Crain News Service
DETROIT - Ford Motor Co. says the radical plastic-bodied, electric-powered Th!nk city car could be sold in North America as early as 2000.
Ford announced at the North American Interna-tional Auto Show here this month that it had purchased a 51 percent interest in Pivco AS, a financially struggling auto company in Oslo, Norway. Pivco has been developing the low-volume Th!nk for eight years.
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 made final in late December.
'For us, it is fantastic,' said Lilleng in a telephone interview 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.'
The Th!nk will be rolled out in Scandinavia this year and may be brought to North America in 2000, said Marty Friedman, Ford's manager of product and business strategy. Friedman cautioned that the car would be sold only in select markets or regions as a niche vehicle to travel between commuter stations and home or in retirement communities.
The car still must meet federal safety standards to be sold in the United States, he said.
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.
But the Norwegian stock market took a dip and funding ran low last year, he said.
Ford officials first saw the Th!nk at the European Electric Vehicle Show last October in Brussels. But Pivco, which also exhibited the car at the K'98 plastics trade fair Dusseldorf, Germany, last October, began to founder.
The company 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 so production could proceed.
Pivco may build the Th!nk car at its plant in Aurskog, Norway, near Oslo, said Friedman. The 88,000-square-foot plant has the capacity to produce as many as 5,000 vehicles a year.