Henrik Fisker, one of the more complicated and controversial figures in the auto industry, was a picture of suave and calm the day before the reveal of his new Force 1 supercar at the Detroit Auto Show.
He’s a far cry from the embattled Fisker I last saw at a party on a rainy night in Los Angeles in 2011, when his company, Fisker Automotive, was less than a year from bankruptcy.
A bit of grim cheerleader back then, Fisker was trying to rally his troops and customers as Fisker Automotive struggled to live up to its early promise.
But in Detroit this year, he was fully recovered.
“It feels great to be back,” he said, surrounded by chassis of old Fisker Karmas that have had the hybrid-electric motors extracted and big 638-horsepower Corvette V8s dropped in, courtesy of what used to be called VL Automotive, but that will now be known as VLF Automotive.
The V is for Gilbert Villarreal, a bespoke engineer who operates out of Motown. The L is for Bob Lutz, a former Marine aviator who was for decades, prior to his recent retirement, the definitive car guy, with stints at Chrysler and BMW before landing at GM as the company’s product czar. The F, of course, is for Fisker.
VLF Automotive was tucked away on the floor of the Cobo Center, the sprawling downtown home of the Detroit Auto Show. Villarreal’s VM Destinos are sharing the modest space with a car under a silvery sheet: the Force 1, which Fisker’s former employer, Aston Martin, claims is a ripoff of his designs for the famed British marque.
Fisker was so baffled by the accusation that he field a lawsuit against Aston Martin, claiming extortion. He flicks through images of a car on his iPad, pointing out all the unique elements, almost as if he’s sketching. Old designers never die, they just imagine new cars.
Fisker, however, is under no illusions about what VLF is up against.
“In this industry, you have to have passion,” he said. “It’s tough, there’s no mercy. But I just love cars — I love to bring a new car to market. And every time I do this, it gets a little easier.”
Frankly, I had expected to meet a far more scarred and haggard Fisker than I did. But the sleek Dane with a twinkle in his eye, bounce in his step, and brand new supercar to show off came off like a man with a fresh lease on life.
It helps that he occupies a unique place in the industry, one shared only by the likes of Elon Musk. A new car company is something more rare than a black swan. While we chatted, Fisker was assaulted by well-wishers and fans. He’s the living embodiment of something that’s nearly impossible to do in the merciless car business.
He makes an ideal partner for Lutz, a forthright executive who labored within the traditional industry but always came off as the only person who really knew what car lovers truly wanted.
Lutz was already a Fisker fan — “He tried to hire me a few times,” Fisker said — but for the VLF partnership to be cemented, something special had to happen.
Or the “three right guys,” as Fisker put it, just needed to eat together at a Mexican restaurant and down a few Margaritas.
“Society today is more open to new companies than it was 20 or 30 years ago,” he said. “Young people are used to the idea that new brands can be created.”
In the case of VLF, that’s something close to pure automotive pleasure, at the two critical levels of brash design and raw power.
Fisker is clearly proud of the innovations he introduced with the Karma, a pricey plug-in hybrid that was Tesla’s main competition when both carmakers hit the scene — the Karma, in fact, got there first.
But Fisker thinks that we may be suffering from something of an electric-car hangover. “We were overly optimistic about market penetration. But we’re not all going to be driving EVs in 5 years. There will be a mix.”
And now he’s definitely moved on to embrace that future.
The Force 1 is his new baby, an American supercar who’s only real rival, given the anticipated $300,00o price tag, is Ford’s GT, a $400,000 roadgoing version of a Le Mans race car.
“We wanted to make it extreme,” he said. “There were no committees. We wanted to do what we love and do what we think is right.”
Fisker may say that “he loves the sound of a gas engine,” but VLF isn’t all old-school car guy brandishing. He outlines a decent business case.
“If you want to spend over $200,000, it’s hard to find an American car like this. You have to buy a foreign car. I just find it strange that there isn’t competition for the Europeans. There is a niche for us.”
“America is more extreme and flamboyant,” he said.
That view explains why Fisker sees the Force 1 joining the ranks of the most American of American cars. He throws around words like “high power” and “high torque” speaks admiringly of “the size and volume” of the shapes that characterise the “fee spirit” of the best American machines.
The day after Fisker and I sat down to chat, he and his partners were pulling the cover off the Force 1, to a scrum of media onlookers five deep. The car wasn’t exactly a revelation: it’s basically a Dodge Viper with Fiskerized bodywork and a deeply luxurious interior, featuring two slots for Champagne bottles.
But it is a refreshingly arrogant, long-hooded beast, a rolling catalogue of aggressive car-designer riffs. This is the kind of car that young, car-crazy kids draw in notebooks — and that will be bought by older gentlemen of means who are attracted to Corvettes, but who want something with a lot more panache to go along with the stonking horsepower.
This all raises an obvious question: Has VLF built the last of the dinosaurs?
Fisker doesn’t think so. True, GM just rolled out a small all-electric car at CES in Las Vegas, the Bolt, and Tesla will bring a similar mass-market EV to the game in 2017, the Model 3. Gas may be less than $2 a gallon is parts of the US and SUV may be selling like crazy, but are we really ready to go back to mythical American cars of the cheap-gas-forever age?
“The optimism in the industry helps right now,” Fisker said.
And then he tips his hand, saying something that only a true car guy would say.
“You don’t have to drive an annoying little car that you don’t like.”
Welcome back, Mr. Fisker.
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