Norwegian electric car company Think announced Thursday that it will open a factory in the United States in 2010 to produce its City urban runabout.
Think CEO Richard Canny, a former Ford executive, is in Ann Arbor, Mich., this week meeting with officials from eight states vying for the factory. But don’t put in your order just yet – only 2,500 cars will roll off the assembly line the first year and they will be reserved for demonstration projects and fleet sales.
“The U.S. is quickly overtaking Europe as an attractive market for EVs and is an ideal location to engineer and build EVs,” Canny said in a statement. “We see ourselves playing a small but potentially growing role in re-inventing the U.S. auto industry by bringing back new manufacturing jobs to the U.S.” Think has not yet responded to Green Wombat’s inquiry about which states, other than Michigan, is in talks with the company for the factory.
How Think will finance its North American expansion remains an open question. Just three months ago the company was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy as the global financial crisis cut off capital and forced Think to idle its Norwegian factory and lay off workers. The company obtained $5.7 million interim financing in January and recalled some workers. A report on Treehugger Thursday cited sources that said Think was contemplating relocating to Sweden or the U.K.
Think spokeswoman Katinka Von Der Lippe told Green Wombat on Thursday that the interim financing has been extended but that the company is still seeking a new infusion of capital to resume full production of the City, a two-seater that goes 112 miles on a charge with a top speed of about 62 miles per hour. Update: Think’s U.S. spokesman, Brendan Prebo, tells Green Wombat that Think will raise most of the new capital from its existing European and U.S. investors, which include General Electric (GE), so it can resume full production of the City in Norway.
The company said that it will apply for a low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Energy under its Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program to help pay for the factory. Prebo declined to reveal the size of the DOE loan the company will seek but noted it “will be a substantial investment for Think” but small compared to what some of the big automakers want.
After the first-year startup phase, the U.S. factory will initially employ 300 workers and produce 16,000 cars annually, according to Think. Capacity would eventually be expanded to 60,000 cars and a workforce of 900. A research and development center will employ about 70 people.
But calling a Think facility a factory is somewhat misleading. It’s really an assembly plant and the one Green Wombat visited in 2007 in Aurskog, Norway, was more Ikea than Henry Ford, with plastic-bodied Think City models quietly gliding through clean well-lighted spaces.
The question for Think, Tesla Motors other EV startups is whether they can gain a foothold in the market before the major players big-foot them with their own electric and plug-in electric cars. Ford (F), General Motors (GM), Honda (HMC), Toyota (TM), Renault-Nissan and other global automakers all are accelerating plans to introduce electric vehicles.
Thursday’s announcement follows the formation of Think North America, unveiled in April 2008 at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference. A bicoastal group of venture capital firms – Silicon Valley’s Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Boston’s Rockport Capital Partners – signed on as lead investors.