Picture an electric car. Chances are the first image that springs to mind is of something small, something practical, something, to be unkind, a little bit worthy. A vehicle that’s going to save the planet one shopping trip at a time. It’s a template that, for a decade, almost all large-scale manufacturers of automobiles have vigorously applied to the building of electric vehicles: small, urban, driven as forcefully by demographics as the lithium-ion batteries under the floor.
In a small corner of Croatia, however, the message didn’t get through. Nestling close to the border with Slovenia, the district of Sveta Nedelja is about as far from the traditional motor manufacturing hubs of Detroit, Stuttgart or even Silicon Valley as it’s possible to get. Yet it was here, eight years ago, that 21-year-old Mate Rimac, fuelled by twin passions for electronics and cars, began to formulate a different vision – one where alternative energy, speed and fun weren’t mutually exclusive concepts.
“I just wanted to build a really fast electric car,” laughs the 29-year-old Croatian. “I wanted to prove that electric cars could be fast and fun, and not just environmentally friendly… and a bit boring.”
The result is the Concept One, a hypercar for the age, an all-electric 1,000+hp monster retailing for around $1.2 million or $1.6 million if you fancy the even more powerful S version Rimac’s fledgling company debuted at this year’s Geneva Motor Show.
It’s a car bristling not only with power (the S tops out at 355kph and will hit 100kph in around 2.5 seconds) but also with cutting-edge technology. Power is derived from four electric motors and four gearboxes mounted at the centre of each axle. The motors are fed by 8,450 lithium-ion battery cells and controlling it all is a suite of software that puts every aspect of the motors’ behaviour at the control of the driver.
To understand where the Concept One sprung from, though, it’s necessary to travel 20 or so kilometres east of Sveta Nedelja to Zagreb, where in 2004, 16-year-old Rimac translated an interest in the work of 19th-century electronics engineer Nikola Tesla into a high-school project that led to further local competition awards and enough prize money to indulge his other passion, speed.
“I bought an old BMW, a 3 Series, and started racing,” he says. “Eventually the engine blew. That was the trigger. I converted it to electric power. At the start, people just laughed. And they were right; it wasn’t fast. But after every race I took it home and made it more powerful, lighter, more reliable and then it started winning.”
Track wins evolved into something more special. In 2011, Rimac’s lime-green E30 set a slew of world records, including the Fédération Internationale de l‘Automobile (the world body for land speed records) recognising it as the quickest electric car in the world in its category. As a frame of reference, the vehicle beaten by Rimac was the EX1, a multi-million dollar concept car built by automotive giant Peugeot.
For Rimac, though, beating the manufacturers in the rarefied environment of speed records was just the start – now he had to build his own car. The sizeable elephant in the room, however, was location.
“It was horrible,” he says. “I went to the University of Mechanical Engineering in Zagreb – the closest thing to a development centre – and told them what I wanted to do and they said: ‘It’s impossible. The sooner you give up, the fewer people will go under with you.’ “There is not a single venture capital fund in Croatia. The government wouldn’t support us. International investors didn’t want to know. I think in Silicon Valley people raise money based on a PowerPoint presentation. We had to deliver products to 10 countries, break records and make the world’s fastest electric car before we got any funding. I borrowed money from everybody I could. The ‘3 Fs’ at the beginning – friends, family and fools.”
Despite this, Rimac insists he never considered pursuing his dream outside Croatia. “Enzo Ferrari was from Modena and Ferrari is there. Ferdinand Porsche was from Stuttgart and Porsche is in Stuttgart. I’m from here, so why wouldn’t I do it here?”
Rimac was determined, too, to develop all of the technology in-house, a radical move, but one the Croatian believed would avoid the fatal missteps taken by contemporaries. “The car industry is dominated by huge companies. Volkswagen has six times the revenues of Croatia’s GDP. This industry is not really made for newcomers and start-ups, but my role models were [hypercar builders] Horacio Pagani and Christian von Koenigsegg, who proved it is possible.
“Inspired by them, I wanted to make my own car and in the beginning I knocked on the doors of major suppliers. But in order to work with them, we would have taken on hundreds of millions in debt.
“That’s what [American auto maker] Fisker did,” he adds. “They hired automotive executives that only knew how to work in that way. They spent $1.4 billion on the development of their car because it was all done by suppliers. They folded. I wasn’t going to let that happen. So we had no option but to develop the technology ourselves, not solely because of the money, but because the technology I wanted didn’t exist.”
Starting with just seven employees, Rimac developed his car in one year. The tiny band brought a prototype to the 2011 Geneva Motor Show, where it caused a sensation. “At that time, Tesla wasn’t where it is now,” he says. “When we I started it was different. People considered electric cars to be milk floats.”
Under the glittering Palexpo lights, the Concept One shone like a futuristic jewel. Behind the scenes, though, the situation was darker. “We were in real trouble. We had potential clients upon whom the future of the company depended and I didn’t even have money to buy them lunch. It was incredibly hard.”
The solution was to fall back on what Rimac did best – develop technology, this time for other companies. “Our car evolved over time, but steadily we became a technology provider. We are now growing into a serious supplier of technology for all kinds of companies in the automotive, naval and other sectors.”
In the years since the Geneva show, Rimac has delivered a number of customer versions of the Concept One, and in March of this year the Croatian returned to the show with the lightened, more powerful S version or the car, emphatically proving wrong those who had, in 2011, dismissed Rimac as yet another purveyor of automotive ‘vapourware’. The Concept One, though, is now just one facet of a growing business. “Ultimately, the car is now more of a showcase of what we can do. It’s a very small part of our business. We are now almost 300 people. That kind of growth would not be possible just making cars.”
Many of Rimac’s technology partnerships are closely guarded secrets – “so many non-disclosure agreements” – while others are high-profile, such as the deal to provide battery technology for the collaboration between Aston Martin and Red Bull Racing – the AMRB001, now rechristened Valkyrie.
“It’s huge for us, especially as it’s with Red Bull Racing and Adrian Newey, the most successful Formula One engineer in history,” says Rimac. There’s also an association with the Croatian’s great hero Christian von Koenigsegg. “What connects us is that we are very technical people,” Rimac explains. “He is not a bean counter or someone who does what he does to get rich. He doesn’t care about that. And it’s the same with me. I want to push the limits, I want to raise the bar. I want to be the best at what I’m doing. I want us to be a small company that pushes the limits in this industry.”
Not that Rimac wants the company to remain small. “The next step is to go into high-volume production. So, we don’t want just to do one-offs and niche projects. It’s a good business, but our vision is to go into high-volume production. We see ourselves as a leader in electrification and connectivity, electric vehicle technology.”
And the future of the Concept One? Now that the company is becoming a technology developer, is it the last car that Rimac will build?
“Not at all. There will be more,” he says. “Building cars is not the wisest business decision, but it is my passion and it’s also a good playground to show what electric cars can do. When you have to make a car and make it work and make it safe, then you really understand the challenges and that gives us an edge. It’s a very expensive edge, though!
“If you want to do something like this, persistence is hugely important. It’s really hard and you have to be prepared for that. You sacrifice your whole life. It is demanding, it is isolating and it is an obsession… but a very rewarding one. There are so many things we’re working on, the next car, the next production facility, which will have a 14th-century castle as part of it. I want to build a race track there.
“Ultimately,” he concludes, “what brought me here, all the way from a kid’s science exam to building this company is curiosity. I’m just always really interested to see what happens next.”