ANN ARBOR, Michigan - John Wallace's hometown is known for its environmentalist leanings.
The City Council of this university town once discussed a proposal to buy a fleet of soybean-powered commuter cars. But it would be a serious mistake to label the executive director of Ford's newly launched Th!nk subsidiary a starry-eyed environmentalist.
'I want to make money,' said Wallace in a recent interview.
That may be a challenge. Electric vehicles have been money-losing propositions for other automakers, but Wallace is taking a fresh approach.
First, Wallace will keep costs low. His operation only employs 30 people. Next, he will avoid costly investments in factories, dealerships and offices.
Wallace will limit the cost of marketing, sales and service by forging partnerships with other companies. For example, the car rental company Hertz handles delivery and service for Th!nk in Norway.
Perhaps most important, Wallace will not market his electric bicycles, golf carts and city cars as substitutes for gasoline-powered vehicles.
Instead, he will aim his products at markets that are not well served by gasoline-powered vehicles. For example, the golf cart - dubbed the Th!nk neighbor - is designed for use in retirement communities, golf resorts and closed residential communities.
The Th!nk bike fun and Th!nk bike traveler are geared for markets where bicycles are in heavy use. And the Th!nk City is a small two-seater for short trips on city streets.
At first, Wallace will sell his vehicles in Europe and North America. If all goes well, eventually he will expand operations into South America and Asia.
The Ford subsidiary's first market is Norway, where the Th!nk City entered production at a factory near Oslo in November. The plastic-bodied vehicles are bolted together in an assembly plant that cost $10 million to build.
Customers have ordered 200 vehicles, and the factory's capacity in Aurskog, Norway, is sold out through March, said Nick Palmer, Th!nk Group brand manager.
Th!nk City will go on sale in Denmark within three months, and Sweden will follow. An improved version will go on sale in the United States late next year.
Palmer said the Th!nk City will be introduced wherever local conditions and regulations are conducive for electric vehicles. Scandinavian cities already have parking places equipped with electric plug-ins for engine block warmers. Cities such as Oslo also grant special toll-road exemptions for electric vehicles.
Neither Wallace nor Ford pretends that a small electric car with a 55-mile range will transform the automotive world. That role is reserved for Ford's fuel cell-powered prototype, the Th!nk FC5. Introduced during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month, the FC5 is a modified four-door Ford Focus.
If produced later this decade, the car will carry a label that says 'Powered by Th!nk.' But Wallace says these vehicles would be sold by Ford - not Th!nk. That's because fuel cell-powered cars are plausible substitutes for conventional vehicles.
And Ford's existing network of dealerships is better suited to selling, repairing and servicing high-volume vehicles.
After spending 18 years trying to get things done within Ford's vast bureaucracy, Wallace seems excited to be the boss of his own startup company.
'I told Jac (Nasser) that I want to see how big a company I can build with 30 people,' Wallace said. 'Jac can use Th!nk as an experimental laboratory.'