Orange County: A nondescript landscape that consists of an endless repetition of identical office buildings and residential estates beneath an unchanging blue sky. The stereotypical setting – an ideal backdrop for "Desperate Housewives" or "Weeds" – makes it hard to imagine that it is the international Mecca of car design. Not to mention the seat of a bold entrepreneur whose visionary spirit is well hidden behind the mirrored facade of yet another anonymous office edifice.
Venturesome was probably the kindest comment made in the automobile branch about Henrik Fisker when he quit his prestigious job as Chief Designer at exclusive British sports car manufacturer Aston Martin. His plans to construct an electrically powered limousine featuring an on-board charging device to recharge the battery pack while driving was judged downright crazy and in no way viable in the established car industry. Battery technology was still in its infancy, the infrastructure for recharging battery packs nonexistent, and the extended driving range consumers demand of a vehicle simply not doable.
When you buy a Fisker, you don't just invest in an ecological car. You invest in the newest of technologies as well as in a sustainable lifestyle.
Henrik Fisker is of Danish extraction and grew up in Copenhagen. His Scandinavian heritage is immediately apparent: flaxen-haired, with round cheeks and an alert sparkle in his eyes, the 48-year-old radiates boyish insouciance. "To develop a really good product, you have to follow your gut feeling,” he says, confirming our first impression. Gut feeling was what underlay his belief that extravagant dynamic designs and an environment-friendly car would be a perfect combination. His vision began to take a definite shape when he heard about a promising plug-in hybrid technology that had been developed for US military vehicles. And his conviction received a further boost when Leonardo DiCaprio arrived at the 2005 Academy Awards driving a Prius. DiCaprio’s public commitment to an eco-friendly vehicle made the full scope of the market’s potential clear to the future automobile entrepreneur. Six years later, in the summer of 2011, the very first Fisker Karma – a 15-foot four-door sedan, with electrically powered rear-wheel drive and exclusive Q Drive technology – was delivered to environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio, "a fantastic brand ambassador for us".
Everybody knows what a Ford or a Mercedes is. Mention "Fisker" and hardly anybody can even identify it as a car. Building a car brand from scratch is an incredible challenge.
"The development of a new car costs approximately one billion dollars," Fisker explains without batting an eye. Fisker has managed to accumulate slightly more, in fact 1.1 billion dollars in investment capital from private investors and the US government – and this in a period of severe economic crisis. Obviously, the man has a keen mind for business, and Fisker looks every inch the entrepreneur, dressed in an elegant dark suit and seated at the round conference table in his office. Only the sketches in the background reveal his origins as a designer. One can well imagine the graduate from the renowned Design School "Art Center Pasadena" wheeling and dealing in the world of finance and politics. Indeed, it was no less than American Vice-President Joe Biden who announced the investment of government funds in Fisker Automotive to the public. All in all, the automobile innovator makes a very confident impression: a mover and shaker who knows what he wants and how he plans to get it.
Ten to twenty years ago, being ecologically aware meant rejecting consumption and eschewing luxury. Today, this has changed completely.
And the fact of the matter is that Henrik Fisker is not a starry-eyed idealist. He simply loves cars. "I want people to be able to continue driving fine, fast cars in the future as well. But that will only be possible, if we develop radically new technologies," the CEO and Executive Design Director of Fisker Automotive says, revealing what drives him. Ecological awareness, efficient use of resources, and consumption sensitivity are simply a logical consequence of this motivation – a motivation which has led to his desire to create "a brand for people who identify with our values." In his view, a futuristic ecological vehicle should offer more green features than just groundbreaking plug-in hybrid-drive technology. Which is why reclaimed wood is used for the Karma's interior fitting, the foam in the seats derives from soy, the car paint is made out of recycled glass, and the seat leather comes from eco-friendly production. Furthermore the rooftop is fitted with a 120 W solar panel.
Design is central to our branding concept. We want to evoke passion, become the embodiment of uncompromised yet responsible luxury – and be different than the rest.
The glass building in Orange County is a hive of activity buzzing with Fisker employees in ironed trousers and wearing a badge on their tucked-in polo shirts. The Fisker Karma itself is produced elsewhere, thousands of miles away in far-off Finland. This outsourcing strategy contributes to cost efficiency, but manufacturing will soon be done in the US at their own production site, a former GM factory in Delaware. Along with upholding uncompromising production principles, under no circumstance does Henrik Fisker want to go down in car history as the guy who made super cool eco-cars that ended up on the shelf. "To be successful, we have to sell as many cars as possible. That's the only way we can bring movement into the market." With a price tag of nearly 90'000 USD, the Karma is clearly too expensive to fulfill this role." However, this is an intentional gambit: "The first car is brand defining – the essence of our image." Naturally, Fisker has further models lined up for his beautiful, new car world: In September 2011, the Fisker Surf, a sports coupé, was announced at the Frankfurt car exhibition. And with his current project "Nina", Fisker intends to introduce a mid-sized sedan to the market for less than 50'000 USD.
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The Brander is a publication of the Branders Group