If you don't know Henrik Fisker by name, you most certainly know his body of work.
At 51, this Danish designer (why do all good designers come from Denmark?) has put his signature on some of the most legendary machines on four wheels: BMW's Z8, Aston Martin's V8 Vantage, DB9, Tesla's Model S, and his very own Fisker Karma. Just recently, he added the Galpin Auto Sports "Rocket", a 725 hp Ford Mustang-based behemoth that made huge waves at the LA Auto Show earlier this year to his resumé.
While in LA, I was lucky enough to sit down with him and pick his brain on what it takes to be Henrik Fisker. Spoiler: it involves a ton of hard work.
What's one piece of advice that you would give your 21-year-old self?
[To] work really hard, try to learn as much as possible. If it’s a car company and you want to be in the car business, join a fairly large car company where you can learn as much as possible. Work very closely with engineers to try and understand what they’re thinking, because that’s one of the most important things today. Car design has changed. It really is a collaborative effort where you need to bring the engineers along on the journey to a great design.
How do you find the balance between designers and engineers?
If you work together with engineers from the beginning, you find a quicker path and maybe the right path. You brainstorm with engineers on how to solve some of the issues that you’re facing when you’re trying to come up with a new design. Sometimes you’re surprised that the engineers have some really good ideas about how to solve a certain issue, and how you can actually get closer to the design, rather than just ignoring it. Then the engineers [don’t have to] come up with something last minute that doesn’t work anymore.
When you designed the BMW Z8, did you find that it was difficult to create something so new and radical within a very large organization?
[It wasn't] as difficult as you might think, because [BMW] is a company that’s full of car enthusiasts. Everybody loves what they’re doing all the way up to the top. So in that case, of course there was certain effort required and there was certain convincing to be done, but it wasn’t as difficult as you might think because the environment allowed you to explore those type of things that maybe other companies found more difficult. But it’s clear it is becoming more difficult to take risk because risk means that potentially you could lose money and the money in the car business is very big.
Car design's changed. It's really a collaborative effort where you need to bring the engineers along.
But it’s clear it is becoming more difficult to take risk because risk means that potentially you could lose money and the money in the car business is very big so people get more and more nervous about taking a big risk.
Walk me through what it’s like to take a design from radical napkin sketch to reality.
I hope that the sketch is going to be close to the final product. It goes back to the process you’re using. If you’re sitting alone in a room doing that sketch and you don’t talk to anybody, you don’t have any understanding of what the fundamentals of automotive engineering are. What’s required today from all designers, even if you do something extremely radical, is that you have some fundamental understanding of what’s possible or how a car’s assembled. You have to have some understanding of the rules and regulations because that way you think more about how to solve these problems than just ignoring them.
Everybody at BMW loves what they’re doing, all the way to the top.
The second thing is how early you bring the engineering team into the design process. I think there are several areas that you have to look at to make sure that you end up with something that’s very close to that sketch.
Then third, there’s also the culture of the company. Some companies are willing to go the extra mile to make something that is very exciting and unique. Other companies are saying, 'Look that’s not really what we do.'
What are some companies right now that you think are doing their best to uphold these concepts while encouraging designers?
I can only mention the companies that I worked for, and BMW is an example where they are willing to go beyond what many other car companies are doing. I’m sitting here at the LA Auto Show and looking across the room I can see the I8. I think the I8 is a good example of where BMW is showing its commitment to do something uniquely different, taking a risk.
It's clear it's becoming more difficult to take risk, because risk means that you could potentially lose [a lot] of money.
When you set out to create Fisker Automotive, what was the biggest personal risk?
It’s a huge risk to leave the whole establishment, to leave everything you know and love and set out on your own. And then to not only leave the establishment, but to go right up against it, that’s an extraordinary risk. On top of it being a new company, it was a new company, developing a new car, using entirely new and untested technology.
What we used in the Fisker Karma had never been on the road before in any significant capacity. We were using brand new suppliers that hadn’t even been in the automotive business before. Battery technology that had never been on the road. All of that was filled with risks, but that’s where innovation is born. You can’t plan everything perfectly because you’re creating something incredibly new. There is no playbook. The Fisker Karma was the first premium electric vehicle with a range extender. Nobody had done that before.
Did you ever second guess yourself while building Fisker Automotive?
We worked at such a speed and we were doing something so exciting and so new that personally, I never doubted at all that this was something that would be very unique. So I wouldn’t say that I had a moment where I second guessed myself. I’m not the type of guy who gives up and I guess that’s why I’m here showing a brand new car.
What do you drive on a daily basis? And what other cars would you like to be in your garage?
I drive a Fisker Karma at the moment, and I would like [to have] the car that we are showing tomorrow. It’s a real muscle car. I’ve always been a believer that we can keep exciting gasoline cars on the road. We’ve got to figure out a way to make cleaner cars, but I think it’s very clear that cars are passionate symbols purchased by passionate people. Nothing will ever replace the feeling of a V8 engine.
But I have to assume you’re not just a one-car guy.
Yeah, I have a few. I have an Aston Martin V8 Vantage and I had a V12, but I ended up getting so many speeding tickets that I thought it was better to change to the V8. There’s a point where you can’t afford that anymore, especially when you drive.
What we used in the Fisker Karma had never been on the road before in any significant capacity.
You should have just kept the dealer plate on!
That’s true. That could have been an idea.
Do you still have the Z8?
I’m searching for one at the moment. I would love to get a Z8, but I think I need a bigger garage first.
Nothing will ever replace the feeling of a V8 engine.
Well, what's in your dream garage?
That list is way too long. I do like classic cars, but I don’t think I would collect too many unless I would drive them.
First things last: tell me about the first car you ever drove.
My father’s Saab 925. I drove it in the snow and I remember I landed in a ditch. I didn’t want to call my Dad. First, I tried to dig out the snow and that didn’t work. Finally I saw a farmer coming in his tractor and I waved him down. I asked if he could pull me out, which he did. I was happy that I first told my father quite a while later about it.