Venturi: The Amazing and the Mundane

By Bill Moore

Posted: 30 Dec 2009

You'd think that there'd be little connection between a hand-built, custom sports car costing nearly €280,000 (US$400,000) and a commercial postal delivery van, other than their four wheels perhaps. The first would come out of some small, high-tech engineering firm in Europe, the latter off some cookie cutter assembly line in a gritty part of the British Midlands or American "Rust Belt."

But in this particular case, they both came from the very same shop located in glitzy, if tiny Monaco: Venturi Automobiles. They are the folks who invented the luxury electric sports car niche in 2004 with the debut of the Fetish, followed in amazing succession by the Eclectic Concept, the Astrolab, the Eclectic and the Volage Ultimate GT, which will be on display at the 2010 North American International Auto Show in Detroit next month. All are the fruit of the fertile mind of Gildo Pastor and his tiny team of 25 engineers.

I spoke this week with Pastor, who has been a long-time subscriber to EV World, about his most recent achievement; what amounts to a veritable David V. Goliath challenge to win the right to build electric delivery vans for the French postal service, La Poste. Of the eight companies that entered the competition, Venturi was the smallest, yet it won. How is that I wanted to learn?

In a way, it began with AC Propulsion informing him that because it had signed an exclusive agreement with Tesla, just then getting established, the San Dimas, California-based electric drive system engineering firm could no longer supply Venturi with its technology, the very technology that had made the Fetish feasible. This forced Venturi to start developing its own technology with which to power not only the Fetish, but its out-of-the-box successors: the highway-capable Astrolab and the Eclectic series of neighborhood electric vehicles. Pastor began to assemble his own team of EV engineers who began designing motors and battery management systems for him.

By 2007 he was ready to tackle the La Poste RFP for a practical, rugged -- really rugged -- and (relatively speaking) affordable electric delivery van. He told me that part of La Poste's tests included requiring the vehicle be capable of driving up and over public sidewalks (Jason Bourne-fashion?); explaining that mail drivers are brutal with their vehicles. To address the affordability factor, his team made two critical -- and ultimately competition-winning -- decisions: they would use a well-proven vehicle platform, the Citroen Berlingo van; and a modular electric drive that included the battery.

Of course, Citroen had also entered the competition, bringing along a vast amount of electric vehicle engineering expertise and experience. Pastor explained to me that the company, which is now his partner in the program, has manufactured some 10,000 electric vehicles over the last two decades, making them possibly -- for now -- the largest pure EV manufacturer in the world.

What set Venturi apart, however, was its modular drive. Whereas other competitors were resorting to major re-engineering efforts, cutting up bodies to find places to store batteries, Venturi designed a complete unit, battery and all, that neatly, but tightly, fits into the same space as the Berlingo's original IC engine. Because La Poste required only 100 km of daily operational driving range and a top speed of 110 km/hr, Venturi selected the Zebra nickel sodium chloride battery (23.5 kWh) to power the drive system. The onboard charger operates at 220V at 16A and can recharge the "hot" battery in 5 hours. The estimated life for the Swiss-made battery is 1000 cycles. The van's working payload is 500 kg (half a ton). [See vehicle specifications here]

The initial contract is for 1,500 vehicles to be manufactured at a new Venturi production facility near LeMans that will employee some 50 people, bringing Venturi's total employee count to 100, Pastor estimates; there are another 25 engineers located outside of Monaco. 250 of the vans will be operated by La Poste across 15 cities in France with the remaining 1,250 to be split between Peugeot and Citroen for fleet programs.

Pastor attributes his firm's success to four key elements: minimum labor to convert the vehicle, minimum number of components, having all of the drive system mounted in the Berlingo's engine compartment, and the well-proven ZEBRA battery, which he estimates should last at least three of the vehicle's six year lifespan, at which point it will be replaced.

Venturi's president, who speaks at least three languages (French, Italian and English) explained that he is driven by the credo that his electric vehicles need to be profitable, but they also need to push the boundaries of technology. He continues to work closely with Michelin on the Volage, which boasts the world's first Active-wheel drive/suspension system, giving the car the best handling Pastor, who is also a professional race car driver, says he has ever experienced. The company is also working with Ohio State University on the Venturi Buckeye Bullet, the goal being to break the world land speed record for an electric vehicle.

From mundane to amazing, Venturi is out to prove that not only can small, nimble companies make a difference, they also can make a profit.

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