I travelled to the Geneva Motor Show in 2019 as a guest of Automobili Pininfarina and was impressed by its first car, the Battista, a 1,900-horsepower, super-duper-mega-electric-hyper car that, if I recall correctly, can accelerate to 100 miles per hour in negative three seconds. My most enduring memory from the show was something infinitely more humble, the Nobe 91 T, a smaller, much less potent electric prototype from Estonia. Despite only having three wheels, it looked cute as a button and stopped me in my tracks, retro yet modern, bizarre yet somehow familiar. Adorable, even. It stood out, one exquisite creation floating as if alone in the sea of oddballs which congregate in the show’s oft-noted bad idea/stoned dream/ought-to-be-against-the-law section, with no formal stand, brochure or press officer hanging around to tell its story.
In my case, further Nobe knowledge didn’t come until our own resident small car Brahmin, the similarly-smitten Jason Torchinsky, again wrote about the car that summer. In truth, he’d flagged it and the compact team behind it two years earlier, long before I made it to Geneva. Today, the company’s founder, Roman Muljar, admits that around Nobe they celebrate the date of Torchinsky’s first story, which Muljar correctly remembers off the top of his head, September 19, 2017, as the company’s true birthday.
Though they hope to launch into series production next year, Nobe remain in the development engineering and fund-raising phase these days, though considerable progress has been made since Jalopnik last checked in. When the chance to speak to him by phone from Estonia popped up recently, I took it.
How this even came about is worth a brief detour. Suffice to say, I met an older kid when I was a lowly non-voting eighth-grade attendee at my New Jersey high school’s student council meetings. Little did I know that the vice president of the council, a suave long-haired junior named Tom Ilves who humored me and other pesky child rabble-rousers, would one day become the president of Estonia (where his parents had been born) from 2006-2016. I visited him there in the summer of 2011 on assignment from the Guardian and we have remained in touch since. The other day we were chatting online and I asked him if he knew Muljar, since he had always been a big booster of Estonia’s tech community. (It was there Skype was launched, for instance.) Within hours I was on the phone with the man himself. A former schoolteacher from the coastal town of Parnu, Muljar’s enlisted native Estonian talent as well as French, English and American consultants in service of the Nobe dream. “I’m just sort of a guy who, everybody was running to the right, and I was questioning that. And I said, ‘I’m going to run to the left. See what’s going to happen then.’”
His side of our conversation, edited for clarity follows below, though I should point out Muljar’s English, like many Estonians, is probably better than my own. But then he lived in Canada for eight years.
Roman Muljar: Yeah. So, it’s great that you love the car. One of our goals right now is that we also want it to drive in an amazing way. That engagement is really what we’re after. With these two prototypes we’ve built, we’ve driven over 2000 kilometers. And even being still in the prototype phase, it was amazing. The way they corner, the way they react to the steering wheel, it’s right between the motorbike and the car.
Right now we are working with engineers from UK to [incorporate] a carbon chassis to make it a very rigid and also very safe car. And we’re working on getting the car done in full carbon fibre, the body panels as well. So we will have a very light car, and once you’ve been drawn in with the looks, when you sit in it and you do a few laps, your grin just grows wider.
We want it to be a highly engaging car, not just good looking. We’re going to go to the Silverstone track in the UK, to test there and fine-tune the suspension.
We anticipate that the 100GT will weigh only 454 kg with a 26-kilowatt battery pack. With a little over 100 horsepower, it ought to reach sixty in about eight seconds and have a range of 180-200 miles between charges.
Light weight is why we’ve been working to re-engineer the frame and body in carbon and, to be honest, we got really tired of all those nine people out of 10 asking us questions about the safety. The safety question [would be different] if all the cars would follow our path towards lighter mobility. […] When I was visiting Stanford recently, I saw the drivetrain of a Tesla, the whole thing taken apart. I was actually physically sick for a second. I was like, “man, this thing is designed to pull about 50 people. This is a train.” I can’t help thinking, when two guys on bicycles collide, there’s not too much of the damage done, right? [Because it is classified as a motorcycle, the Nobe will be exempt from many of the safety regulations governing cars, which is why, like the soon-to-be-defunct Morgan Three-Wheeler, its U.S. sale is even conceivable.] But it has to be safe enough to stand up to what’s out there.
[Our car] will also have all-terrain characteristics. With its air suspension we are going to have three height settings – low, medium and high. So can go over a half metre [1.64 feet] of snow, where every other kind of a normal electric car will get stuck because it’s heavy. But the 100GT is light, and there’s nothing under the bottom of the car, so it is kind of going like a sled on a snow bank. And the wheels — two motors supply three-wheel drive — kind of pull it through the snow.
So, “wow” is what we sell. Everyone else sells mobility, we sell wow. We sell romance. Cars now have those huge consoles between the seats, stopping all that. I don’t know if you saw the people [in our promotional video] sitting next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, smiling. We got people kissing there, and hugging.
We just started fundraising in October, November. It’s coming slowly, but it’s been enough so we can keep developing the car. We’re still in the middle of raising our current $US5 ($6) million target right now. Because that will allow us to build about 25 cars, and really do the worldwide global marketing event, where we can have like 5,000 to 10,000 car orders booked. It looks like we’re going to close a deal in May, then we’re going full steam. Right now we have everything fairly set. We have incorporated Nobe Cars USA in a Delaware as a company that sells shares. Yeah, we’re ready to part with shares for that $US5 ($6) million.
We are fairly close to actually having cars completely engineered. So we are working. We need money to finalise that, to do a serious round of testing in UK, to fine tune everything. And then we’ll be ready to go. We expect to produce 15-20,000 cars in two or three years. In year five we will hopefully manufacture 50,000 cars. I think our first cars will be assembled in the US. We’re talking to three different contract manufacturers there.
This is where we are maybe a bit different from other small guys, from the [Electra Meccanica] Solos, Arcimoto, and some other guys. We are building a brand. The Nobe brand. We anticipate three models [a planned 200GT cabrio and 500 model, a four-wheeled mini-truck, have also been designed by Meelis Lillemets, an Estonian stylist who once worked for Renault but now lives reclusively in the Baltic state’s remote countryside.]
We also see a partial business as a business B2B. We were approached, for instance, by a spa in Paris, who would like to order five cars for their customers to entertain them.
So we see a strong pull there as well. Not just your average consumer. We have made a rendering of the car for Illy, the big [Italian] coffee maker. We have shown the car to people from [Denver-based] Marley’s Coffee. We have an espresso machine option in the car.
The public like this car, and more than 1,400 stories have been written about us. But now we are extremely interested in getting connected with all kinds of money people, of course.
Any VC funds, any petrol heads, anybody who likes motoring who likes to be part of new brands should be in touch, as we are at the very beginning, with a car they can invest in, that in a year will be driving around.
Jamie Kitman is a NY-based lawyer, rock band manager, picture car wrangler and automotive journalist. Winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary and the IRE Medal for investigative magazine journalism, he has a penchant for Lancias and old British cars, and is a World Car of the Year juror. Follow him on Twitter @jamiekitman