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Fisker Cars

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Danish born Henrik Fisker (August 10, 1963) founded the automotive company bearing his name in 2008. While most contemporary readers of this will probably remember Fisker for the embattled gasoline/electric hybrid luxury sports sedan bearing his name, Fisker’s automotive career goes back much farther.

Upon graduating from design school in 1989, Fisker went to work for BMW as designer at BMW Technik GmbH, BMW’s Munich-based advanced design center. There, he penned the 1997 BMW Z07 concept car—drawing its inspiration from the 1956 BMW 507. This car was ultimately put into production in 1999, as the limited-production BMW Z8. This success prompted a move to the BMW Group Research and Design Center, where he went on to run DesignWorksUSA, BMW’s industrial design firm located in Newbury Park, Calif., starting in January of 2000.

His tenure there was rather short however, as Fisker moved to the Ford Motor Company in 2001. At that time, Ford had the luxury brand Aston Martin as part of its Premier Auto Group. There, he served as design director for Aston Martin automobiles. The ultimate fruition of that position being the 2004 Aston Martin DB9, and the 2005 Aston Martin V8 Vantage vehicles, both of which he worked on with future business partner Bernard Koehler.

While at Ford, Fisker was also creative director of Ford’s London-based design and creativity center called Ingeni. In August of 2003, Ford made Fisker director of the Ford Global Advanced Design Studio in Irvine. He was also a member of the board of directors at Aston Martin. If you’re starting to get the idea Fisker was a petty restless guy, you’re quite astute.

In 2004, he left Ford to start his own company—Fisker Coachbuild—with his colleague from Aston Martin, Bernard Koehler. The main idea there was to take the platform underpinning such vaunted luxury cars as the BMW 6 Series automobiles and Mercedes-Benz SL vehicles and create custom bodies for them—much as the highly considered coachbuilders of the 1920s and 1930s did for companies like Rolls Royce and Duesenberg.

Two models resulted from this. One was the handbuilt Fisker Tramonto autos, based on the Mercedes-Benz SL. A run of 15 Tramontos were built using AMG engines. The other model was the Fisker Latigo cars based on the BMW M6 vehicles. The goal was to build 150 of each model, but that never materialized.

In addition to the handbuilt custom bodies, Fisker Coachbuild also featured a line of three-piece alloy road wheels. Designed for the Tramonto and the Latigo, they would fit production Mercedes SL and BMW 6 Series cars as well. The company also did carbon fiber engine covers and custom leather trim packages.

Along the way, Fisker got the idea to do a luxury hybrid high performance grand touring luxury sedan. In partnership with Lake Forest, California-based Quantum Technologies, Fisker launched Fisker Automotive, based around Quantum’s 400-horsepower Q-Drive.

Functioning much like the powertrain of the Chevrolet Volt, Q-Drive motivates its host primarily with electric motors, until the battery charge drops below a certain threshold. When that happens, the gasoline engine is ignited to generate electricity to keep the car moving. The Q-Drive powertrain was said to be good for 50 miles of electric-only running. Its gasoline engine was capable of generating another 250 miles of propulsion, thus giving Q-Drive a theoretical range of 300 miles.

Fisker Automotive’s first product—the Fisker Karma automobile debuted in concept car form in January of 2008, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Additionally, Fisker Automotive consulted on the initial design of the Tesla Model S cars. The production Fisker Karma vehicle was first shown in 2010 at the Paris Motor Show.

Fisker hit upon the strategy of outsourcing production of the Karma in an effort to keep costs down. Thus, Fisker Automotive is primarily a design, engineering, and marketing firm representing a product known as the Fisker Karma. The Karma is assembled in Finland at Valmet Automotive (Porsche's Boxster and Cayman autos are also built there) its aluminum frame is built by Norsk Hydro in Norway; Magna International in Canada makes the interior of the car.

It is reported this production strategy cut two years off of the development period of the Karma and saved Fisker Automotive some $600 million in development costs. This enables Fisker automobiles to become profitable after selling only 15,000 units. The United States government helped Fisker Automotive out in 2010 with a $529 million Department of Energy loan guarantee—provided certain production milestones were met.

The Karma was originally slated to be launched in 2009, but production delays pushed the first deliveries to July 2011, with retail customers finally getting their hands on the car in November of 2011. Base price in early 2011 was $95,000 for the basic Karma and $109,850 for the top model. These prices were increased in December of that year to $102,000 and $116,000.

Unfortunately, in December of 2011, the first cars delivered had to be called to back to correct a problem which could lead to a battery fire. In March of 2012, Consumer Reports purchased a Karma automobile with the intention of running it through its usual testing procedures. The car broke down before it could be tested. A battery problem was diagnosed and the Fisker car was repaired within a week, but the damage to its rep was done.

Actual fires have also dogged the Karma autos. One Karma burned a home in Texas, another ignited in a parking lot in Woodside, Calif., and yet another was involved in a conflagration at the port during the flooding that accompanied Hurricane Sandy. An additional 300 cars were lost in that flooding as well.

All of these problems ultimately drove the company into insolvency. By February of 2012, the company had only drawn some $200 million of the Department of Energy loan before it was suspended because the troubled Fisker was missing milestones. Fisker also had to halt the development of the Karma’s sister car, the more affordable Fisker Atlantic. The management team began to cast about for additional investors.

After disagreements with the management team over business strategies, Henrik Fisker left the company in March of 2013. Some 75 percent of Fisker Automotive employees were subsequently let go that month as well. As of this writing (June 2013), the organization is down to a core group of people struggling to save the company.