With a background in cattle ranching, cosmetics and marketing, New York entrepreneur Robert Bollinger seems unprepared to fight industrial players such as Ford and General Motors and nimble start-ups like Workhorse Group and Tesla in the intensely competitive pickup truck arena.
But Bollinger, founder and chief executive of Bollinger Motors, believes he has a formula that works.
Make the truck electric, give it easily replaceable riveted body panels and provide a design that allows owners to rapidly transform the vehicle into an SUV.
“We’ve built the perfect vehicle,” he immodestly said of the all-electric, all-aluminum, all-wheel-drive, “convertible” light truck he’s designed.
His small team of engineers and race car builders are assembling the prototype in a workshop near his farm in the rural Catskills of upstate New York. Bollinger will pull the wraps off the vehicle at an event in New York City on July 27.
But in an interview with Trucks.com, he did spill some of the details.
It will be powered by an electric drive system built from off-the shelf components but fueled with electrons from a Bollinger-designed lithium-ion battery pack.
The chassis and body – except for the integral roll cage – are aluminum. The mostly flat body and interior trim panels will be riveted, not welded. That architecture eliminates the need for expensive stamping machines to form body panels. It also makes it easier for owners to replace sections as they get dinged and dented in rough work or play situations.
Bollinger hinted that owners will be able to convert the truck from a pickup to a covered SUV-like conveyance as the need arises. Such a feature will help set the vehicle apart from the electric pickups planned by Tesla and Workhorse.
A self-leveling suspension and portal gear hubs will give the truck 10-inches of wheel travel and high ground clearance for off-roading and rock-crawling. Its width – the 68-inch wheel track is two-thirds of the 105-inch wheelbase – and low-slung battery pack will provide substantial stability, Bollinger said.
A cardboard mockup in the Bollinger shop reveals a shape reminiscent of a Land Rover Defender.
“It will have SUV-like dimensions with pickup-like storage and it may not look like a traditional pickup,” said Bollinger, who certainly doesn’t have a traditional automaker background.
He earned an industrial design degree from Carnegie Mellon University, but landed in the world of advertising as an agency art director in New York before jumping ship in 2006 to partner in the cosmetics industry with longtime friend John Masters.
He left a few years ago to launch a grass-fed cattle business, and said he started Bollinger Motors after being dismayed with the snow, mud and icy road performance of the trucks he used on the cattle farm near the village of Hobart, where he lives with his partner and four dogs.
So far, he’s self-financing Bollinger Motors with savings and his share of the recent $336 million sale of John Masters Organics. He said he plans to use the Wall Street connections he developed negotiating that deal to gain future funding once the prototype is officially unveiled.
There’s a demonstrated market for electric trucks. Ohio-based Workhorse, for instance, says it has pre-production orders for more than 5,000 of its W-15 electric pickup from commercial clients including Duke Energy, the city of Orlando, Fla., and Clean Fuels Ohio.
And Tesla Motors’ announced plan for a Tesla electric pickup has excited enormous interest in the media and among present and prospective Tesla customers.
Bollinger isn’t looking to become the next Ford or GM.
“We don’t need to be a high-volume company to make money,” he said. “We can do it with well under 100,000 sales a year.”
“We are a work/play truck with serious off-road capabilities, we’re not going to be reliant on fleet sales,” Bollinger said.
A low-volume approach makes sense, said Michael Held, powertrain analyst with global consulting firm AlixPartners. It reduces risk and operating expense and can enable a company to launch without embarrassing glitches that result in recalls and negative publicity.
“There is room in the sport truck segment and I think electric trucks have more potential now than in the past,” Held said.
One potential target market is women who like the idea of an environmentally friendly truck, he said. The hard-core off-roaders, farmers and construction workers Bollinger is targeting may be harder to capture.
“The odds against success are great,” said Held.
Bollinger’s life-jacket may be its decision to do an electric truck, he said.
Bollinger certainly thinks so.
“Electricity’s the future,” he said – sounding a lot like Tesla’s Elon Musk. “There’s already electric infrastructure in every house in the country, and few people drive more than 80 miles a day, so a work truck or sport truck with 80-plus miles of range is way more than most people need.”
But truck buyers are very different from the average car buyer and that gives some industry watchers pause.
“They are extremely brand-loyal, and work-truck and off-road truck buyers are the most loyal of the bunch,” said Akshay Anand, an analyst with car shopping company Kelly Blue Book.
That loyalty “makes it so much harder for a new player” to break into the market, he said. Bollinger’s success will depend largely on the truck’s performance characteristics, not simply on the fact that it is a clean-emissions electric truck, Anand said.
Bollinger’s business plan is to find a manufacturing partner – or even multiple partners – to build the truck to his design and specification. Such a strategy would allow Bollinger Motors to sell the vehicles, but spare it the expense and frustration of developing and perfecting its own manufacturing operation.
Bollinger believes competition from niche electric truck developers such as Workhorse and Tesla will only improve his chance of success.
“The more electric trucks the merrier,” he said, “because the more of them that are out there, the more people will buy them – and that’s good for all of us.”