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November 20, 2005 5:08 pm

Smart in talks to revive Roadster

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Smart, the troubled small car brand of DaimlerChrysler, is in advanced negotiations with six European companies about resurrecting its cancelled sports car under another badge.

The company hopes this will generate some income for the struggling business, which aims to stem heavy losses by 2007. Senior officials admitted there was an “emotional” attachment to the €27,000 ($31,794) two-seater Roadster model and its coupé version, which were cancelled amid emergency cost-cuts.

One of the companies in the discussions is the ProjectKimber consortium, which unsuccessfully bid for MG Rover. Barrie Wills, controlling shareholder of De Montfort Resources, the Kimber bid vehicle, said: “The talks have reached a point where a decision regarding these Smart products will be decided by the parent company [Daimler].”

Heinz Gottwick, head of communications for Smart, said the company had been approached by “many, many” companies across Europe about licensing or buying the rights for the Roadster after the vehicle was abandoned. It has held serious talks with six companies, all specialist vehicle manufacturers, designers or start-ups.

The company expects to make a decision early next year, but among the issues to be resolved are what happens to the expensive equipment used to make the car. Some of this will be re-used by the successor to the ForTwo, the iconic plastic-panelled car Smart first built, meaning any new owner of the car design could have to invest in new tooling. “As we all love that car everybody would love to see that there’s a future for the Roadster,” Mr Gottwick said. “In its short life it was not a loser.”

The talks on the Roadster have been under way for six months, since the April decision to cease production of the car. It is understood Kimber had considered building the Roadster at Rover’s Birmingham factory, had it been successful in acquiring the facility, subsequently bought by Nanjing Automobile. Kimber is now examining two other production sites, one in the UK and one in eastern Europe.

Smart sold more than 35,000 Roadsters, but the car did not reach sales targets. It was cancelled in April along with the yet-to-be-launched ForMore off-roader as Daimler grappled with soaring losses at the business, thought to have lost €600m last year. Smart was launched in 1998, but has never made a profit. Cumulative losses are estimated by financial analysts to have passed €2.5bn.

The cost of cancelling the vehicle projects, together with the elimination of about a third of Smart’s workforce, would cost it €1.2bn this year, Daimler predicted. The Smart team, led by Ulrich Walker since last summer, had been given until 2007 to prove the brand can make a profit, said Daimler.

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