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Electric avenue

Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 29/02/2008

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Stevens ZeCar/ZeVan [tech/spec]

Mike Rutherford unearths a brave new manufacturer and a range of electric vehicles conceived in England and born in Wales

It's very rare for a British newspaper to announce the birth of a brand new, truly British motor company. Especially when the firm is producing affordable new cars and vans with newly recruited British workers at a new British factory. But Telegraph Motoring can exclusively make such an announcement today.

Switched on: the launch of the Zevan and its stablemate, the Zecar, marks the debut of a new British motor manufacturer, Stevens Vehicles

Britain's newest manufacturer is Stevens Vehicles Ltd and it is launching itself this weekend with a modest, two-vehicle line-up consisting of the Zecar and the Zevan. Daft names? At first glance, yes. But the "Ze" actually means something, which is more than can be said for some car names.

The plan is that there will be several variations on the "Ze" theme, including convertible, pick-up, beach buggy and long wheelbase derivatives. The Zecab is another definite. But a sleeker, more seductive Stevens-designed sports car will also go on sale in coupé and cabriolet forms, badged as the Cipher.

British brains, experience and finance are behind the Stevens project. The factory is on a site at Port Talbot that hasn't previously been used for vehicle manufacture, and the same goes for the workers. They generally hail from an area rich in industrial history but are new to the car-building game, which means they are inexperienced but also carry no tired old habits from previous automotive employers. The result is exciting regeneration for an oft-forgotten region, along with the creation of desperately needed motor industry jobs.

If Stevens Vehicles were about to dive into the cut-throat mainstream market, where conventional cars are churned out at cost price or less, it would fall before the first hurdle. But Stevens does the unconventional. The Ze in Zecar and Zevan stands for zero emissions, and even the sportier Cipher models will be carbon dioxide-free at the point of use.


Of course it's a different story when such vehicles are parked, because they must be plugged into the mains while their lead-acid batteries are recharged for between six and eight hours. That inevitably generates carbon at the power station, but the all-electric Ze machines don't produce pollutants at the roadside.

Proudly maverick motor industry veteran Professor Tony Stevens is the man responsible for designing the Zecar and Zevan, building prototypes and helping to win over financiers, industrialists, politicians and others in order to bring his vehicles to market. Now all he has to do is convince consumers that they should buy them. Prices for the Ze range have yet to be finalised but will be between £10,000 and £15,000, approximately the same as a Ford Fiesta.

Stevens brings almost half a century's worth of motor industry experience to the party. Over the decades he's been involved in the engineering, design and marketing of so many cars and vehicle-related projects at home and overseas that his CV could fill the entire Motoring section. He's a technical guy, for sure, but he's also a visionary. As many of his past projects and ideas have demonstrated, he was and still is ahead of his time.

Working alongside him is his son Peter, an international banker who can take care of the investment, day-to-day running and sales side of the business. The two men have different skills and working backgrounds but they complement each other perfectly and both are passionate about their products.

I don't know and don't really care if they'd agree, but my feeling is that their Ze vehicles are deliciously weird. Walk towards and around them and they look plain ugly from some angles, cute and handsome from others. Deliberately, I think, they can come across as being a bit dippy, yet great fun and strangely stylish. Love them or hate them, they make a strong visual statement with a head-turning presence unlike many other, smaller electric vehicles. Many people on middle to high incomes will, I suspect, want to own one in order to say something about themselves. The icing on the cake is that, for the time being at least, Zecars and Zevans will be more exclusive than Ferraris.

Galvanised: Tony and Peter Stevens with their electric creation, the Zevan

When they're parked up without other vehicles around them, it's hard to figure out how big or small the Ze machines are. They're distinctively tall at 5ft 9in. They occasionally and cleverly give the impression that they're quite long, but at 9ft 9in from bumper to bumper they are actually shorter than a Ford Ka.

The driving position is higher than expected but not uncomfortable; Tony Stevens decided that the driver should be perched high in the sort of position one assumes at a table. This makes access very easy and allows a commanding view. There's still plenty of headroom and vast storage space around the simple dashboard. This is a proper five-door car for five occupants and their luggage.

Not that the Zecar is aimed at families who make long trips. Its maximum speed is 56mph and with standard batteries the range is, at best, only 56 miles. But enticing "back-up battery solutions" are available as optional extras (future technologies under development include non-hydrogen fuel cells and bio-diesel hybrids ) and it's worth bearing in mind the potential cost advantages of electric propulsion, including exemption from various parking and congestion charges. Partly because it isn't subject to road-fuel taxation, electricity costs a fraction of petrol or diesel and Stevens claims the Zecar will cost less than 2p per mile to run. No less important, in-house tests and feedback from the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) lead the company to claim "world class safety standards", although the Zecars have not been subjected to NCAP crash tests.

I found such claims reassuring as I tentatively turned the key, floored the pedal and launched the machine away from a standstill - the acceleration certainly felt like the claimed 0-30mph in 8.5 seconds. Actually, the Zecar is more sprightly than its appearance suggests, with a usefully tight turning circle similar to that of a London taxi. But it's quite noisy, due a combination of brushless AC motors, a toothed belt drive to the rear wheels, tyre and wind noise plus a few other factors, not least the high mileage of the vehicle I was driving. According to a remarkably honest Tony Stevens, it had been "cut and carved a bit" while being developed, improved and generally abused on the test track and remote public roads prior to the start of full-scale production. Showroom cars should be considerably better, and they will need to be.

For Tony Stevens, these Welsh-built Zecars and Zevans are just the beginning. His other baby is the Cipher, which started life as a concept car in the 1980s, is now subject to ongoing development and could still go on sale with an electric engine, capable of 70mph and a 70-mile range.

But it doesn't end there. Before he retires Stevens intends to establish small Ze plants in rural areas across the developing world. The production line and other essential tools and materials can be delivered by a single lorry and rapidly begin full-scale production with an output flexible enough to meet the peaks and troughs of local demand. That means no compounds full of empty vehicles without buyers.

This manufacturing concept, which Stevens refers to as Global Village Transport (GVT), makes a lot of business and environmental sense. For him, son Peter and Stevens Vehicles Ltd, it was England yesterday, Wales today, and tomorrow the world.

Stevens Zecar/Zevan [tech/spec]


Price/availability: Zecar about £15,000 (inc VAT), Zevan £11,995 (plus VAT). Discounts may be available to customers placing the very first orders and/or willing to pay 25 per cent deposits. See the new website, launched today, at and for more information email (vehicle sales, factory/finance matters) or (research and future projects).

Engine/transmission: two maintenance-free brushless AC motors giving 140lb ft of torque, maintenance-free toothed belt drive to rear wheels, maintenance-free sealed lead-acid gel batteries.

Performance: top speed 56 mph, 0-40mph in 15 seconds, running cost 1-2p per mile, range 56 miles, on-road CO2 emissions nil (congestion charge free).

We like: Quirky styling, standard vehicle parts, driving position, turning circle, spacious interior, low running costs, free parking and congestion tax exemptions.

We don’t like: Noise, limited range, higher than expected prices.

Alternatives: There is no other five-seat electric car on sale in Britain. For low CO2 emissions consider Bluemotion diesel versions of Volkswagen Polo/Golf/Caddy, or petrol-electric hybrids such as the Honda Civic IMA or Toyota Prius.

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