Henrik Fisker is an automotive veteran with what you could only call an eclectic back catalog. The Dane is many things to many people. Brash, bold, a man with contrasting visions... Ten minutes with him is enough to understand why.
For those late to the party, Fisker designed poster-worthy cars such as the BMW Z8 and Aston Martin DB9, and then went out on his own and started an eponymous electric car brand during the infancy of Tesla. The result? The undeniably gorgeous Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid (pictured below), a car favoured by the likes of Leo DiCaprio.
But Fisker’s direction was contrary to its contemporary, Tesla, which has been able to weather losses. Fisker — which received money from the US Department of Energy — went under in 2013, whereupon it was bought by the Chinese Wanxiang Group.
The reborn brand now known as Karma will re-emerge in 2016 sans its founder, with a new Californian factory cranking out an updated version of the car bearing the new brand’s name and using some BMW components. The automotive landscape today has more fertile soil for such a venture.
Pictured: Fisker Karma.
Fisker, the man, has gone in a rather contrary direction. He made waves recently by joining famed ex-GM executive, and noted climate change skeptic, Bob Lutz, and industrialist Gilbert Villarreal in a business venture to make American muscle cars.
The new Michigan-based brand is called VLF Automotive, billed by Lutz as “America’s newest, smallest and priciest OEM”.
It used last week’s Detroit motor show to reveal two new American-made cars: a Fisker Karma updated with a tweaked design and fitted with a Corvette V8 engine, now called the VLF Destino, designed to be the leading four-door GT in the world and priced at $US229,000. Talk about ambitious...
The other car? A Dodge Viper-based ‘American supercar’ called the Force 1, sporting racing pedigree and carbonfibre construction, priced at about $US270,000. Read all about that model in our separate story.
Comically, the Force 1 is the car that drew ire from Aston Martin, which allegedly attempted to make VLF shelve the reveal because a teaser sketch image indicated it would look like one of its products. Clearly, the Force 1 is rather far removed from a Vantage...
We talked with Henrik about VLF, his renewed plans in the ‘green’ space, autonomous cars, the Australian market and the fact you really don’t make friends with salad.
[Note: Interview has been edited for clarity.]
The Force 1 (above) looks great, Henrik. And nothing remotely like an Aston. Tell us some back story.
Ben Keating [original Force 1 project co-founder and Dodge Viper race driver] basically said to me, ‘Henrik we have all this amazing racing technology, I wish somebody could put it on the road, can’t we do something cool?’
So it kind of started with, ‘why don’t we make an American supercar?’ … and he has a good relationship with Dodge, obviously, and so we went and talked with them about it - about different volumes and so on - and we decided to do a little lower volume at a higher price, just because we felt a little more exclusive.
That’s how it came about, and we just decided that let’s do something a little more extreme, that is just about passion for cars.
Because I’m doing another project at the moment as well, with electric and that stuff, and that’s great, but it’s almost like we are moving so far over to all this where everyone is going ‘it's going to be so great’, everybody is driving around in these self-driving cars… I don’t know if it's going to be that great, really…
You need some Yang to the Yin?
Why don’t we do something completely different, something that takes us right back to what we love about cars, what’s so cool about cars, and I think there’s room.
Yes we should eat healthy, and salad every day, but you don’t want just salad... there’s a point where you just want a steak, or fish and chips, or whatever.
This [VLF] is kind of that, where you just say hey, this is just the raw passion for cars, and it’s done by people… one of the reasons I joined VLF, it was because Bob and Gilbert, they're doing this because they love it, they're not doing this because … of course they need to make some money on this, but we’re not in any debt, we’re not having to go to somebody and ask for any money, we don’t have to go to any committees, we’re just doing it. With this car we just did it, you know?
So you were already well under way with the Force 1 by the time you joined up with Bob and Gilbert?
Well I had started the project, I hadn't started building yet, so I was actually looking for a place to build it.
Bob and I have known each other for a long time… I called Gilbert and said ‘hey I’m looking for a place to build this car’. I went out and saw the facility and said ‘listen, wow, you’ve got this huge site’, and he said yeah, and we’re building your old car here [the VL Destino project was underway at the time in Michigan].
And suddenly, I don't remember if it was Bob or Gilbert, said ‘why don’t you just join us? Become a partner?' I said sure, why not?
And so Bob said, ‘we need a new logo’, so I sat down and sketched it, and said what do you think of that, with the three letters, and he said ‘yeah let’s do that’. It was really that quick, literally happened a few months ago, three months ago.
And then I said if we’re going to do that, I want to redesign the front (of the Destino, nee Karma) because I feel it’s too square, that other front they had, and he said ‘yeah you can do that but you’ve only got like six weeks’.
So I quickly redesigned the front, made it a little smoother at the rear, and then we launched the logo, the website, we’ve done everything in the last few weeks.
Very hectic… it moved so fast, and we have just decided we want to have some fun, we’re not part of the normal corporate car world, and even the smaller car companies these days, they have to be a little more corporate…
They have a lot of employees and stakeholders, but we’re keeping things so lean that if somebody came tomorrow and said ‘I want 1000 of those cars’ we couldn't build them. And that’s ok, because we don't want to.
We want to stay in a way that we can do what we want, and maybe one day we’ll get to 1000 cars but not in the next couple of years. We’ll make maybe 200-300 cars, and we’re happy with that and I think there’s room.
I think there’s room for an American sports car company because quite frankly, it’s the biggest sports car market in the world, and there isn't even one.
Pictured: The original Fisker Karma, compared to the Destino, pictured further up the page.
You said before in your press conference that it’s time for a “no excuses US supercar”. So do the Viper and Corvette not fit that bill, and if not, why not?
I think when I say supercar, you’ve got to be up in a certain price segment as well to be able to do crazy stuff. Look, both Corvette and Viper are amazing cars, particularly when you look at the price of those cars.
And they're in a segment which is the sports car segment, not the supercar segment. They’re super powerful, and they have a lot of amazing attributes, and I think they're great value for money in those segments. Value for money, by the way, is part of being American.
The Force 1, at $270,000 US, isn’t too bad for a supercar…
It’s not bad, I didn't want to make a million-dollar car. It’s kind of like ‘eh you know, another one million dollar car, nobody can afford it, you’re never going to see it…
Yeah, and so, what I think makes it different, what I think it is to be a supercar, you’ve got to be a little more extreme. This thing, it has 21-inch wheels, all carbonfibre body, we’ve got all suede inside, its not even Alcantara, active suspension, so it’s got to go a bit above normal mass-produced cars.
And of course, I’m just blabbing right now now, because who the hell has really defined what a supercar is? Nobody has. But I think if you really want to define it, I think we’re sort of in the luxury segment, because what I really wanted to capture with this car, with this company, is the American luxury market.
It’s the biggest in the world, and if you say the upper luxury market starts over $150K… there is no American car that starts over $150K. There just isn't.
So if you suddenly have a lot of money and your editor pays you a big bonus for this great article, [or] the fund managers get whatever, five million bucks, and now you're going to buy yourself a sports car, well you only really have a choice of the European sports cars.
That’s about it. There is no other.
That actually applies to other markets around the world, too. The Europeans have the upper luxury market sewn up.
Yeah, they've sewn it up, that’s it.
So does that ‘All American’ image resonate to luxury buyers outside of this country [US]?
Yeah, we want to sell these cars internationally. The Fisker Karma was sold in Europe and did quite well in several countries, so think this car [Destino] will do very well. I think this car [Force 1] will also do very well, actually I already have an order.
From summer we will start to sell these cars in Europe, and I think they translate well because they’re not giant like the old American cars, and they’re also not mass-market American cars, which sometimes don’t translate because they're made so specific for the American market.
I mean when you’re up in this luxury segment, you're pretty much talking to people, engaging with people, who are worldly, they travel, they have certain expectations.
They also have many cars, so they’re fine with having cars that do certain things. They’ll have a Range Rover, a Rolls-Royce, then they’ll have a sports car. They may even have a little city car, or an electric car.
We’re appealing to that segment that adds cars, and it’ll appeal worldwide, absolutely. Competing with the Europeans, absolutely — there’s room for competition. Why not?
You said before you were working on an electric project as well…
Not in this company, that’s a different company.
Can you talk about that at all or is it…
It’s too early, you know, we kind of want to stay undercover… I want to say a lot but it’s hard to define that but there are at least 4-5 electric startups, and everybody is making noise and this and that, and we don't need to go out for funding and all that right now, so we’ll work a little undercover. I’ve done this before, so, I kind of want to get a little ahead.
Before we show something to journalists we want to have something a little more tangible.
Tell me, the new Karma company, the Chinese-owned, Cali-based one that starts production of the reborn Karma with BMW bits this year, I gather they own the design rights to the shape that has become the Destino, right?
Well that’s murky because of the bankruptcy and all that, but to tell you really what’s happening, we are buying these cars from Karma, and we already bought a whole bunch of cars.
The way it works is Karma Automotive, they have cars that were still left.. not a lot, I think it was about 100, which is why we can make about a hundred.
Now we can buy those cars, and we are getting our own VIN, fully certified everything. So this car when you look at the VIN will say ‘VLF Destino’.
So you take all the PHEV stuff out and you put the V8 engine in it?
Everything in it, and we buy it directly from them, so we can buy the 2012 cars that are left and sell them as new cars when we modify them, but Karma can't sell them as new because they're 2012.
And does that relationship continue?
Yeah, so when they eventually start building, then we’ll keep on buying them, and we’re obviously completely different, so they're not competitors at all. I mean there’s platform sharing between Audi and Lamborghini, or the new Fiat  and Mazda Miata (MX-5), you can keep on going.
But in this sense we are so far away because they're doing a PHEV, we’re doing a V8… so we don't see any competition. It’s basically just platform sharing.
We will in the next 14 months make a whole new body design, kind of get to that next point. So for now, because we’re buying the existing ones, we think it’s fine, but then we’ll make a whole new body design, and then it’ll be our own car. We’ll just have the frame, so it's just platform sharing.
Australia has one of the highest penetrations of luxury and supercars anywhere…
And you love V8s too…
Indeed. And Ferrari, Porsche and others are all setting records…
The only problem is we need the steering wheel… the only problem is these platforms, they don't have right-hand drive. But we’re looking at that third car and it would be great to have a platform that actually has that so we could send the cars over there.
The third car would be an equally high-end sports car?
We don't know yet, maybe we’d do an SUV or something…