He was, along with Ian Callum, responsible for the design revolution that turned Aston Martin from moribund maker of grand tourers into a brand repeatedly named the world's coolest. He designed and created a plug-in, range-extender sports saloon when everyone thought that the word "hybrid" meant "mid-size Toyota". He even designed a BMW for James Bond. And now Henrik Fisker reckons that the cure for the motor industry's ills: the way to get younger buyers interested in cars again, is all down to excitement.
"I think people have actually given a very clear signal that, for the first time in the history of car making, people are actually willing to go out and buy a car brand that they've never heard of, or even from a brand that has never previously made a car," says Fisker.
“I think things that are happening at Apple and Google are indicators that we’re having a new revolution in the car industry, and I could very well imagine in 10 years, the brands that you and I grew up with, some of them won’t even exist in 10 years because they just don’t appeal to car buyers any more,” he says.
“I think they care about the design, the price and the big thing: the brand. The brand will be defined around ultimately what type of product it is and how it’s brought to market.
“I think there will be less emphasis on detailed engineering specs that our generation grew up with. You know, how much horsepower, what kind of suspension – most of the new generation don’t care or know about this and it’s not important to them,” says Fisker.
“I do think that we’re probably a little bit in a vacuum where the car industry has been almost confused and has kind of strangely alienated their own buyers by not really making too much excitement for the new generation of car buyers, and that generation, already having this wonderful technology available, has had less interest in cars. I think, though, that’s only a temporary thing.
“I think that ultimately the young generation, which has grown up on iPads, I bet you on 10-15 years, it will be incredibly exciting for them to actually get into a vehicle and actually drive themselves. So as much as you might have autonomous cars, there’s nothing in this world that’s as exciting, with as much power and freedom, as driving a car. Those who understand how to make the car exciting again will be the winners,” he says.
Fisker can take some credit for being one of the more forward thinking designers in the car industry. A decade ago, he was comfortably ensconced at Aston Martin, churning out perfectly-proportioned sports cars for well-heeled customers and could have been forgiven for getting complacent, easing into his work and staying firmly put.
That's not what he did though. Instead, in 2011, he left Aston Martin and set up his own company, Fisker Automobiles. It started by making fresh, custom-built bodies for existing cars, but then stunned the industry by making a sports saloon. The Karma plug-in, range-extender hybrid features a mechanical layout the rest of the industry has yet to still catch up with.
“I think that when you develop something that is completely new and that no one has ever done before, you obviously are in the middle of a journey that is in itself incredible, because you never know what’s around the corner or behind the next door. And that’s really how it was to develop the Karma” he says.
“At the time we were so on the edge of the new technology, that unfortunately we had a battery company go bankrupt and that sadly was detrimental. I don’t know how ahead of its time the Karma was, I think it was about of its time actually, but because of the battery problem we weren’t able to ride on that wave and explore it, which was very sad.”
Nevertheless, Fisker is convinced vehicles the Karma will soon take their place in the industry.
“I think that these type of cars, whether its plug-in hybrids or electric cars are absolutely going to be part of our lives, and part of our selection of cars, so it’s possible that in the future I’ll be designing a car like that again. But I think that the Karma kind of opened the way for some of the bigger car companies to start developing plug-in hybrids, so I’m very pleased with that.”
Fisker’s company folded after 4,000 Karmas had been made and sold, but now he’s back on more familiar territory – designing a custom-built body for existing mechanicals.
His latest project is the VLF Automotive Force 1, based on the chassis and engine of a Dodge Viper, and engineered by racing driver Ben Keating. The development of the car dragged up some old ghosts though. After seeing the initial sketches, Aston Martin accused Fisker of ripping off their design for the DB10 and requested the car's debut at the Detroit motor show be pulled. Fisker responded with a lawsuit, accusing Aston Martin of "civil extortion". The case has not yet been settled, but things have calmed down somewhat.
So why, after pioneering the creation of the plug-in hybrid, has Fisker returned to such an apparently simple car, a big, fast, front-engined GT?
“Well you know you can’t eat salad every single day, once in a while you want a nice big steak and a piece of a apple pie, and I think that this is what the Force 1 is really about,” he says.
“It’s really about everything we fall in love with when we think about cars: the brutal force of the engine, the interaction with the mechanics, the sound, the smell, everything else.
“I’ve designed many different cars in my life and I still think we’re going to see both gasoline and electric cars and hybrids for a long time,” he adds.
"Normal cars are getting a little more dramatic, so the sports cars that we know are now not so separated anymore, so you have to do something unique. So you can go the Bugatti way and make a car with 1,500hp or you can do something with design or other unique things. But you look at some hot hatches, and even electric cars now, that have the performance of a sports car, the acceleration, so it becomes more difficult to separate yourself."
“So with this project, it wasn’t really about shocking, it was about figuring out what is an American supercar, what is American design,” says Fisker.
“If you think back to the days of the muscle car, the Corvette from the ’60s or ’70s, it was a very extroverted, sculpted car. So that was something I wanted to bring in. You know, the Cobra and the Shelby Cobra Coupe, these cars were very voluptuous and were quite shocking in their own way back in the day, so it was a project where I didn’t want to hold myself back.
"If I were to design a European sports car, I would have probably thought about the brand and the history, and would probably have to hold myself back a bit because, in general, people in Europe don't like to be so extroverted, so we have to be careful. So I think for me this was the opposite, to be able to show who you are and show what you got," he explains.
“So we’ve got this incredibly long hood, which is of course a given as we’re using this gigantic V10 8.4-litre engine from the Viper, with 745hp and it’s almost half the length of the car. But there was something cool about that for me because it was about being brutally honest, because it’s the type of car that when you’re a little boy or a girl you just get butterflies in the stomach when you see one. It’s very rare these days to see a car like that,” says Fisker.
If you’re looking to inject some excitement back into the car-buying world, you could do worse than start here.