Disappointment with Artega, the semiconductor crisis and now the war in Ukraine: it is no exaggeration to say that the path of the small Swiss company Microlino has been riddled with obstacles. However, the Ouboter family, who owns and operates the small Swiss company, is well on their way to success and (almost) nothing stands in the way of getting their small electric cars to market. We completed the approval tests three months ago. We started with the European tests and then we still had to implement the Swiss approval, which is basically the same but takes an additional eight weeks. But we succeeded. Now we have all the paperwork at last and we are in the last step before production begins,” explains Merlin Opotter, Microlino’s Marketing Officer.
Together with his brother Oliver, the Operations Manager, he answered questions from AUTOMOBIL REVUE. Merlin Ouboter told us more about the current state of the project and the highlights of their family adventure. Halfway through the interview, a stylish man in his fifties entered the room: Wim Opotter, the father of Oliver and Merlin and the founder of the popular Swiss scooter brand Micro. Unexpectedly, we have the opportunity to talk to the three men at the same time.
Automated review: What is the current status of the Microlino Project?
Merlin Opoter: Our production line is finally ready to produce the first true production vehicles with their own chassis number. Since the beginning of the month, we’ve been switching between the last pre-series and the first real production cars. These will soon be delivered to our first customers.
At the beginning of the project, you said that your sales target is between 6000 and 10,000 vehicles per year. Is this still the case?
Oliver Ober: It is clear that our sales volume will not be that large in the first months of production. Right now, we only make about two compounds per day, ten per week. But that number is likely to double soon. We originally planned to produce between 2,000 and 2,500 vehicles starting this year. But we prefer to be cautious with this number because supply chains are very fragile due to the semiconductor crisis and the war in Ukraine. It is clearly not the time to talk about increasing the rate of production.
Given how much these issues affect the major manufacturers, one wonders how a new player like Microlino can make themselves heard.
Merlin Opoter: That’s clear, Microlino is a small player compared to the big car manufacturers. However, the status quo, we have to deal with the case of the novice. But market prices in particular are the ones that are hard to follow. Since Corona, the prices of raw materials and energy have exploded. For example, the price of steel and aluminum doubled compared to the previous price. In fact, the price of copper tripled. Prices for nickel and lithium, which are contained in batteries, also rose sharply.
Building a car from scratch should be a great adventure. If each of you had to choose the best and worst moments, what would they be?
Merlin Opoter:There weren’t many bad moments. But if I had to pick one, that might be what happened in 2015 at the start of the project. At that time we wanted to present our first prototype at the Geneva Motor Show. The car was assembled in China by one of our partners, which caused us a bureaucratic headache when importing it. But we managed and when the car arrived we got a call from Zurich airport and were told that the elevator that took the car dropped it on the tarmac. The car was completely destroyed. Fortunately, we were able to fix it at the last minute before the event. And the best moment was undoubtedly when we beat Artega and Klaus Frears in Munich court (Artega’s ex-partners and managing director Klaus Freires were planning their own Micorlino variant, Karo-Reed).
Oliver Ober:For me, the best memory remains the success of our first concept in Geneva in 2015. We received 500 reservations during the first two days of the event. That was a very cool moment, because that’s what kept us stuck with the project. The worst moment that remains without a doubt is the moment with Artega, especially when I realized that it would be impossible to work with them and produce the car with them. It was also very difficult to stop communicating with clients and the press when we were charging with them.
Thinking, developing and designing a car is a huge task. Can you give a review of the experiences of the past few years?
Oliver Ober:At the beginning of the project we knew nothing, although of course we completely ignored it at that time. Since then we have become aware of the scale of the task. We have learned to manage the various stages of development. For me, the biggest challenge as a newcomer was not so much developing the car as dealing with the different suppliers – companies in which we were small players and therefore didn’t play a role. In stark contrast to major manufacturers who fear disappointment. So we were never their priority. This caused us some problems because as a manufacturer we need suppliers to build a car.
Merlin Opoter:When we announced the Microlino project, many people tried to discourage us by telling us that the scale of the task ahead of us was enormous. Fortunately we ignored it at the time. It’s like building a racing car through the mountains, where each trail is a new problem to overcome. The secret is to take one step at a time and never give up.
If you could go back seven years, would your Microlino adventure start again?
Oliver Ober:This is not in the question. Today more than ever we believe in our product because it saves space on the streets. Additionally, Microlino offers a reliable alternative for many purposes.
Would you do things differently?
Merlin Opoter:No, admittedly, we ran into big problems, especially after Tazzari sold the company. But we can’t know what would have happened if we had acted differently. Today we are very satisfied with the result.
Who are the first vehicles designated for?
Merlin Opoter:for Swiss customers.
And what is the price of a microlino?
Merlin Opoter: The basic version costs just under 15,000 francs. But this price is not yet completely certain, because we still have to make more calculations.
So it is much more expensive than the Citroën Ami at 8900 francs!
Oliver Ober: Yes, this is correct. But in this segment, competitors are designed to be as cheap as possible. That’s not the case with Microlino, it’s more special. It’s sturdier and built to stand the test of time. So it should retain its value, thanks in part to its well-made chassis. The total cost of ownership should also be lower than competing models.
Wim Opotter, are you proud of the work your children do and the direction your company has taken?
Wim Opter: So proud. It’s great for a father to work with his two sons. And everything is even better when you work together on a new project like Microlino. If I said “A” today, but Merlin or Oliver said “B,” I would have no chance of asserting myself. (He laughs)
Has the Microlino adventure caused tension in your family?
Wim Opter: I think the opposite is true. He had an excellent effect because he gave us good talking points. At the table, we were no longer discussing politics or gossiping about others, but we did talk about things we still wanted to achieve. Having said that, I have to say there is probably more pressure on my sons to do this in the family because their decisions affect their loved ones.
Merlin Opoter: In all projects there are tensions and beautiful moments. In the Microlino Adventure, we’ve had much better moments than bad ones. It is also positive to work with family where you can share and talk about problems you encounter at work. You don’t keep it to yourself.
How much did the Microlino project cost you?
Wim Opter: We prefer not to answer this question. But I can give you a rough idea of the cost of something like this: when the car manufacturer Volkswagen developed a motorcycle, they invested more than 30 million in the project. Today we are not developing a motorcycle, but a car. But we are still a very small team with only six people working in Switzerland and about ten in Italy on the project.
Merlin Opoter: In addition, we work with external business partners. We also plan to hire more employees as the project and production grow. Cecomp’s assembly line in Italy can employ up to 100 people.
Wim Opter: It is also important to know that we finance the entire project ourselves. We also have enough money to continue financing ourselves if the project is not immediately profitable. Motorcycles bring in more than we can reinvest in this market.
What’s your next goal now that Microlino is already on the road?
Merlin Opoter: We have a lot of projects and ideas. Of course we still have to keep that secret, but what we can say is that we won’t get too smart and build an SUV. We want to stay in the category of cars under 500 kg. This is the definition of fine kinetics. There are other types of vehicles that are worth exploring in more detail.
Wim Opter: Converting mobility does not simply mean replacing internal combustion engines with electric motors. It should represent the new mobility of small cars. And for those who can’t drive in smaller cars, the Microlino can be considered a second car, useful for short day trips.