The creators of Norway's plastic-bodied Think electric car nearly had to give up on their creation in 1999 when they ran out of development cash.
Then Ford Motor Co. stepped in, bought the business and brought the little car to life. But less than three years later, Ford abandoned the project, leaving a second-generation Think just months away from production.
But Think has outlived its latest death notice. Now owned by a Swiss company, it is preparing to roll out a new plastic-bodied car by the end of 2005.
``We're still very much alive,'' Michael Eimstad, marketing coordinator for Aurskog, Norway-based Think Nordic AS, said in a Dec. 1 telephone interview. ``I keep [saying that] when people ask about us.''
The Think Public, set to debut in the fourth quarter, will differ from both the original Think City and the second-generation City that never made it onto the streets. The company is creating a four-passenger, low-speed electric vehicle intended for use in car-share programs centered at train stations and airports in Europe.
The Think City was a two-seat car capable of hitting minimum highway speeds and recharged from a basic household plug.
But the Think Public retains some of the City's cues - including its plastic body - although it uses compression molding instead of rotational molding to make most of the body panels.
``The next-generation Think City would have been too expensive, by our thinking, to make a sustainable business case, but we had an opportunity present itself for the shared car,'' Eimstad said. ``We made changes, but we were able to learn from the experiences in creating the City. The side panels are the same as would have been in the [second-generation] Think City; the bumpers are the same as would have been in the Think City.''
The original Think was the brainchild of boat rotomolder Pivco Industries AS in Norway. Pivco went with a rotomolded, six-piece body because it was familiar with the process, and the company was convinced the process would help hide scratches and cut the need for body paint.
Ford introduced its City as part of its overall electric-vehicle strategy at the North American International Auto Show in January 2000.
The first vehicles were sold in Europe, where they quickly earned loyalty in their home country.
``Norway hadn't had car production before,'' Eimstad said. ``So when Pivco and Think started, it generated a lot of interest.''
Americans got their first glimpse of the car during an introduction at the Los Angeles auto show in January 2002. In all, more than 200 of the first-generation City vehicles were in the United States.
But that same summer, interest in electric-powered vehicles fell in the United States, prompted by increased attention to fuel cells as an alternative power source and a court ruling that ended California's proposal that would have required automakers to provide electric-powered vehicles. By August, Ford announced it was ending the Think experiment.
``Ford was having other problems at the time and this wasn't a core business for them,'' Eimstad said. ``Our production line had changed over for the new Think City. The tooling had been changed, the factory was ready for production, and there was no production.''
That is when Switzerland's Kamkorp Microelectronics Inc. bought the business from Ford and began considering how to keep the project moving forward.
With the expensive second-generation City ruled out, Kamkorp sister firm Frazer-Nash Research in Mytchett, England, came forward with its concept of a shared car.
``This is a unique possibility to show the market and other major players in the field of sustainable transportation our new products and concepts,'' said Think Nordic Managing Director Bernd Winkler.
The Public will be a boxy, four-seat vehicle, with a top speed of 31 mph - down from the City's 52 mph - and a range of 62 miles.
Since the car is slated for shared use, the company has tweaked it to stand up to bad drivers. Retaining the rotomolding for bumpers means the material will not show scratches as much as an injection molded fascia. Mounting the headlights higher on the vehicle places them further from the edges where they could break more easily.
The car is aimed for comfortable use, though, with heat and working windows, rather than the bare bones of a typical neighborhood electric vehicle that more closely resembles a golf cart.
``It's a quality car, but it's a simple car,'' Eimstad said.
Think Nordic is hoping to sell about 5,000 of the Publics annually, and expects to employ about 100 people once production starts, up from 60.
The original City has not disappeared, though.
Ford sold about 1,000 of the vehicles before calling a halt to the project. Now about 275 City cars originally sent to the United States, Britain and Denmark on a short-term lease program are headed back to Norway and customers waiting there.
``It takes some time to refurbish them for the market here, more than we thought at first,'' said Jan Johansson, spokesman for Ford of Norway.
American cars must be converted to a 240-volt charging system from the 120-volt U.S. standard, for example. Johansson said the final cars probably will not make it to consumers until the end of 2005.
But Ford has a list of about 500 customers waiting to claim available vehicles. They will sell for 99,000 Norwegian kroner ($16,333). The day Ford announced it would sell the remaining Think City cars, calls from interested buyers came in. Think AS also had a waiting list, which was merged with Ford's data.
Norwegians' desire is not merely national pride, though. Johansson noted that national law allows electric car drivers to use the bus lane - which can save some Oslo drivers more than 45 minutes on their daily commute.