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Henrik Fisker's cars roar into the future

The Danish designer creates cars to be fast and beautiful, and he's convinced that people will pay for those features in a hybrid. With a federal loan, his Irvine firm will put that to the test.

December 12, 2009|By Scott Kraft

Not long ago, Henrik Fisker was dashing up Interstate 5 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 fess up. "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 on Sunset Boulevard. "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 below $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 silhouettes.

An automobile is one of the most complex products for a designer, who must create an aesthetic that combines elements of proportion, sculpture and graphics while accommodating thousands of parts and teams of engineers and marketers.

Fisker is known for designs that are fresh as well as classic. "He can do something new and contemporary -- but do it with an echo of the brand legacy," said Stewart Reed, chairman of the transportation design department at the Art Center College of Design. "He understands the importance of proportion and architecture. But he also understands that design, at the end of the day, is a business tool."

The Z8 roadster, a $128,000 update of the 1956 BMW 507, reflects Fisker's classical design sensibilities, with long, sweeping hood lines and a bold curve over the wheels, which is one of his signatures. The result is a car with a powerful stance, an unmistakable BMW pedigree and, as many reviewers put it, a "timeless design."

James Bond drives a silver Z8 in the 1999 film "The World is Not Enough." Bond survives in the movie; the car doesn't. It is sawed in half.

Walking around his Aston Martin V8 Vantage recently, Fisker pointed out the design elements he used in the $150,000 vehicle. The long, sleek lines are "a human-like form of sculpture that I think makes a car sexy," he said. "It's like a muscle, with the veins of the muscle shining through."

The Vantage has a rounded shoulder over the wheels, giving it a muscular bearing.

"I like to have the widest part of the car being the wheels and not the body," he said. "It gives it a more athletic look and, with the sculpture, helps make a car look sexy."

For Fisker, raw, curbside appeal is the key to car design.

"You've got to capture the emotional part through the form, so that when people look at it, even before they know if it's a good-quality car or a fast car, even if they aren't a 'car person,' they say, 'Wow, I've got to have that.'

"When I see a car I've designed going down the street and somebody admiring it, that's a nice feeling," he said.

The story of how Fisker became a heralded car designer and the eponymous 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 at age 5, when he was 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."

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