DETROIT — Ford Motor Co. has come to the rescue of the world's first rotational molded plastic car.
The Dearborn, Mich., carmaker has purchased a 51 percent interest in Pivco Industries AS, a financially struggling auto company in Oslo, Norway. For eight years, Pivco has been developing an electric car shrouded by a six-piece, polyethylene body.
Ford, which made the announcement Jan. 6 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, plans to help the company produce the small-volume, niche vehicle — called the Th!nk city car — later this year in four Scandinavian countries.
The car could be sold in North America as early as the year 2000, Ford officials said.
The deal struck with Ford was a whirlwind romance for Pivco. Although Ford was aware of Pivco's plans, the two sides did not talk seriously until late November, said Pivco President Per Lilleng.
The agreement, terms of which were not disclosed, was finalized in late December.
``For us, it is fantastic,'' said Lilleng from his Oslo office. ``We worked very hard to find a global partner that had not only capital but knowledge of marketing and distribution.
``This will help make the car a global product, not just a Nordic vehicle.''
Pivco began work on the two-passenger car in 1991, borrowing rotomolding technology from the marine industry and its composite boat hulls. Until 1997, the company was purely a venture-capital firm funded by the Norwegian government and private sources.
But the company reached a turning point two years ago, Lilleng said. Testing had gone smoothly, and Pivco gained approval from the European Community to make a commercial vehicle.
But the 45-employee company was too small and underfunded to go it alone, Lilleng said. While prominent auto-design firm Lotus Engineering of Norfolk, England, began designing the Th!nk, Pivco began shopping for partners.
The Norwegian stock market took a dip and funding ran low last year, he said. Meanwhile, a forerunner of the car, called the City Bee, had a successful trial as a commuter vehicle with the Bay Area Rapid Transit District in San Francisco. That experiment ended in December.
``We could believe in it and dream about it,'' Lilleng said. ``But we needed a partner to turn the dream into real business.''
Ford officials first saw the Th!nk at the European Electric Vehicle Show in October in Brussels, Belgium. But Pivco, which also exhibited the car at the K Show in Dusseldorf, Germany, in late October, began to founder.
Pivco declared bankruptcy Oct. 30. Management, employees and a Norwegian plastics processor bought back the company 14 days later. At the time, Lilleng said Pivco was looking for outside investors for production to proceed.
Pivco may build the Th!nk car at its plant in Aurskog, Norway, said Marty Friedman, Ford manager of product and business strategy. The 88,000-square-foot plant has the capacity to produce as many as 5,000 vehicles a year.
``We want them to continue with development,'' said Friedman, who helped negotiate the deal. ``We'll be looking for the right markets to distribute the car.''
Originally, Pivco had planned to produce the first cars in Scandinavia this spring. That timetable might be put off as long as six months, Lilleng said. The car probably will be sold first in Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, he added.
The most likely market for the vehicle is in Europe, Friedman said. Gas prices are high there, and the cost of hydroelectric power is low, he said.
The car still must meet federal head-impact standards to be sold in the United States, he said.