Th!nk Again: The Electric City Cars Return Without Ford's Help.

The Norwegian electric car producer Think has reached across the Atlantic and established TH!NK North America in partnership with the leading clean-tech investors RockPort Capital Partners and Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers. “The TH!NK city is the world’s only crash-tested and highway-certified electric vehicle and is ideal for markets such as California where we will initiate demonstration projects offering an exceptionally safe and fun car to drive,” said Jan-Olaf Willums, CEO of Think Global. “We are proud to partner with the two pioneering investors in the clean tech field and to launch TH!NK city in North America with them.”

TH!NK city is an environmental vehicle, emission free and 95 percent recyclable. It reaches a top speed of 100 km (65 miles) per hour and can drive up to 180 km (110 miles) on a single charge.

Ray Lane, a Kleiner Perkins Managing Partner and Chairman of TH!NK North America, said, “The transportation industry is undergoing its largest transformation since Henry Ford built the Model T. Today we are witnessing a seminal event – the first highway-capable electric vehicle intended for mass production, representing a big step toward a zero emission transportation industry.”

Th!nk previously made its way into the U.S. around 2000-2001 when it was in a venture with Ford Motor Co. Even though Ford chairman Bill Ford is the one with “green” running through his veins, it was then CEO jac Nasser who cut the deal with Th!nk to provide neighborhood electric cars (the golf cart-like vhicles you see in gated resorts and the like) and eventually an electric city car. Ford dealers also briefly sold Th!nk bicycles with an electric battery assist at dealerships.

Hey, those ideas were hatched back when’s stock was almost $500 per share and vendors I know were being paid with options. when Ford unloaded all the stray businesses Nasser had accumulated, like Kwik-Fit auto repair and the auto recycling (junk yards) business, the Th!nk business went along with the rest of the bath water.

Given the push for higher fuel economy and alternative powertrains today, it seems a little, or maybe alot, short sighted to have jettisoned Th!nk.

It wasn't so much that Ford didn't see any future for electric cars, it was that it couldn't make a business out of working with the Norwegians. One former Ford/Th!nk team member says the business case called for the Neighborhood cars to cost around $2,500-$3,000. They would sell for maybe $4,000 and the profit looked good. A funny thing happened. The cost actually climbed to $9,000!!!, even with a nickel battery. Yikes. That would mean charging at least $10,000 for each one to make any money. At $10,000, you are talking about a sightly used Kia Rio. I think I'd rather have the Rio unless I was trying to really impress myself and my friends.

Also, says my source, the Norwegians were tough to do business with. They aparently had no concept of outfitting any vehicles for the U.S. market tastes. In that, they behaved like Germans telling Americans they don't need cup-holders bcause we shouldn't be drinking anything while driving in the first place.

In fact, I drove a City Th!nk back then. It felt like driving an Igloo cooler with seatbelts and windshield wipers. If the Norwegians thought that car was going to capture American dollars in any great number, they were nuts.

This from a Ford spokesperson: "Ford exited the battery electric vehicle business in January 2003 with the sale of the TH!NK name and production facility to KamKorp of Switzerland. Extensive research and marketing showed that the vehicles were not economically sustainable at that time as part of a large-scale vehicle solution to global environmental problems. The battery technology was inadequate at the time and consumer demand low - It was a technology in development not mature, not cost effective, not ready for mass production."

The Ford Th!nk partnership, while it lasted, seems a lesson in how just buying an asset doesn't assure anything. There was no work chemistry between the two companies. And while Ford may look short-sighted for punting the business back to Oslo, it's doubtful much would have come from it so long as the two sides weren't true partners.

I haven't driven the new City Th!nk yet. But perhaps Kleiner Perkins will have better luck.

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