Model E test-drives Ironman car concept

Start-up company Model E Corp. recently entered the automaking world, launching its own brand of build-to-order vehicle called Ironman.

Model E won’t begin production of the luxury vehicle unless strong consumer interest develops, officials said. Analysts lauded the upstart for ushering in Web-based custom-built cars in advance of the Old Economy automakers but cast doubt on the market prospects for the US$100,000 luxury sports utility vehicle.

“[Ironman] is more of a proof of [the] concept of quick design than anything else,” said Dan Garretson, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. “Do consumers want to design their own vehicle bodies and engines, or do they want a few options, like bumpers and heated seats?”

George Kim, chief business development officer at Fremont, Calif.-based Model E, said the Ironman vehicle went from “styling on a napkin to production design” in 90 days, with help from design engineering firm Autokinetics Inc. in Rochester, Mich.

“If there’s no demand, we will not produce it,” Kim said. “But if people are lining up with deposits because they are seriously interested then it will take us 18 to 24 months to put it on the road.”

Ironman features a stainless steel design, a V-8 engine and acceleration from zero to 60 mph in six seconds.

Model E also resells and services high-end vehicles that customers can configure at with specialty features. Features in the service packages range from car registration to repairs and concierge services.

PHH Fleet Management Services in Hunt Valley, Md., buys and owns the cars that Model E resells to its customers. Model E works with a network of tuners, like Dinan BMW in Mountain View, Calif., to soup up those vehicles.

“Those partnerships are going to be key to Model E’s success,” said Jonathan Gaw, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.

Model E has already provoked the ire of Ford Motor Co., which is suing the start-up, claiming that the Model E name too closely resembles its trademarked historic Model T. The Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker also once released a vehicle called the Model E.

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