DETROIT — By chance, on Tuesday afternoon at the Detroit Auto Show, I wandered into one of the more unusual electric car press conferences. All the big companies presented on Monday, which left the much more sparsely attended Tuesday sessions to be held by the smaller players, ranging from transmission ventures and auto suppliers to this one, a presentation by an EV enterprise, Venturi, based in the tiny principality of Monte Carlo that is just now starting its first American venture.

There were three cars on Venturi’s stand, all wildly different. One was a cross between a Tesla Roadster and a doorless dune buggy. A second was a modest panel truck done up in the livery of La Poste, the French postal service. I later learned that it was an electrified version of a Citroën Berlingo (similar to the Ford Transit Connect).

And the third vehicle was clearly a land-speed record car, echoing the Jamais Contente (“never content”) car that had set a speed milestone in 1899. I was curious about what these cars had in common -- electricity, it turned out. All were electric vehicles of one type or another, part of a bewildering fleet of concept cars and racers that Venturi has brought out since 1984.

An early interest in European racing (including Le Mans) led Venturi to produce its first electric sports car, the Fétish Concept, in 2004. Venturi claims this was “the first electric sports car in the world,” but I think it was preceeded by AC Propulsion’s TZero, which later became the Tesla Roadster. But any company that can produce a car called The Fétish is OK by me. Veteran car reporters I talked to remembered the Fétish, if only for its name.

After that it really gets interesting. The Eclectic Concept (2006) was an exercise in “energy autonomy.” The Astrolab the same year was an “electro-solar hybrid.” And let’s not forget the GT3, a French muscle car. In 2007, the Eclectic came to New York as a movie car for the film Babylon A.D. Most of these ventures seem fun, if fanciful -- and quite French. But the postal venture, in partnership with Citroën, is serious—some 250 vehicles are already in service. Venturi won an international competition to supply the vans.

But any suggestion that Venturi would now go mainstream were immediately shaken off, because the company proceeded, last year, to drive one of the electric vans from Shanghai to Paris. Clement Dorance, a Venturi spokesman, told me the cargo area was fitted with a larger battery pack, yielding 300 miles of range, but still requiring the kindness of strangers to get the thing charged up.

Is there more? You bet! The company also makes a drive-by-wire zero-emission vehicle for Antarctica. Controlled by joysticks, the lightweight vehicle can carry a ton of people and equipment about 100 miles at a top speed of about 30 mph. And it can do it in minus 50-degree Celsius temperatures.

If you think you’ve seen everything, just watch this content-free Intersection magazine video about the Antarctica, which features super models and deafening European disco music.

So after all of this, you’d think Venturi would settle down into some quiet consulting. Not at all. The company is now heavily involved in setting electric speed records, having teamed up with Ohio State University’s Buckeye Bullet team in 2009 to create first a hydrogen-powered racer, the VBB2 (it set a hydrogen record of more than 300 miles per hour) and then an electric version (which went 307.666 mph, beating the previous record by 62 mph). Up next is the Buckeye Bullet 3 later this year.

Venturi is now building on its relationship with Ohio State’s Center for Auto Research by locating an American beachhead in Columbus, from which it will presumably create more wacky stunts and maybe find some consulting clients along the way. And, oh yes, that doorless sports car, known as the Venturi America. The designer, Sacha Lakic, got up and said that he was indeed inspired by 1960s American dune buggies, which he probably saw in period beach blanket movies starring Annette Funicello. “As an inspiration, it felt modern, powerful,” he said. “Full of freedom and adventure, and bringing the spirit of today. It’s about the emotions and sensations.”  

Dorance did tell me that if the America ever reaches production, it will probably have doors. That seems like a good idea to me, because if there was a bit less dune buggy about the vehicle it might be a reasonable competitor for the Tesla Roadster. Borrowing the drivetrain from the Fétish, it’s supposed to have a 190-mile range, 300-horsepower, a top speed of 112 mph and “the most advanced electric motor ever designed for an automobile.” They like hyperbole at Venturi. There’s also a big 54-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion-polymer battery on board.

According to John Pohill, the ex-GM and Chrysler veteran who heads Venturi in the U.S., “We’ve built a whole range of cars, from postal vans to high-performance sports cars, and our proximity to the Center for Auto Research will be very helpful going forward.” It remains to be seen whether the distinct Gallic charms of Venturi will translate into the American idiom. But the company is certainly energetic.

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