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Think Again

Think leasers in San Francisco staged funerals for their beloved cars... draping American flags, playing 'Taps'

By Novella Carpenter

On Sept, 1, Ford announced that because of a sharp drop in sales last month its vehicles were piling up in the warehouses, and so they would cut back car and truck production by 7.8 percent. About the same time, I was madly sending messages to Ford via the Rainforest Action Network (www.ran.org), which automatically composes letters like "Dear Mr. Ford: I am writing to express my deep concern about your company's disproportionate contribution to America's oil addiction."

Madly, I guess, because the Republican National Convention was going on, half a million people were protesting and I was stuck at home on my laptop. I had to have my voice heard, if only through a computerized whine. While I was scratching my head about how politicians used to lie about what they were going to do in office but now they lie about what they've actually done in office, I went to Ford's website and checked out the latest on the Think, their electric-vehicle program.

Thinks are the weird little electric cars you may have seen in a few large cities (San Francisco, New York), dodging among the skyscrapers, rare as white bison. They are two-seaters, powered by a liquid-cooled three-phase AC-induction motor, electrified by 19 nickel-cadmium batteries. They have a range of 55 miles between charges and take about eight hours to fully recharge. The midget cars have steel and aluminum frames and are covered with recyclable plastic bodywork that has a matte finish, similar to the chunky plastic look of an ice cooler. In short, they are spunky and cute, rather than sleek and refined.

Ford, in the heyday of its SUV money, bought the Think company from a Norwegian manufacturer in the late 1990s. At the time, Jac Nasser was the CEO and was interested in trying out new technologies. California's zero-emission mandate was set in place, and automakers were attempting to comply by building at least a few thousand zero-emission vehicles. Think was to be a brand name within Ford Motor Company and would encompass any alternatives (including fuel cell technology) within that brand. The Think electric cars were a point of national pride in Norway, where they were the first in-country mass-produced vehicles before being purchased by Ford.

But with the auto industry winning the legal battle against California's program of mandates for zero emissions, Ford shut down its electric-vehicle program. Recently, Ford gutted the whole line of Think electric vehicles--Think City, Think Neighbor (looks like a golf cart) and Think Bike (electric bicycle)--so that they can "concentrate resources on the development of fuel cells." Not only is Ford discontinuing them, it was going to crush the Thinks! To protest, Think leasers in San Francisco staged funerals for their beloved cars a few weeks ago, draping American flags over their Thinks, playing "Taps" and honoring the cars' 34-month-long service preventing deadly greenhouse gases.

Ford and other American automakers have always hidden behind consumer desire to explain their need to build inflated SUVs, but I've always thought that if there really was a desire, it was only fueled by the company's advertising budget. Advertising works for only so long--until realities like a slumping economy, astronomical gas prices and massive unemployment catch up. Then Ford has to cut 7.8 percent of its production. In a telling parallel, a car that Ford almost never advertised or supported, the Think, is on the chopping block, and electric-vehicle fans are mourning. The message Ford should be hearing is: Build something good, and they will come.

Up until last week, all offers to buy the condemned Thinks have been met with silence. Elbil Norge, a Norwegian electric-car manufacturer, offered $1 million for the few hundred remaining vehicles. Ford agreed to halt the crusher, but no final decision has been announced. On Sept. 15, we will find out the fate of the Think; if you'd like to tell Ford your opinion, go to www.jumpstartford.com/home.

Novella is slapping her forehead for not having profiled the Think in her column. Email her with other stuff she's overlooked at [email protected]

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From the September 15-22, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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