Norway's efforts to be at the forefront of electric car manufacturing appear to be all but dead. Ford Motor Co, which took over the "Think" electric car venture only to pull the plug a few years later, already has decided to scrap hundreds of used vehicles and Think's new owner has begun laying off workers.
It's just a matter of time, reports newspaper Dagens Næringsliv, before the secretive British-based Indian who took over Think from Ford shuts down the Norwegian operation and transfers production to Malaysia.
Such a move would be a blow to Norwegian pride. The Think venture has enjoyed both government and royal support, with King Harald himself presiding over Ford's much-ballyhooed takeover, and government ministers voicing support for the venture and even allowing electric cars to drive free in commuter lanes.
But employees at Think's factory in Aurskog, northeast of Oslo, face an uncertain future. Workers were told late last month that 25 jobs were being cut, ostensibly because Ford wasn't going to return hundreds of used Think cars from the US to Norway for maintenance and upgrading.
Ford thus could further disassociate itself with the Think venture and further reduce its responsibility for the product. Instead, Think's new owner would take over control.
Kamal Siddiqi, writes Dagens Næringsliv, is the man behind both Kamkorp Microelectronics (which officially took over Think from Ford in 2003) and Frazer-Nash of England. Frazer-Nash, in another venture, reportedly left a long list of creditors after problems delivering electric vehicles to the Olympics in Sydney. Siddiqi, with reported ties to former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, refused to answer questions.
The newspaper, in a seven-page spread over the weekend, contends that Think, already financially challenged when Ford bought it in 1999, really began to unravel when Ford no longer needed it. Ford, writes Dagens Næringsliv, had bought into Think when it needed to be active in electric car production to satisfy tough new environmental laws in California, arguably the carmaker's most important market.
California lawmakers had required carmakers to produce a certain percentage of vehicles that produced zero emissions. After a lawsuit by General Motors, California eased its requirements in 2001, and Ford wasn't so keen anymore on owning a small electric car maker in Norway.
Ford deal running out
Ford's European boss told Dagens Næringsliv that he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an allegedly secret agreement between Ford and Kamkorp, that called for Ford to maintain artificial life in Think for 18 months after their deal was struck in February 2003. That deal will run out in August, and Kamkorp issued its first layoff notices at Think headquarters in Aurskog last month.
The newspaper reported that local Think boss Bernd Winkler, who works for Siddiqi, now plans to move the remains of Think to Malaysia. Even though gasoline prices have hit record high levels and demand for el-cars is higher than ever (250 customers have their names on a waiting list in Norway alone, and interest also was high in the US), Think's days in Norway appear numbered.