The Little Car That Stole Detroit's Heart
By Bill Moore
Who would have thought that a converted, French-built quadra-cycle from across the storm-tossed North Atlantic could steal the heart of Motor City?
That appears to be pretty much the story to come out of this year's North American International Auto Show, at least from Feel Good Car's perspective. After all, no other carmakers had any of their vehicles running about inside the Cobo Center in Detroit last week, not only ferrying a television crew from the local NBC affiliate, but also the president of Rolls Royce, executives from Honda, and General Motor's Vice Chairman, Bob Lutz.
The ZENN, which is an acronym for "zero emission no noise", is the brainchild of Canadian Ian Clifford who introduced the tiny French-built car into North America around 2002. In France, the car is licensed as a "quadra-cycle" and limited to a top-speed of 45 km/h. It is intended for inner-urban travel only, and is powered by a small diesel engine. No driver's license is required in France to operate one.
Clifford thought it would make an excellent LSV or "low-speed vehicle" under the U.S. Transportation Department's 1998 FMVSS 500 classification, which was originally intended for more golf car-like vehicles such as the GEM and now defunct Bombardier's NV. With the exception of its diesel engine, it met all the qualifications and he arranged to have some imported into Canada for conversion to electric drive. He debuted the first models at an industry conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 2002.
But the task of converting a good idea into a successful business venture is a lot harder than turning a diesel quadracycle into a battery electric car. It takes conviction, courage and capital, all in good measure.
Yet, here was Bill Williams, Feel Good Car's sales and marketing head, on his cell phone calling me from the Cobo Center in downtown Detroit during the 2006 car show. He'd heard through Clifford that I was also at the show and he wanted to get together; I wasn't there, actually. He excitedly told me about the great time he was having and the incredible reception the car was getting, including having GM's Lutz drive it for half-an-hour.
I asked him to call back in an hour and we'd do a bit more formal interview, which you can listen to using our Flash-based MP3 Player above or by downloading it to your computer's hard drive for transfer to your favorite MP3 device.
Williams explained that he'd arranged to do some "guerilla marketing" for the show, enlisting the help of the local NBC affiliate who would use the car as their roving, television broadcast vehicle inside the Cobo Center. With their satellite dish protruding on a pole out the sunroof of the car and the luggage space packed with their television gear, they 'EV'd' from exhibit to exhibit interviewing car company executives.
While I was talking to Williams on his cell phone, the president of Rolls Royce was driving the car and just after we finished our interview, the ebullient Williams called back to say that Bob Lutz had come by again for a second look.
This is "guerilla" marketing at its finest.
I asked Williams if he sensed that the show was as "green" as much of the media were portraying it. He answered that this was his first time at NAIAS, but that with the all the focus on retro-muscle cars that also debuted in Detroit, it certainly didn't seem that carmakers were being all that environmentally-conscious.
"I was looking for the EV stuff, the hybrid-stuff, which of course is a buzz word, but ironically, it's funny, Chrysler and Ford and GM have all brought back muscle cars with 400 horse(power) engines. So, honestly, I just think they're resistant to doing what you and I believe is the right way to go."
Since Clifford showed the ZENN in Florida back in '02, the "host" car has been redesigned to update its look, as well as its amenities.
When I asked him why the car can't be street legal, meaning that it can be driven at speeds above the current 25 mph spelled out in the DOT's LSV regulations, he responded, "Basically, it comes down to airbags and crash testing, which companies spend millions on".
He added that the company is fine with current LSV rules. "We believe there is a true market out there", citing the example of GEM, which he said has sold in the last four years some 15,000 of its vehicles.
(GEM executives have told me the total number of cars they've sold is in excess of 30,000 vehicles).
"Those are now four-year old cars. People that have been finally introduced to the idea of driving a NEV (neighborhood electric vehicle) are looking maybe for a replacement. There are fleet markets out there: university campuses, corporations that need a vehicle like this that's clean and can get around the campus complex much more easily."
The current two-seat model is powered by a 72-volt system that is part of what Williams calls an "open architecture, plug-n-play" electric drive. "It's easily fixed, easily replaceable. We're obviously looking into the future at lithium-ion and some other power sources, so we're keeping that in mind when we… build the car."
At present, using Trojan sealed lead-acid batteries, the car has a 30-40 mile range at its prescribed 25 mph top speed. The car also comes with heating and air conditioning as options. Feel Good Cars is using a GE Advanced DC motor, Delta-Q charger*, and Curtis controller.
The company currently has 8-10 pre-production prototypes, a couple of which EV World is slated to get a first-hand look at, possibly sometime this week as a shipment of dealer demonstrators comes through Omaha. Williams said that FGC is hoping to start production of up to 200 vehicles a month in late February or early March.
"My main thrust right now is to try and get a good string of dealers," he told me. He has several already pre-qualified and another thirty he has identified as potential outlets.
Asked about price, he replied, "We are always going to have a vehicle priced less than $10,000. We've got an entry two-seater with heating, but not air conditioning, for $9,975. Then the next level up will have air conditioning and heating at basically right around $12,500. And we're going to have a loaded-up version, what we call an LX or Lux model that will be right under $15,000."
He said that he's sensitive to the price points, but that he believes the vehicle's level of safety, which he said is the "Volvo of the class", justifies its higher price.
"I think that people will really see the value in the pricing."
As we wrapped up the call, I asked Williams about the story behind GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz driving the car. He said that he drove it for half a hour all over the exhibition, waving at people and having a great time; and when he got out he was smiling.
"He loved the vehicle," Williams said. "For him to get in and drive it is a real coup for us. I loved getting his opinion on it and he loved the vehicle. We also had two or three of the Honda executives crammed into the car together."
In a separate telephone conversation, Williams noted that Feel Good Cars now has adequate financial backing to take the program to the next level. Clearly, they've got a vehicle that will set a new standard for low-speed electric cars.
That should make their customers and their investors really "Feel Good".