Taking the company in this new direction is CEO Timothy Collins, who bought out his partner Jerry Kroll last year. Though design details are under wraps, he says the goal is to build a $20,000 car by 2011 that can go 200 miles on a charge (the battery pack would be paid for separately in a monthly lease). A prototype is in design, and the company plans to unveil by end of the summer this year. It's been dubbed the "Kleenspeed project."
"We are in the final stages completing the design," Collins said. "But the proof is in the pudding. It will probably be two to three months before we have a prototype ready to announce."
If electric cars are the future, then Kleenspeed is ahead of the game.
"The advantage of testing electric vehicle systems in a racing car is you're pushing them as far as they'll go," Collins said.
The company's "crown jewel" is an electric race car based on an IMSA lights racer. Last July it set the electric car lap record at Laguna Seca in Monterey at 1 minute, 42 seconds. But the company says that doesn't come close to the performance potential for electric race cars. A 200-mile-per-hour Formula One race car is sitting in the shop now, awaiting development of an electric engine and drive train comparable to its 650 horsepower gas engine. "This is an awesome research platform," said Kleenspeed's chief technology officer Dante Zeviar.
While the company is still a Silicon Valley-style start-up with all but two employees paid in stock, Collins believes Kleenspeed can build 10,000 new cars a year for $200 million in funding, about what Tesla has spent so far on building a much smaller number of electric sports cars.
Collins has decided to refrain from serious fundraising right now, but once fund raising begins the company appears to be well connected. Collins himself is an investment banker and has spent nearly $1 million of his own money on Kleenspeed. Sitting on the company's executive board is Jim Sprague, who helped rescue Aston Martin from bankruptcy in 1975. Advisers include Roy Chapin III, the son of the former American Motors CEO, a consultant who is well connected in Detroit.
The company is getting help in building a prototype from another NASA Ames tenant called Contactscale, owned by Dan Bolfing. Contactscale is housed in the service bays of the shuttered gas station at NASA Ames, just a few steps away from the former Home and Garden Center that houses Kleenspeed.
Bolfing is an expert in the use of composites who got his start as a teen making surfboards in his garage. He now uses computer-controlled equipment to produce composite car body shells at an unbeatable price, reducing the cost from millions of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars, Bolfing said. On Monday he was doing just that for a "neighborhood electric vehicle" under development by another company.
Though composite materials are usually relegated to the most expensive sports cars in the world, Collins says the Kleenspeed project will make extensive use of composites to keep weight down, thereby extending the battery pack's range. He said new composite technology makes it financially viable for the project.
Collins said the composite chassis, once established, could also be the basis for a utility vehicle or truck the company could produce. Collins has been looking into the possibility of using the recently shuttered NUMMI car factory in Fremont, as are other electric car manufacturers. Kleenspeed hopes to build the major components of the car, excluding batteries.
"We are going to create our own motor, our own drive," Collins said. "Our goal as a company is to purchase everything from ourselves."
In addition to building their own cars, Kleenspeed will sell parts to other companies and individuals. For example, the super powerful electric drive train for the Formula One car could also be used to power large trucks. And a complete gas-to-electric conversion kit will soon be developed for the Mazda Miata, like the one parked in the shop Monday. The electric version will have a 100-mile range and performance and weight similar to that of the original car — for $15,000. The company is already selling a universal kit, without batteries, for $4,400.