Detroit Electric went out of business in 1939, after losing its edge to internal combustion engines that no longer needed to be started with a hand crank.
As of today, it's back, with a bold plan to have a new electric car rolling off the line by the end of 2014.
The brand was first revived in 2008 by Albert Lam, the former CEO of Lotus Engineering Group and Managing Director of Apple's Asia operations. The plan was to build an electric car based on the Malaysian Proton sedan, and put an electric drive train in a Lotus Elise. But nothing happened, according to Wired.
Then today, the company announced it's back, again, and intends to create 180 jobs in Michigan by the end of the year. It is setting up shop in the Fisher Building in downtown Detroit. Its car will be a limited edition, 100 percent electric two-seater.
The new Detroit Electric will be unveiled early next month, and make its first appearance at the Shanghai Motor Show on April 20. Based on the teaser image Detroit Electric put out, it will likely be based on another Lotus.
Lotus makes beautiful, especially light cars, so they work well as electric conversions: The elegance adds cachet and appeals to wealthy buyers, and the added battery pack doesn't weigh it down too much. (Tesla's first model, the Roadster, was based on the Lotus Elise.)
But there are reasons to doubt the hype. As Wired points out, the Detroit Electric press release is noticeably lacking in details about where its money is coming from and what sort of performance the car will offer.
But new CEO Don Graunstadt makes up for that lack of specifics with confidence: “We are proud to become the fourth car manufacturer born out of Detroit, and the first to manufacture a pure electric sports car from Michigan,” he said in the press release.
The original Detroit Electric peaked in the 1910s, when it was popular among women and physicians who wanted a car that would start quickly and without cranking, according to the Detroit Free Press.
As cars with combustion engines became less expensive and more reliable, the slower, range-limited electrics were left behind.
The reinvigorated brand will be making cars that look very different, but the challenge — battling cheaper, more convenient vehicles — is the same.
It's very hard to build and sell electric cars in the U.S. After near failure and multiple big cash infusions, Tesla is finally on the verge of being profitable. Fisker is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and any savior will likely come from China or Europe.
It's even difficult for large, established automakers; there are no more than a handful of highway-capable electric models on the roads today, despite years of promises from GM, Ford, and others that the future is electric.
Genevieve Cullen, vice president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, a pro-EV organization, acknowledges "it's a big challenge to start a new car company."
But, she argues, there are opportunities to tweak the conventional business model established by the big Detroit players over the past decades. Newcomers like Tesla, she says, are "inventing new ways to succeed." The industry is "headed to electrification," she adds — so Detroit Electric could capitalize on the trend.
The reborn brand has an ambitious goal — cars on the road in about 20 months — and a tough road ahead. But if it can build a car that's reliable and meets its milestones, it could put American electric cars back on top.
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