Singapore's forgotten EVs: The Vanda Dendrobium, our first hypercar

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Zero to 100km/h in less than three seconds. An eye-watering price tag of more than $2 million. Exclusivity - in the guise of a production run capped around 10 units. And of course, the promise of hypercar hyper-modernity, with full electrification and a potential quad-motor set up.

Here, one may be forgiven if the ludicrous 1224bhp Concept One from Croatian Rimac Automobili is first to come to mind. But the car in question was something far closer to home - right from the glistening skyscrapers of the Central Business District, in fact.

The Dendrobium made its homage to our national flower clear not just in name, but design too.
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Inspired by our national flower right from its name to its design, the Dendrobium - brainchild of local start-up Vanda Electrics - was nearly impossible to escape if you were paying just a tiny bit of attention to the headlines in 2017.

A splashy unveiling at the Geneva Motorshow kicked everything into full gear. It landed alongside the aforementioned Concept_One on MotorTrend's round-up of '5 Obscure Supercars' from the show. Car and Driver called its design 'hard not to love'. EVO UK said it was 'beautifully constructed'.

The Dendrobium nomenclature clicked into place the instant one's eyes were set on the car. Opening in sync, its automatic doors and roof were meant to resemble our national flower in full bloom (this also apparently wasn't some senseless gimmick - getting in and out of the cockpit was meant to be easier with the roof panel lifted.) Compounding the outlandish design were its LMP-car silhouette, partially-exposed rear suspension, and finally, its striking LED head and taillights.

Nearing reality

But perhaps even harder to look away from was a title as luminous as 'Singapore's First All-Electric Hypercar' - as was widely bestowed upon the Dendrobium. Apart from an impressive global tour that counted not just Geneva but Goodwood as its pit stops, the car eventually flooded the dreams and smartphone screens of racing gamers when it was introduced in Asphalt 8: Airborne and Asphalt 9: Legends.

More eye-catching than the car's design, arguably, was its title: Singapore's First Hypercar
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To a large extent, the buzz surrounding the Dendrobium wasn't unwarranted. Arguably the most vital building block on which this rested at the time was the technical partnership Vanda Electrics had managed to establish with Williams Advanced Engineering (WAE), a division of Williams Racing. Involving the British company in the lead-up to Geneva, in fact, meant that the concept car was more than just a design sketch one could touch and feel.

Among the working components of the presented prototype were its aerodynamic floor and rear diffusers. To optimise airflow and compensate for visibility, the car also got cameras rather than side mirrors, as well as a rear view camera hidden within the cluster-taillights.

The prototype could actually be driven and steered - although, of course, it was far off the production performance targeted by the team.
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Built around a carbon-fibre centric monocoque chassis, a kerb weight of just 1,750kg was targeted too, and when eventually produced, the Dendrobium's structure and battery technology would draw heavily from WAE's know-how - both in the field of Formula One itself and Formula E, for which it supplied the Gen3 racecar's batteries.

Yet the partnership wasn't even where things ended. Instead, proof that Vanda Electrics was taking another step closer to making the car reality lay in its efforts to dig into the equally knotty business of manufacturing and distributorship.

Under newly-established Dendrobium Automotive, the U.K. would play host to the hypercar's production.
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It managed to appoint VinCar - one of the titans in our local world of parallel imports - as the dealer of the car for Southeast Asia in late 2017 (VinCar's page for the car is still live as of this article's publishing). After discerning that Singapore would not be appropriate as a manufacturing base, a new company, Dendrobium Automotive, was also established in the UK for the car's production, during which the hypercar became the 'Dendrobium D-1'.

Large names that had taken on leadership roles in Zenvo, Rimac, Ferrari and Lotus sat on its board, and even amidst the chaos of midway-Brexit in October 2018, the company's CEO was still claiming that it was 'fully committed' to making the car.

The first signs of wilting

The fervency with which the vision had taken hold of the Vanda Electrics team is perhaps witnessed most palpably in a 45-minute documentary aired by Channel NewsAsia, called 'Electric Dream'. Shot over an entire year, it provides a fascinating insight into the faces behind the car.

What does it mean - and what does it take - to put Singapore on the map of the automotive world?
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If not overly-lofty, the team's goal was noble. The Dendrobium was meant to be a "halo project" that would "put Singapore on the map of the automotive world". More than that, however, it was part of a larger concerted push by Vanda Electrics to provide cleaner mobility solutions for the future.

Nonetheless, as one sits through the documentary, the David (Vanda Electrics' team) versus Goliath (the Dendrobium) nature of the entire project is impossible to ignore, even then.

The Dendrobium, alongside Vanda Electrics' scooter and (vanished) light logistics truck.
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In the documentary, Jonathan Dean, Chief Engineer of Vehicle Integration at WAE, notes that the Dendrobium was "possibly the most ambitious project for a small company that we've worked with" - but that Vanda's team had won it over with its conviction. And in corroboration, there is a point in early on where Vanda Electric' CEO Larissa Tan, admits that her team is "a bunch of people that have no experience in cars".

In retrospect, these may have been early indications that the Dendrobium concept was biting off more than it could chew. Following its Geneva-debut, we actually get to follow Tan to Goodwood, where the car once more drums up a significant amount of interest at the Michelin stand. The section concludes, however, with no indication as to whether any investment was secured.

Two years have now passed since the targeted 2020 launch date that was widely-cited in the Dendrobium's press tour. And everything that the hypercar promised has ultimately yet to materialise, with updates - even about Vanda Electrics itself - only diminishing over time.

The hypercar concept was last seen out among a crowd in 2019's 24 Hours of Le Mans in France.
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The last time the Dendrobium was out among a crowd appears to have been in 2019's 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. At the end of that year, the stream of posts on Vanda Electrics' Facebook page quietly came to a stop.

And between the two other all-electric products floated in the film (a light logistics truck and a retro-inspired scooter), only the latter appears to have survived - yet given its lack of coverage online, its existence also feels a bit precarious. The sole offering that has a properly maintained product page on the company's site is the DeusVolts DV-X e-bike.

While the pandemic may have (once more) thrown a spanner in the works, the biggest clue as to what happened comes from the LinkedIn profile of Dendrobium Automotive's ex-CEO, Nigel Gordon-Stewart, who's since moved on to another automotive firm. His description of his tenure there concludes with the uncertain statement: "With the various difficulties experienced in securing investment funding the business is currently on hold."

The possibility of blooming once again?

Proof that production is notoriously complex, even fresh EV giants like Lucid are struggling.
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To be fair to the team at Vanda Electrics, start-ups are more than a dime a dozen, and even among those that make it to production, smooth-sailing success isn't guaranteed (see: Rivian and Lucid). Yet the herculean task it managed of roping in reputable and experienced partners only amplifies the silence surrounding the car's absence today.

Here, it might help to return to the other all-electric name perched alongside Vanda Electrics at Geneva in 2017.

Rimac Automobili's founding was premised in large part on its CEO Mate Rimac's (a real-life Tony Stark-type) tinkering around in the engine bay of his E30 3 Series. Post-Concept_One, it's now merged with Bugatti, moved on to producing the even more incredulous Nevera hypercar, and secured 500 million Euros in funding just in June this year.

Rimac has since moved on to a merger with Bugatti - and the bonkers 1914bhp Nevera (pictured).
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Contrarily, Vanda Electrics wasn't led by a team of manic petrol heads. Rather, it comprised spirited individuals pursuing an outsized vision of elevating Singapore onto the automotive world stage. While Rimac's deep pockets are not to be overlooked, the question remains: Can a team of non-enthusiasts truly send an exclusive, expensive car concept to success?

But maybe that's not the question to be asking. As 'Electric Dream' closes, Tan notes that products like the Dendrobium and the firm's e-scooter "are not the be-all and end-all" of the firm, but rather a show of "what a Singaporean team is capable of doing". The most important thing, she declares, "is to take the next step".

After two false starts with the dream of 'Made in Singapore' EVs, we are, in fact, now closer than ever to crossing the line for the first time. Come year-end, the Hyundai Motor Group Innovation Centre will break ground in the Jurong Innovation District, soon after which locally-produced Ioniq 5s (among other models) should come trickling out onto our roads.

As things turned out, the Dendrobium is likely to remain in the annals of history as an eye-catching concept car. But dreams do not come to pass overnight. Maybe - just maybe - its existence at all in pre-production form and on the headlines was a crucial enough stepping stone to the bigger goal: Of proving Singapore's enthusiasm in joining the new world of electric mobility (and performance).

ALSO READ: Singapore's first electric hypercar debuts at Geneva Motor Show

This article was first published in sgCarMart.