March 21, 2013 at 8:35 AM ET
If you’re familiar with automotive history you might recognize the name Detroit Electric. The Motown factory rolled out about 13,000 of battery-operated cars between 1907 and 1939, one delivering a record 211 miles on a single charge, an impressive figure even today.
Although the company didn’t survive the Great Depression, its name was revived in 2008 by Albert Lam, the one-time CEO of Lotus Engineering. Like other wannabe battery-car companies, the reborn Detroit Electric has had a rough go, nearly dissolving when a partnership with Zap, the other electric vehicle maker, collapsed.
Somehow the Motor City manufacturer has quietly continued working on its first product line and Detroit Electric plans to reveal a new electric sports car, sending out a teaser image of what’s in store.
The teaser image reveals the use of energy-efficient LED lighting, along with a highly aero-efficient body style.
Ironically, the preview won’t take place in Detroit or even at the upcoming auto show in New York. Rather, Detroit Electric plans to “share an exciting announcement about a major partnership with a global carmaker” at next month’s Shanghai Auto Show.
The startup won’t reveal much but says its first product will be an entirely electric, two-seat sports car. It plans to start producing the new model by late summer at a small plant near Detroit that is expected to have an annual production capacity of 2,500. The maker plans to hire 180 workers, including those at the plant, as well for sales and marketing.
“We are committed to doing our part for this great revival of Detroit through innovation, entrepreneurship and determination – what we like to call 'Detroit 2.0,’” said Don Graunstadt, CEO of North American Operations. “Our investors and management team are thankful to the State of Michigan for the help provided in allowing Detroit Electric to carry on the legacy that began in Michigan so many years ago."
The car maker promises the sports car will be the first in a "diverse family of high-performance electric vehicles to follow,” including two others planned by the end of 2014.
Hints CEO Lam: “The sports car will allow us to demonstrate to the world our ability to build an exciting and innovative product. This DNA will be translated across to our future sedans; all our cars will be fun to drive and deliver exceptional performance within their class."
Detroit Electric’s plans are ambitious, but also risky. Despite the press electric cars have generated over the last few years, demand has lagged far behind expectations. Mainstream makers like Ford and Nissan hope to ramp up sales this year – the Japanese maker desperately needing a boost having opened a new assembly plant for its Leaf battery-electric vehicle in Smyrna, Tenn. late last year.
It’s been an especially tough time for battery start-ups. Several, like Bright Automotive, have folded, while Coda is barely hanging on. Fisker Automotive is cash-short and looking for partners with deep pockets. Tesla Motors, meanwhile, posted a greater-than-expected loss during the fourth quarter but insists that strong demand for its Model S will help it post its first profit this quarter.
Whether Detroit Electric can spark consumer interest, and whether it has the funding to weather a slow ramp-up remains to be seen.
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