Sunset for the American V8

For decades the classic V8 engine was a profit-spinner for its makers. It still is, but the clock is ticking on the V8’s demise.

With its 6.2L supercharged Hemi V8 generating 1,025 SAE-rated horsepower, the Dodge Challenger SRT Demon 170 accelerates from zero to 60mph in 1.66s. (Stellantis)

Technologies transition from dominance to nearly dead at different speeds and for various reasons. That’s particularly true for motive power. Pistons, cams and valves are giving way to anodes, cathodes and inverters. Governments and OEMs are pledging hard deadlines (2035!) to end sales of combustion-engine light vehicles. Amid the radical changes, what becomes of the V8 — the engine type that has defined American cars and trucks and has spurred their sales for the past 70 years?

It took more than two decades for the automobile to end the horse’s reign as the mainstream prime mover. Even well into the heyday of Ford’s Model T, the streets in many U.S. towns remained clogged with horse-drawn vehicles, period photos show.

A faster fall into obsolescence greeted steam locomotives and reciprocating aero engines after World War II. Few mainline railroads wanted to stick with the dirty exhaust and high maintenance of steamers and their heavily pounded trackage, when cleaner, smooth-running, less-fussy diesel-electric power arrived in volume in the late 1940s.

The war, of course, had ushered in jet aircraft and their obvious performance, range, comfort, and maintenance advantages over the “prop jobs.” Eventually, gas turbines also replaced high-pressure steam in warships for the same reasons.

The mid-century motive power revolution also included the modern ohv gasoline V8. With its lazy power and deep-chested exhaust note, the V8 delighted drivers and spun big profits. A V8 signaled that you’d made it. In recent years, however, the script has flipped. Twice. First came turbocharging, turning smaller, more efficient engines into giant killers. A turbo V6 shockingly outsold the incumbent V8 in Ford’s F-150. Then came EVs and a new shift in buyer aspiration and consumer values.

In the distance the sunset of the American V8 is approaching. Not tomorrow, but it’s coming.

Consider Stellantis’ iconic Hemi, which “breathed a lot of life into the modern V8 world” when it was launched by DaimlerChrysler in 2002, noted James Martin, associate director, automotive consulting and veteran powertrain analyst at S&P Global. “The Hemi made V8s cool again,” he asserted. “And it made GM and Ford wake up and get back into performance V8s for muscle cars, passenger cars, trucks and utilities,” including crazy stuff like a track-day-focused Jeep Grand Cherokee and the 800-hp Dodge SRT Demon.

Double rocker shafts and two spark plugs per cylinder added cost compared with GM’s simpler V8, but the Hemi has retained its low-cost iron cylinder block despite its original design calling for A356-T6. And it’s been made in the same plant in Mexico since ’02. “The cost position of the Hemi is so favorable to Stellantis,” Martin noted. “That, combined with its high retail markups, makes it an engine that prints money. Lots of it. The supercharged Hellcat may have cost more to produce, but for what it delivered in per-vehicle profits, it’s a bargain.”

But the Hemi family is diminishing — 5.7L and 6.2L are gone. As its pass-car platforms are eliminated, Stellantis’ new 3.0L twin-turbo inline-six will fill in for pickups and utilities needing at least 300hp. Martin’s latest forecast shows only the 6.4L Hemi V8 carrying on, with hybridization, primarily for heavy-duty Ram pickups beyond 2035. S&P has not seen evidence that a successor is in the works.

Currently, the Hemi V8 accounts for about 40% of Ram pickup installations. Projected volumes are in the “low double-digits” range, a fraction of the nearly half-million units in the Hemi’s glory days, Martin said. That scenario is being played out at other OEMs still offering V8 engines, as another motive power era begins its eventual sunset.