Guy Norton in Zagreb -
Croatians may be bitterly divided over many issues - politics, economics, religion and football are just a few of the subjects they love to argue about - but there's one thing that unites them: they're absolutely mad about cars. And if the long-cherished plans of a couple of Croatian companies come to fruition, the country may soon become known as the home of an innovative, high-tech automotive industry that builds on the proud legacy of one of its most famous sons, electrical engineering genius Nikola Tesla.
Since independence from the former Yugolsavia, Croatian's have proved to be total "petrolheads", willingly mortgaging themselves up to the hilt just so they can acquire the biggest, fastest, most luxurious vehicle that they can possibly afford. To date, Croatia has proved to be an absolute boon for foreign car manufacturers, who have been more than happy to feed Croatians' automotive addiction.
The country's banks have also earned handsome returns on the hefty fees and interest that they levy on loans so that the average Croatian can drive at breakneck speed along the country's expensively built motorways in the vehicle of their dreams. Until recently, however, the country's obsession with all things automotive has done little for the real sector of the economy in Croatia. While western neighbour Slovenia boasts a Renault plant and eastern neighbour Serbia is home to a Fiat factory, Croatia has until recently only played host to a number of relatively small-scale domestic enterprises that supply automotive parts to foreign manufacturers.
That may be about to change if Rimac Automobil and Dok-Ing Automotive, after several years of research and development, can move beyond the concept model stage of electric cars to full-scale production, and in doing so help reverse - albeit on a relatively minor scale - the steep decline in the fortunes of Croatian industry.
Made in Croatia
Since declaring independence in 1991, Croatia has lost a staggering 80% of its manufacturing base - a fact that goes a long way to explaining why unemployment is now approaching the 400,000 mark in a country of just 4.3m people. Although neither of Rimac Automobil or Dok-Ing Automotive claim that their respective cars will ever be manufactured in the type of volumes achieved by the global automotive giants, the hope is that if successful the firms will support the ambitions of future generations of product designers, engineers and manufacturing entrepreneurs.
The first of the two models to hit the market has been Rimac Automobil's Concept One, a true electric supercar which can reach a top speed of 305 kilometres per hour (km/h), making it the fastest electric car currently in production. Powered by four specially developed electric motors, the 1088-horsepower vehicle can travel from 0-100 km/h in just 2.8 seconds and can drive for up to 600 kilometres on a single charge.
Developed at a purpose-built facility in Sveta Nedelja near the Croatian capital Zagreb, the Concept One, which has a million dollar price tag, is now being actively marketed to the expanding class of the global super-rich looking for the latest plaything to brighten up their lives. At this stage, annual production is unlikely to exceed 15 cars a year, but it is hoped that the Concept One will eventually attract a fan base that will help position the Rimac Automobil marque alongside the likes of traditional supercar manufacturers such as Bugatti, Ferrari and Lamborghini.
Almost as extraordinary as the Concept One's performance is the fact that Rimac Automobil was only founded in 2009 by a fresh-faced inventor, Mate Rimac, who is still aged just 24. Rimac has successfully transformed his one-time automotive dream into physical reality - a remarkable achievement that has earned Rimac widespread global media coverage. Bloomberg for example included him among its "Best of 2012" list, while Wired magazine, the UK bible for high-tech gadget freaks recently dispatched a team of journalists and photographers to Croatia to report on the backstory to the Concept One's development.
As he makes clear in the Wired report, Rimac says the thinking behind Concept One is firmly based on a no-expense-spared approach. "We started out to make the best and are not interested in how much it will cost," he says.
He adds that he's only interested in manufacturing the Concept One in Croatia, or not at all - a stance that meant two years of negotiations over venture capital support from investors from Abu Dhabi broke down after the potential backers insisted Rimac relocate his factory to the Gulf region, which he refused to do. "It is a matter of patriotism. In Croatia, we don't have any manufacturing industry any more. I want to establish a technology business that produces real products. I want.... to be the best in the industry. And stay in Croatia."
Priced to sell
Croatia's other wannabe electric carmaker, Dok-Ing Automotive, is conducting final tests on its XD prototype, a much more modest vehicle than the Concept One, which it hopes to start producing by the end of the year. "It's a luxurious, fast, small urban electric car made of sophisticated materials, first in its niche, and despite a price of €50,000 already has interested buyers," says Dok-Ing owner Vjekoslav Majetic, a 57-year-old engineer who began developing his idea five years ago and presented the first prototype at the Geneva Auto Show in 2010 to rave reviews from the motoring press.
Featuring three seats configured in Y-formation like the Maclaren F1 supercar that places the driver in the middle of the car, the XD has a futuristic body shell made from a pioneering mix of carbon fibre and Kevlar, and features a touchscreen dashboard and electrically operated gullwing doors. With a top speed of 140km/h, the XD can accelerate from 0-100km/h in 7.5 seconds and will have maximum driving range of 250 kilometres on a single charge.
Founded in 1991, Dok-Ing has traditionally manufactured robotic vehicles for unexploded ordnance removal, firefighting and underground mining, but Majetic, a self-confessed car buff, admits that he has always had a burning ambition since a child to design and produce cars. "When I realized that we had the knowledge, I decided to do it. I'm not motivated by profit, it was more like a game, I wanted to prove that I could do it," he says.
At present, the company is reported to have 50 pre-orders for the XD from Croatian customers, the first being placed by Croatia's richest businessman Ivica Todoric. Majetic says he's hoping for tap foreign investors for development capital that would help the company hire 200-300 additional workers and upgrade its production facilities in Zagreb. If it can source the required additional funding, Dok-Ing eventually hopes to produce 1,000 units a year. Increased production volumes could mean that the XD could eventually retail for as little as €30,000, opening it up to a potentially much wider global market.
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