Henrik Fisker, one of the more complicated and controversial figures in the auto industry, was a picture of suave and calm the day before Tuesday’s reveal of his new Force 1 supercar.
It’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.
He was a bit of grim cheerleader back then, trying to rally his troops and customers as Fisker Automotive struggled to live up to its early promise.
But at the Detroit Auto Show this year, he’s back at his best.
“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.
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 he’s moved on.
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.”
Not that it’s all old-school car guy brandishing. Fisker outlines are 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.
This 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 head, 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.