Can You Guess The Many Borrowed Parts On The Failed Th!nk City EV?

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Welcome back to Parts Bin Puzzle, the Autopian challenge where we give you a vehicle and you figure out where its bits came from! In this entry, we have a vehicle that isn’t a kit car or an RV. The Th!nk City was a unique EV, featuring unpainted injection molded plastic, a lot of recyclable parts, and a massive rear window that doubled as a tailgate. It was one of just a few EVs on American roads a decade ago, but the company that made it was a total failure.

Last time, we looked at the Tiffin Allegro Bus 45 OPP, a 45-foot luxury Class A motorhome that will run you $670,000 or more depending on options. I asked you dear readers to figure out its lighting, and I must admit, there was some trickery going on. Tiffin’s people tell me that while the company’s rigs look like they use lights from production cars, they only look like they do. Tiffin has a supplier for these lights that isn’t a car company. Look closely at a Tiffin’s lights, and you’ll realize that they aren’t quite “right” for a car. The headlights, which don’t have lenses, look like they could come from a Subaru or a Toyota, but are almost as large as a car’s grille. And while the taillights scream Dodge Charger, the lights are wider than anything Dodge makes, and the shape isn’t exact.

This time, I have something much easier for you, and it involves an EV that I’ve been wanting to buy for years, but almost never find in operational condition. Meet the Th!nk City.

Thinks
Th!nk

It Started With The Oil Crisis

The Th!nk City’s story is a sad one, involving a company with huge, forward-thinking ambitions, but never enough money to keep the good times rolling. For this one, we start in Norway during the 1973 Oil Crisis. As Automotive News Europe writes, during this time, a man named Lars Ringdal came up with the original idea for what would become the Th!nk, putting a concept on the road in 1972. Science Norway notes that his EV featured a motor from a washing machine and a rotomolded plastic body. Development continued after the oil crisis ended, but eventually, Ringdal’s company went bankrupt. Still, the idea of an electric Norwegian city car never died, and almost 20 years later, Ringdal’s son, Jan Otto Ringdal, took on the EV challenge.

In 1991, Pivco–Personal Independent Vehicle Co.–launched in Oslo, Norway’s capital and largest city. As Plastics News notes, Pivco wanted to bring Ringdal’s electric car concept to market, and actually punched out a couple of working prototypes, starting with the PIV2. This little car had an aluminum chassis, a rotomolded polyethylene thermoplastic body, and a nickel-cadmium battery. Just 15 of them were made and 10 of them made an appearance at the Lillehammer Olympic Winter Games in 1994, MotorTrend notes. The cars had a top speed of 56 mph with a range of 62 miles.

Pivco followed it up with the PIV3, MotorTrend notes, also known as the City Bee or just the Citi here in America. In 1995, about 40 of these made their way to California to participate in the DARPA-sponsored San Francisco Bay Area Station Car Demonstration project. Unfortunately, the project ran out of money again in 1998, forcing Pivco to file for bankruptcy.

Pivco Piv3
PIV3, the City Bee – Egil Kvaleberg

Pivco expected to lease its City Bee cars to businesses and government agencies to build out a public transport commuter system. The company set a goal to make 1,500 of them before ramping production up to 5,000 a year by 2001. But after spending $19.9 million on the project and Norway’s government pulling out of its planned investment, Pivo was out of cash.

A Cash Infusion From America

In 1999, hope came from a major American auto manufacturer (this is a hint for your Parts Bin Puzzle). As the Orlando Sentinel reports, this manufacturer was looking to comply with California’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandate and purchased Pivco. The company was renamed to Think Nordic and the company’s then current concept, the PIV4, was renamed to Th!nk. With a huge cash infusion and engineering expertise from the American automaker, the pace picked up again. In 2001, the Th!nk City Electric Vehicle Demonstration Program launched, placing 376 Th!nk City electric cars in service all over America and even one in Bermuda.

2000 Ford Th!nk City
A 2000 Th!nk – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

This program lasted until 2005, and Th!nk’s American owner even saw production examples hitting the road in 2009. But production ended before the program even ended.

As the Orlando Sentinel notes, in 2002, Th!nk’s automaker owner pulled the plug after investing $150 million into the project and about 1,000 Th!nks were made. The car was reportedly 95 percent complete, but Th!nk’s owner was done. Just a year later, the Orlando Sentinel notes that the California mandate got modified, and automakers no longer needed to build EVs right away. Th!nk was punted to Kamkorp Microelectronics Inc., where the goal changed. Gone was the idea of the Th!nk City electric car. And in its place was the Th!nk Public, a four seat low-speed micro bus meant for airports and train stations in Europe.

Think Public
Th!nk

By 2006, Th!nk Nordic got off prototypes of the Public before it ran out of cash and filed for bankruptcy again. This time, Th!nk was spun off to InSpire, a Norwegian investment group that included Jan Otto Ringdal. Th!nk got rolling once again, including briefly getting a deal with Tesla in 2007 for Tesla to provide Th!nk with lithium-ion batteries. When Tesla bailed that same year, the company found investment from General Electric. In 2008, cars began getting to customers before Th!nk ran into money problems again thanks to the Great Recession. As the New York Times reported, Th!nk had to stop production and lay off a chunk of its workforce, facing yet another bankruptcy.

The American Th!nk City EV

Thankfully, as Reuters reports, Th!nk was saved yet again in early 2009 by a $5.69 million loan from Ener1 Group. By mid-2009, the company managed to get $47 million to stay afloat. Production restarted and in 2010, Th!nk announced that it was coming back to America. The American Th!nk City was advertised to start at $36,495, but with the first 100 units costing $41,695.

Thinkedit
Th!nk

The U.S. version of the Th!nk City had one major difference from its international counterparts. As our friends at the Lane Motor Museum note, Th!nk cars were built into knock-down kits in Finland then shipped to America, where Th!nk North America would assemble them from as many U.S.-sourced parts as possible. EnerDel, a subsidiary of Ener1, supplied 23 kWh lithium-ion batteries from Indianapolis. This was combined with a 46 HP electric motor.

The Th!nk City is a highway-capable car with a top speed of 68 mph and a range of about 100 miles. And it was a real car, too, featuring airbags, ABS, regenerative braking, and everything else that you’d expect from a car in 2010 and 2011.

These cars had some neat trick features, too. The body consisted of injection molded plastic panels. These were unpainted, and instead molded in color. This meant that the cars had a matte finish, but also meant that scratches were practically invisible. As the Lane notes, Th!nk boasted recyclability, and notes that the panels, dashboard, fabrics, and much of the rest of the interior could be recycled. Those EnerDel batteries were also supposed to get sent back at the end of their lives.

Think City 2008 1600 18
Th!nk

At the time, the Th!nk City had few competitors like the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Nissan Leaf, Smart Fortwo Electric Drive, and Tesla Roadster. Th!nk kept its targets small, pitching the City EV as a second car for people living in Southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, Washington DC, and Indianapolis. Sales expectations were a similarly modest 2,000 to 3,000 units in 2011.

However, as the Lane notes, just about 500 of them made it to America before the company filed for bankruptcy again in 2011. To make matters worse, battery supplier EnerDel went bankrupt in 2012. There were still over 100 unsold Th!nk City cars at that time, and they were sold for a steep discount.

Since I live close to one of the Th!nk’s markets, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a few of them zip around town. To date, they remain perhaps some of the most quirky modern cars that I’ve seen on the road. The matte look and the huge tailgate window make them stand out, even though a Th!nk City is just barely over a foot longer than a Smart Fortwo. For a decade, I saw a gray one driving around my local area. I don’t, anymore, and it makes me fear that it’s been taken off of the road.

Sadly, that’s the case for a lot of these cars. Scroll through owner forums and you’ll quickly learn that keeping these orphaned cars on the road is not for the faint of heart. While the interior uses many parts from a common American car from the early aughts (hint), finding the parts to make the cars work can get really hard. A number of owners resort to soldering or custom work to keep their Th!nks on the road. Owners also note a lot of weird bugs, like a parasitic 12V battery drain. The most bewildering one to me is that you can blow one of the car’s boards by trying to turn it on when the heater is on.

Thinkdesert
Th!nk

I’ve been on a search for one of these that run and drive, and I don’t often find them in that shape. This search has been going on for a few years, and most of the ones that I found either had seemingly catastrophic computer problems or won’t charge. Despite all of those red flags, the search continues.

Your search will be easier. Take a look inside and outside of the car. I’ll focus on just a few areas here. Where do you think that the steering wheel, switchgear, and HVAC controls come from? Your hint remains the same; these came from an American car from the early 2000s.

Think City 2008 1600 19
Th!nk

And where did these taillights come from? I’ll give you a hint here: these lights were on a bunch of different cars, including a Lamborghini.

Thincity
Th!nk

After you take your guesses on this Parts Bin Puzzle, click here to reveal if you are right!

An estimated total of 2,500 Th!nk City cars are out there, and it’s unknown how many of them still run. If you know of a runner for sale in America, let me know! I’d love to add one to my fleet.

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23 Responses

  1. I have 2 of them in southern oregon, one has 75k miles and the other has 20k.
    I drive them every day and love every minute of it.
    I get around 80 miles per charge as long as I don’t use the heater… use if heater cuts range in about half

  2. They also built the Th!nk Neighbor, which was an open-air golf cart type vehicle that complied with American Neighborhood Electric Vehicle regulations, governed to 25mph.

    Seemed to be a bit more successful, rental agencies in Key West had huge fleets of them running around into the 2010s. In that one, they didn’t even attempt to hide the partsbin sharing, all the steering wheels still had blue Ford oval badges right in the middle, even though they did not contain airbags

  3. People like to say the Smart Fortwo is the adult version of the red and yellow Little Tikes car, but those people have never seen a Think City up close. The body is the same thermoplastic Little Tikes uses and the build quality is reminiscent of a Lego death star I tried to build when I was 5. Highway “capable” does not mean highway shouldable. This car feels like a death trap that seems more suited to golf greens than asphalt. 0 out of 10, would not recommend.

  4. One thing I really loved about some of the Th!nk Citys (Cities?) besides the molded in color plastic panels was that some of them came with thermal batteries which are dirt simple, very cheap, very reliable, very durable, very safe, and very long lasting. If the USPS decided to use thermal batteries they could save an obscene amount of money per electric vehicle and in turn have more money for chargers and such.

      1. The cliffnotes version as to why they are not popular is that they are not as energy dense as Lithium batteries and that you have to have them plugged in as much as possible. As soon as you unplug them the molten salts generating electricity are cooling and when they cool below a certain point they stop generating electricity. Some of the Th!nk cities used Zebra Battery packs.

        Here’s a link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molten-salt_battery

  5. I like the PIV3: it’s good & weird, but not Fiat Multipla grafted-together weird.
    With many of these having a failing drivetrain, has anyone done a ‘busa swap yet? I think that would be dangerously fun

  6. A friend bought one to complement his Nissan Leaf when they were dirt cheap after the bankruptcy and was happy with it for a couple of years until it was hit and totaled. At that point he replaced it with a used Leaf. I think he’s currently on Leaf #4 or 5 since he first leased one in 2011.
    As for parts, definitely Ford sourced, not sure about the tail lights

  7. I actually drove a US-spec Think back in 2011/12. There was a dealer in Chicago who was selling them. I really liked the thing to be honest. However at MSRP of $40K the price was just too dear for what the car was.

    Anyway with that massive rear hatch window, rear visibility was unmatched. I’ve never parallel parked a car with so much ease.

  8. Pretty sure the headlights are from the 11th gen Ford Thunderbird 😉

    I have a small correction to the otherwise good story, the panels were not injection moulded, but with rotational moulding, like how some hollow plastic boats also are produced. The plastic panels were indeed in-coloured and not painted, which I still think is a brilliant idea (even though they seem to fade badly over time..)

  9. Working for a rental car company in the early aughts I knew instantly where the interior came from, having stared down that steering wheel maybe a million times. In hindsight, it was actually a nice design, with a chunky and solid feel even on the base model, which was unfortunately let down by how small it was. An extra inch or two of diameter would have made it feel nearly perfect in the hands.

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