Designer Putting Some Va-Vroom in the Hybrid Car

By dancurranjr On December 14th, 2009

Fisker KarmaNot long ago, Henrik Fisker was dashing up Interstate 5 from Los Angeles to San Francisco when a highway patrolman clocked his Aston Martin roadster — a car that Fisker himself designed — going 97 mph.

He protested. (“It was 90 at the most.”). He got a ticket and set the cruise control at 70. For the next four hours, “I was overtaken by every grandmother,” he said. Running late, he pressed down the pedal.

This time, the radar gun caught him going 88 mph.

“How long since your last ticket?” the officer asked. Fisker paused, but decided to confess.

“Well, actually, not that long ago,” he replied.

Over the last two decades, Fisker has designed some of the sexiest cars on the road: sleek BMWs and Aston Martins that accelerate from 0 to 60 in the time it takes to count the fingers on one hand.

Now the Danish designer has his own Irvine-based car company and a half-billion-dollar loan from the U.S. government to build gas-electric hybrid cars that plug into a home outlet, go 50 miles without a drop of gas and don’t look a bit eco-friendly.

Oh, and they’ll also be fast.

“People feel very emotional about cars, and I don’t want them to feel bad about driving a fast car,” said Fisker, as he steered his growling roadster through rush-hour traffic in Los Angeles. “We’re building beautiful and fast cars that you can drive without having a bad conscience or ruining the environment.”

Many auto industry analysts are skeptical. History is scattered with the wreckage of car companies started by big dreamers, Preston Tucker and John DeLorean among them. Building eco-friendly cars, even eco-chic cars, is one thing, analysts say. Selling them to a fickle public, with pump prices at less than $3 a gallon, is another.

But Fisker, one of the world’s most highly regarded designers of luxury automobiles, likes his chances. And he’s a focus group of one.

“As a car lover, I ask myself: What am I going to be buying in the future?” he said. “Will it be a boring, underpowered dorky car because the government tells me I shouldn’t pollute? Or do I come up with a cool-looking, sexy dream car that is also part of the future?”

Tall and fit, tanned and blond, Fisker, 46, is a dream front-man for a car maker, with a resume that few designers can match. He is best known for designing the BMW Z8 and the Aston Martin DB9 and V8 Vantage, vehicles with six-figure sticker prices and ageless, eye-catching silhouettes.

The story of how Fisker became a heralded car designer and the head of what he likes to call “a new American car company” began in Denmark, a country with no automobile manufacturing industry. He had his first inkling that he might one day design cars when he was 5, riding in his father’s Saab near their home in suburban Copenhagen. A Maserati raced past.

“I got butterflies in my stomach,” Fisker said. “It was then that I knew I had to do something with the way cars look.”

He began drawing cars for fun and continued long after boys his age outgrew the phase. His teachers discouraged his ambitions; Denmark, after all, had no jobs for car designers.

But Fisker’s father, an electrical engineer who had visited the United States as a teenager, encouraged him.

“America had inspired him to believe that you can do whatever you want in life, and that’s what he always told me,” Fisker said. “That was not a typical thing to say to your kids in Denmark.”

Two years ago, Fisker and Bernhard Koehler, a German car executive who had worked with Fisker at both BMW and Ford, launched Fisker Automotive. The U.S. Department of Energy awarded it a $528.7 million loan in September to build two cars.

The first will be the Karma, an $87,900 plug-in hybrid sedan with solar panels that will run the climate control system, keeping the car cool when the vehicle is shut off. The Karma will be assembled in Finland, with a majority of American parts, and production will start late next year, with a target of 15,000 annually.

The majority of the federal money, though, will go to Fisker’s next-generation vehicle, code-named Project Nina, a “family oriented” plug-in hybrid sedan that will cost $47,400 (less a $7,500 federal tax credit). The Nina will be built beginning in 2012 at a former GM plant in Delaware, with an annual target of 100,000 vehicles a year.

“A lot of cars have a stylish and sexy sculpture,” Fisker said, but the Nina “will definitely be the most radical, sexy family car on the planet.”

The design of Fisker’s Nina remains under wraps at company headquarters, where fingerprint identification is required to access the design rooms. But Fisker executives say it will be as dramatic as the 4-door Karma, which has been on display.

In designing the Karma, Fisker said, he was mostly focused on what it wouldn’t look like: an eco-friendly car.

“We’re not making cars for everyone,” he said. “I want to have some character in the car. I don’t want a design that is a milk doughnut.”

Milk doughnut? “Oh, what’s the word in English? Milquetoast. That’s what I mean.”

Fisker particularly relishes his time behind the wheel, where he keeps the radar detector on and the cell phone off.

“A car is one of the last things in our civilized society where we can still control amazing power,” he said. “If the car were invented today, it wouldn’t be legal.”

He fondly recalls one particular day in Germany when he was driving to work on the Autobahn around 5 a.m. He looked up at the speedometer and was surprised to see that he was going 196 mph.

“That’s why you can’t use cup holders in Germany,” he said.


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