghini and Porsche.

Wild open road races such as the Mille Miglia, founded by two dashing young Italian counts in 1927, are already in the colorful past due to safety concerns. And in the foreseeable future, the throaty sound of the European supercar will also go quiet.

As a leader in the fight against global warming, Europe has no choice but to force its beloved offspring to change. Taxes and purchase incentives use a carrot-and-stick approach to encourage production and purchase of alternative energy vehicles.

Last spring, a nine-country EU coalition led by the Netherlands and Denmark called on the European Commission to decide on a date to ban the internal combustion engine altogether. “Ambitious policies and regulations – such as setting a clear and unambiguous phaseout date for petrol and diesel cars and vans and stricter CO2 standards – will also provide predictability for the automotive sector and spur the transition towards zero-emission mobility,” said a statement from the group of nations.

The internal combustion engine is in the crosshairs of the EU’s Green Deal goal of becoming climate neutral by 2050. The bloc’s executive arm aims to slash emissions from transport by 90 per cent by mid-century.

Of the 27 European Union member countries, only Estonia did not offer any form of financial incentive to purchase an electric vehicle last year. And if socially progressive Norway is taken as an example of what the near future will look like for carmakers, the internal combustion engine will indeed soon be a relic of the past.

Only about 8 per cent of new cars sold in the country last year ran purely on conventional gasoline or diesel fuel. Two-thirds of new cars sold were electric, and most of the rest were hybrids. Driven by government benefits that make electric vehicles far more affordable and include extras like exempting electric car owners from some parking and toll fees, Norway is the world’s leader in consumer acceptance of alternative energy cars.

And much further south in passionate Italy, just how much the ground has shifted can be seen by developments at Ferrari. Before he unexpectedly passed away in 2018, Sergio Marchionne, CEO of parent company Fiat Chrysler, termed a silent electric version of the supercar “almost an obscene concept – the sound is an integral part of what we sell”.

“The last time I drove a Tesla it was almost like turning on the radio. This is not Ferrari. We won’t do that.”

Fast forward to last year when Fiat Chrysler Chairman John Elkann, grandson of legendary Fiat head Gianni Agnelli, announced that Ferrari’s first all-electric vehicle will arrive by the middle of this decade. Just six months before former Ferrari CEO Louis Camilleri said the company would never go fully electric.

Perhaps eyeing the results at Porsche, whose pure electric Taycan outsold the 911 sports car in 2021 as the German brand posted the greatest sales in its history, Elkann said: “We are very excited about our first all-electric Ferrari that we plan to unveil in 2025”, adding that the exotic brand is “continuing to execute (its) electrification strategy in a highly disciplined way”.

Along with vinyl records and hardcopy books, “analog” cars will become part of the nostalgic past as the world turns increasingly digital and electric. Though understandable, our hearts don’t always welcome such rational change.

But the high-powered internal combustion engine is going out in the most refined and elegant configurations it has ever had. It will likely follow in the celebrated footsteps of the horse – no longer a means of everyday transportation but instead a plaything of the rich who race them and show them off at special events.

Europe’s next generation will likely marvel at the shiny, loud autos on special display as gray-haired grandpas regale them with tales of the time when legends roamed free.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Milan

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