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The rise of the designer in corporate culture is shaking old hierarchies. Design is taking its place among classic disciplines such as engineering, finance, marketing, and human resources. But the innovation that designers bring to established corporations pales in comparison with the changes wrought when they design entirely new business models. Enter the designer-cum-automobile entrepreneur.
Henrik Fisker, a 37-year-old Danish-born car design wunderkind, surprised everyone two years ago when he walked away from one of the most coveted jobs in the auto industry, Design Director for Aston Martin and Director of Ford's Global Advanced Design Studio. What colleagues saw as reckless abandon, Fisker knew to be a move toward expression untethered.
This spring, Fisker unveiled the product of his newfound freedom, two new cars from an all-new company, Fisker Coachbuild. With the Latigo and Tramonto models, Fisker not only pushes the limits of auto design but also reinvents the business of high-profit, low-volume cars.
Fisker, along with partner Bernhard Koehler, the new company's COO, is reviving the art of coach building. The practice of mating mechanically complete car chassis with highly customized bodies was widespread from the 1930s to the 1950s, until the aftereffects of the Depression and World War II took their toll on brands like LeBaron, Derham, and Fleetwood.
Fisker argues that major automakers are burdened by creativity-crushing development costs and bureaucracy. What often stands between craft and greatness is design by committee, death by 1,000 cuts.
By using high-end platforms from BMW and Mercedes-Benz (DCX), Fisker can focus nearly all efforts on ravishing design. The $182,000 Latigo, for example, is built on the BMW 650 Ci Series, while the $234,000 Tramonto is mated to the SL55 AMG chassis. The stock bodies and interiors of those base models, or "mules," are gutted to make way for Fisker's complete redesigns. Fisker's customers buy their sacrificial mules, registering them as they would any other car. The vehicles are then shipped to production facilities in Turin, Italy.
There, the interior is tailored specifically to customers' tastes. The seats are entirely remade, endowed with a sartorial elegance that stands out even among the famously handcrafted interiors of Bentley, Rolls-Royce, and Maybach. A new, carbon-fiber body is then fitted to the underlying car's pickup points, the joints where body and chassis metals meet. Extra body panels are made for each vehicle sold, should an accident, ding, or scratch ever mar the precious exterior.
The supercar market is expected to double in size, to $6 billion, in the next decade. It is populated by many small shops, such as Saleen and Koenigsegg, all producing high-powered dream cars. Yet Fisker's creations differ substantially. For one, their mass-market underpinnings are street-legal and worthy of everyday use. Other tailor-made autos are track-only, built for race-car performance. Fisker's sales pitch focuses on design, not just performance.
Indeed, of the 70 Tramontos and 50 Latigos already sold, less than 20% have been ordered with an optional ultrahigh-performance package. And, at the $200,000 price point, it isn't for lack of customer means. "Our customers are self-confident," Fisker explains. "They've already made it. They don't have to prove themselves to anybody. It's about buying something they think is precious, like a piece of art."
Although average consumers may never have heard his name, Fisker commands unparalleled respect among his peers in the auto industry, designers and enthusiasts in particular. To them, Fisker is the equivalent of architect Frank Gehry or Rem Koolhaas, moving the needle with each new design. Scott Painter, the prolific auto entrepreneur who has founded 10 auto-related companies including CarsDirect.com, gushes unapologetically. "Henrik is the most talented car designer living. Period. Even before, he managed to be unconstrained by the system."
Fisker's previous work helps him rope in loyal customers. His landmarks BMW Z8 and Aston Martin DB9 garnered wide industry praise and a fanatic customer following. Geoff Velazco, automotive designer at BMW's Designworks studio, worked with Fisker and says: "People are going to remember those cars long before they remember who did the Ford Taurus. They're simply iconic." He adds: "Then and now, his cars are classics."
Fisker's designs achieve a balance, donning unabashed masculinity without displacing the anima that makes it possible to fall in love with a machine in the first place. The Tramonto's anthropomorphic headlamps, for example, stabilize its audacious, smirking maw. The Latigo's front hood manages to amalgamate geometric surfaces with organic lines.
Fisker's design works out a complicated thesis about authenticity and beauty. "I make a car just because I like it, and I'm not afraid to say that. That's pure, not the product of a huge marketing group creating on the basis of what it thinks you and a million other people need."
The past hasn't produced many successful role models for Fisker. The automotive timeline is littered with failed boutique ventures. Perhaps the most famous example is John DeLorean. Fisker execs say that they will be different. Their proprietary building process affords them the highest margins of any company in the car industry. So far, Fisker Coachbuild has sold 140 models. "Frankly, we needed less than half that number to break even," says Cristina Cheever, vice-president for marketing and communications.
Fisker also has an ace up its sleeve, one that others before him never had. He says that his fledgling company has been approached by mass-market manufacturers to produce one-off designs for hire. That could provide valuable capital during lean times. Or it might be a way to scale Fisker Coachbuild's already innovative business model.
By Matt Vella