Perhaps the only person in America to have a 2016 as successful as Donald Trump was Henrik Fisker. The Los Angeles resident (by way of Denmark) certainly did not curl up into a ball after his Anaheim-based Fisker Automotive imploded in late 2013 and was snagged by a Chinese auto parts conglomerate in early '14. This year saw the debut of Fisker's VLF Automotive Force 1 and the Benetti Fisker 50 superyacht—all while the Fisker Karma creator has been putting the pedal to the metal for his newest electric vehicle (EV), the EMotion, whose production date he intends on revealing during 2017.
That last project may surprise you given how snakebit Fisker Automotive was. Henrik Fisker, who designed the BMW Z8, the Aston Martin DB9 and other premium cars, joined Bernhard Koehler in founding Fisker Coachbuild, an Irvine-based car designer and aftermarket parts maker, in 2005. Two years later, the pair joined Quantum Technologies in forming Fisker Automotive to much fanfare.
They produced the high end Fisker Karma, which was one of the world’s first production plug-in hybrid EVs when it debuted in January 2008. Unlike other hybrids that shift from electric to gasoline power depending on the charge left in the battery and driving conditions, the Karma’s small gas engine kicked in to create electricity as needed. Fisker Karmas remain very popular among many owners.
But Department of Energy loans to Fisker for a more affordable EV became an issue during the run up to President Obama’s 2012 reelection. Then Fisker’s battery supplier went belly up in August 2012 after rounds of recalls and repairs. Symbolically in hindsight, 338 Karmas bound for Europe were destroyed by fire or flooding at Port Newark in New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.
Henrik Fisker resigned in March 2013 over disagreements with management, the following month 75 percent of the company’s workforce was laid off, bankruptcy was declared that November and in February 2014 Chinese parts supplier Wanxiang Group won court approval to acquire what would become Karma Automotive.
The renaissance man who started it all later joined investor Gilbert Villarreal and former General Motors chief Bob Lutz in forming VLF Automotive, which unveiled the Force 1 supercar in Detroit in January. With an 8.4 liter V10, 745-horsepower engine that hits 60 mph in 3 seconds—and a $268,000 price tag—I had to ask Fisker: Who is this car for?
"We’ve sold quite a few to car collectors," he said over the phone. "It’s a unique community, more like a boys club. Bob and Gilbert and myself have cool cars that we like. … Car collectors know who we are. In fact, we are considering a few specialty programs, for fun. Obviously, we would need to make money, but it would be for an inner circle of enthusiasts. It would be someone who walks up and says they do not need a Lamborghini or Ferrari, they are looking for something more unique and special."
Which means you may see them in Newport Coast or being valeted at South Coast Plaza, although not a lot of them.
"We have no sales department, really," Fisker says of VLF. "We don’t have any forecast sales, minimum sales that have to be achieved, no advertising. … There will not be more than 50 of the first coupe version."
The Force 1 is based on the Dodge Viper, although it does not look like one, according to its designer.
"It is not the same proportion," Fisker says of his car. "It does start with the Viper chassis and it has the same front windscreen. There are a lot of differences in the interior. We wanted to make sure we kept all the safety requirements of the vehicle, but we are such small car builder we can’t make a brand new car from the ground up. Lamborghini even uses an Audi platform. We are even lower volume. Put a Viper and a Force 1 next to each other, and you can see they are really different, even with the side profiles. The Force 1 has the largest engine in the world you can buy, so the hood is slightly longer. … It’s also wider, and it has 21-inch wheels instead of Viper’s 18 or 19 inches."
A month after the Force 1's debut, Benetti Yachts unveiled the superyacht designed in partnership with Fisker, the Benetti Fisker 50.
"I was in the south of France at an event where I met a gentleman with one of the biggest yacht makers, Benetti, and we were talking about yachts," Fisker explains when asked how he got into the boat business. "He said he was really looking for a designer with a recognized name that would maybe look at yachts in a completely different way, out of the box. He asked, ‘Are you interested in a joint venture?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure, let me look.’ It was decided on a whim right there over a nice glass of rose. ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ It was extremely quick. I went to Tuscany, Italy, and met the CEO. It was a handshake deal. We hired a few naval architects and started designing."
One thing that strikes viewers of the Benetti Fisker is how it appears to be in motion, even while docked. That was by design, according to its designer.
"The thing is I always design my cars to look like they are moving, even when they are standing still," Fisker says. "A yacht this size, 45 to 50 meters, is typically more static in its design. They are like big apartments on the ocean, a lot of straight lines and decks. I really wanted to create something structurally dynamic. The hip at the rear echoes the decks above.
"Part of thinking outside the box was recognizing that changing the front end of the boat is very uncommon in the boat industry but very common in the car industry. We created a big round seating area on the front top deck, where 12 people can have great conversations during the day with an ice bucket that, at night, you change out for a fireplace. For the interior, when you walk into great boats, they all have the same layout on the main deck. It’s basically a living room with a giant dining table you only use a few times a year. We removed that and instead made a giant bar to the right with an ocean view. Electronically, everything throughout is extremely unusual, with a few things that haven’t been done before."
Asked if he believes other industries need outsiders to come in sometimes to give whole new views, Fisker replied, "Well, I think we all tend to get boxed in when we work in the same industry. For Benetti, thinking outside the box was part of it, but I think they also wanted a designer who had a certain style and emphasized very emotional aspects of a yacht so they could present customers something very unique. This was fully engineered; it’s not just a showboat no one will use, it is a fully engineered design. I think because I have done many different things in my career, they knew I was able to bring something new to the table."
Which brings us to a now-familiar question: Who is this superyacht for?
"The yacht is for … well, first, a little understanding about the yacht customer," Fisker begins. "There are people today who work extremely hard and have got to the point where they can afford such a yacht. I think when using it there are different things to take into consideration, like will you be using it for business meetings. You'll definitely use it for leisure. You can invite couples onto the yacht and go to different ports for a week or two. You can fly in for a weekend and have a party with maybe 100 people. And it can be chartered out as well to help with the running costs. These are all aspects to think about. For this yacht, you have to have disposable income and probably be an entrepreneur, one who is slightly younger who likes to have the latest and the newest and take a risk with luxury products. It is not for the old fashioned trade buyer, it’s more the entrepreneur crowd. The older crowd is not fully satisfied by the need for something new and different. This is amazing luxury and you get ocean views all around."
Which brings us back to Fisker's newest project—and Henrik Fisker's career full circle. He began by talking about his Fisker Automotive experience.
"When we started, there were originally piston motors," he recalls. "It seemed like the right time for hybrids, but there were only three battery companies. It was not that developed in 2007. So, because of the lack of battery technology, it was the wild west for plug-in hybrids. One battery we had had two recalls, and the [battery] company went bankrupt. That was trouble for our motor venture because we could not control the battery."
It obviously did not turn Fisker off to EV designs, however.
"Today, I think we will have fully electric in the future," he says. "For one thing, it is environmentally friendly. It is still great to have gas in cars; we need both. But now we have battery technology 10 years later that has evolved. They are getting range: A new battery being researched at UCLA uses graphene and is able to get a 400-mile range on one charge. You’d be able to drive it just around town for a month or go to San Diego and back on one charge. It’s kind of quite cool to get to that point."
The idea behind Fisker Automotive was to start with the Fisker Karma in small production and then ramp up to a more affordable model. Besides learning that the company has to be in control of battery testing itself, Fisker says he has flipped the former low-to-high production strategy.
"We want to make sure we come out with a high volume vehicle quickly and make sure the more expensive model is built in lower volume, which will lower the cost of tooling," he says. "With more of a budget for the high volume cars, one limitation you have is that you will be somewhat limited for a year. We won’t do 100,000 cars, we’ll do much less. We’ll stay in the higher end price class, somewhere over $100,000. We have really done a lot of learning about the technology that goes into high volume vehicles, which will be very affordable."
He's bully on there still being room in the market "for another EV player that makes very exciting EV cars." His evidence of this? The number of Fisker Karma owners who send emails about ordering a new car—even though his company has no program to take orders.
"We have a prototype and next year we will announce when it goes into production," he says of the Fisker EMotion. "It’s a monumental task still, but me and my team already have experience doing it, a lot of great experience on what to do, not to do and new designs. I think there is also room for a company that is a little more edgy and takes advantage of the electric power range. No one has looked at that in depth. No one has changed how cars are produced. For instance, I think we can expand the cabin space with a lot more interior volume and still have a sporty looking car."
Asked if 2016 was an anomaly because of all the projects that came to fruition, or simply the way things worked out, Fisker answered it was a little bit of both. Then again, it sounds as if he is always up to something.
"I cannot count on a day off on any certain day of the week; seven days a week is a normal work week for me," he says. "Loving my work makes it easier. As an entrepreneur, you do not take a free day until one becomes available. It happens once in a while. You are lucky if you love being busy designing, being an entrepreneur, putting up new business models.
"The plan is that next year, Fisker Inc. will be showing our new car," he says. "Mind you, there is still a lot of work to do. But so many things are happening. I am very lucky. There has been so much positive response that we are moving up production with a higher volume because of so many orders. Everything is very exciting and I am looking forward to showing the new Fisker, it is the most exciting thing on my mind."