The Navistar eStar, a Very Troubled Electric Van


The plain white van you see here is the subject of our second edition of Abandoned History. Though it was produced and sold domestically as eStar by Navistar, it was actually developed in England years prior. In fact, the story of this electric van begins with the traditional black London taxi.

Since the early Seventies, the London taxi was produced by London Taxis International (or LTI), formerly a coachbuilding firm called Carbodies established in 1919. Carbodies was purchased by Manganese Bronze Holdings (MBH) in 1973. MBH was founded in 1899 to produce ship propellers, but the company gradually made its way into the manufacture of alloys, motorcycle parts, and then finally cars as parent to LTI.

Fast forward to 2002, and MBH sought to expand its business a bit with a great new idea: An EV cargo van! The project was dubbed eMercury and was led by LTI employee Jevon Thorpe. Thorpe played a major part in the design of LTI’s TX1 taxi, the then-contemporary black London cab in production since 1997. MBH got the British government interested in its new van idea and received some nice funding from the Department of Trade and Industry.

Thorpe and team set to work and debuted three different eMercury prototypes in 2004. Each prototype used a different type of battery: One was molten salt, the other a hybrid with a nickel-metal hydride battery, and a third used a lead-acid battery. However, by the time the prototypes were ready, MBH had a change of fortunes and heart. In 2003 MBH sold off the entirety of its components division, which left it with the LTI business as its only division. These new eMercury vans were no longer on their list.

MBH almost immediately announced that it would focus solely on its taxi business, and was selling off eMercury. The vans found a buyer in Jamie Borwick, who just happened to be the CEO of MBH from 1987 through 2001. Borwick rebranded and relaunched the van project in 2004 under a new entity, Modec Limited. Modec was part of Borwick’s portfolio of other companies, and part of the Borwick Group. The change in ownership also saw a new drivetrain developer for the eMercury, as Borwick used Zytek instead of MBH’s pick Azure Dynamics. The company’s commercial offering was called simply “Modec van.”

Modec began development of production vans immediately, and in 2006 announced a few new business partners. Among them were GE Commercial Finance which would cover buyer financing and van battery rental, and Modec’s sodium-nickel chloride batteries (Zebra batteries) supplied by Axeon Power.

Production-ready vans were displayed later in 2006 and used an 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack matched to a 70 kW electric motor (102HP). The Modec was good for a top speed of 50 miles per hour and had 221 ft-lb of torque. Range was about 100 miles in urban use, and total payload was around 5,000 pounds. The vans went into production in 2007 in Coventry, with the first builds sold to Tesco for grocery delivery service. Other UK buyers included city park services, delivery companies, and city utilities.

By 2008 there were 100 Modecs in existence, though the Modec factory was well below its 5,000 units a year capacity. Modec expanded to six dealerships open across London that year and set up distribution networks for Ireland and the Netherlands. The company had also secured a valuable large-scale commercial customer in UPS.

2009 was another promising year for Modec, as the company’s van was the first commercial electric vehicle in the European Union’s N2 class to receive blanket regulatory approval for sale across the EU. That meant sales were possible in all EU member countries without filing for regulatory approval in each nation. Shortly thereafter Modec announced a new joint venture with Navistar International, which would see the Modec sold across North and South America. And that’s where things started to go wrong, very quickly.

Navistar and Modec ironed out their deal in 2009, as Modec licensed its EV van technology and design. The newly-formed company was Navistar-Modec EV Alliance, but the name was a bit generous given Navistar made sure the steering wheel was on the left and called it a day. None of the van’s stats changed in the transition from Modec to eStar, but the batteries were supplied by American firm A123 Systems. The Modec was compliant with US federal safety regulations (FMVSS) without alteration.

Navistar manufactured the vans themselves via Workhorse Group, the Cincinnati-based EV company that Navistar bought in 2005. Navistar called the van the eStar and built it at the Workhorse factory in Wakarusa, Indiana. Production started in March 2010, and deliveries began in May. The Navistar project was partially funded by a $39.2 million grant from the US Department of Energy.

But the new JV didn’t help Modec’s sales in Europe. Though the project started out promising with 100 vans produced by 2008, the subsequent couple years saw Modec sales plummet. By March 2011 the company had sold just 400 total vans, and had debts of over $55 million. Modec approached Navistar to work out a life raft situation, where Navistar would pitch in and keep Modec afloat. “No thank you,” said Navistar. Modec started bankruptcy proceedings in March 2011, at which point Navistar picked up the phone and called the bankruptcy officials. “We will take that now,” they said.

Over in England, a new company called Liberty Electric Cars was formed and hired all engineering employees from the recently closed Modec. They set up a new subsidiary holding company, Liberty E-Tech, and reached out to Navistar to see if they’d be interested in the Modec team. “Pass,” said Navistar. Liberty created a service offering instead and called it e-Care, with the sole purpose of maintaining extant Modec vans around the world.

With their free government money and fire-sale pricing on all the Modec van rights, Navistar was set up for success. The first Indiana-built vans were sent straight to FedEx, where they were used around Los Angeles. Californian utility PG&E also ordered vans, as well as Canada Post, and Coca-Cola. Each van was priced at $150,000.

But the sodium-nickel Zebra batteries used in the vans were not as cost-effective or long-lived as the lithium-ion batteries found in modern EVs. To fully charge the eStar to its 100-mile range took six to eight hours and no less. Its design wasn’t the best for drivers hopping in and out either, as it had no front doors. The driver entered and exited through a sliding side door in the cargo area.

But none of that detail mattered much to Navistar, which was suffering from a failed engine strategy, declines in sales of its commercial and military lines, and rising warranty costs. The company cut its spending and product development considerably in 2013, and the eStar got the ax. The last vans were produced in late 2012 as 2013 models, as Navistar focused on its “current profitability.” Workhorse was shut down as a part of the cuts. 2013 also turned out as the end of the two companies that had to do with the original eMercury: Manganese Bronze Holdings went bankrupt and took London Taxi Company with it. Today there are just a few Modec owners on forums, trying to figure out how they can keep their vans with dead Zebra batteries in operation.

[Images: Navistar, FedEx]

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