Fisker Tramonto and Latigo

Brian Konoske

I don't care what you say. There will always be sports cars, and that's what I want to design, not trams and buses." So said Dane Henrik Fisker sixteen years ago, just before he graduated from the short-lived Swiss campus of California's Art Center College of Design. In their final semester, Fisker and his classmates were asked to plot out ways for people to get around city centers closed to automobiles, and the sports cars he wanted to draw did not fit any rational scenarios, thus his heartfelt outburst.

You have to admire a man who knows what he wants and is prepared to work as hard as Fisker has to achieve it. He started his professional career in 1989 at BMW Technik, moved to BMW AG, where he created the Z07 show car that evolved into the Z8 production model, and then went to BMW Designworks in California, working his way up to CEO before resigning to become design boss at Aston Martin-an impressive career trajectory in just a decade. Last January, he resigned from the Ford Motor Company's Premier Automotive Group, where he was heading up the advanced design operation in Irvine, California.

Afterward there was plenty of wild speculation that had him landing as design leader for almost every major car manufacturer, but Fisker soon announced that he was going to build his own cars. Doing that is the dream of many a designer, but in an era when car design is controlled more by law and lawyers than by physics and technology, it is very nearly impossible, and it requires an unreasonable amount of capital, money that small-volume car manufacturers cannot repay as quickly as venture capitalists demand.

Fisker himself appears to be a leading member of the Lucky Sperm Club-not many design students can afford to run three sports cars simultaneously to get direct experience with different mechanical layouts, as he did-but he is also a careful thinker who addressed the overwhelming problems of car manufacturing and came up with what certainly seem to be practical and workable methods to achieve his goals. Goals, it need be said, that are shared by partner Bernhard Koehler, an industry veteran with twenty-two years at BMW, plus time with Fisker at Aston Martin and Ford. Koehler is the operations man in the tight-knit team that runs Fisker Coachbuild, the almost-virtual company that launched two new products at the Frankfurt auto show in September, just nine months after the company was formed.

How can a single designer and one technical person design, develop, and certify a car in so little time? The answer is simple: they can't, and they didn't. What they did was devise a scheme that is glaringly obvious once you think about it: they use other people's already certified cars as the basis for their work, relieving themselves of nearly all compliance problems. Fisker and Koehler have set themselves up as body builders, just as the company name states, but unlike coachbuilders in the early years of the auto industry, they do not build whole bodies on a simple ladder-like chassis frame. Instead, they remove virtually all the outer skin of an already certified car, leaving intact everything pertaining to certification: bumper structures, air-bag sensors, door hinges, hood latches, wipers and windshield washers, and dozens of other elements that have been painstakingly designed, engineered, tested, and certified by whole corps of competent people.

The only certification required for a Fisker Coachbuild car (the linguistically strange name of the company presumably comes from the fact that English is the second, third, or maybe fifth language of the polyglot European principals) concerns the headlamps and taillights; they must meet DOT standards for coverage and intensity. But the expense of certification testing can be spread over 150 units, which is the stated limit of each and every Fisker Coachbuild design. And to get around the need to prove that their new skins do not substantially modify the crash comportment of a car, Fisker Coachbuild performs its transformation only on cars already owned, and registered, by the client.

If you want to own one of the 150 Tramonto (sunset in Italian) roadsters, you must first go to your Mercedes-Benz or AMG dealer, buy the base car, and register it in your name. Then you turn it over to Fisker Coachbuild in California for a total transformation. Apart from the windshield pillars and the folding hard top of the basic Mercedes-Benz SL, every exterior surface of the Tramonto is new, executed in stamped steel (the welded-in rear quarter panels), aluminum, or carbon fiber. The car actually does look new, and most observers are inclined to ask, if they are aware that there is something established underneath the skin, "Is it based on an Aston?" The grille Fisker has chosen as the symbol of his venture is inspired by the frontal aspect of the F-22 Raptor fighter plane, but it unfortunately looks very much like the traditional Aston Martin grille shape on top, and it is repeated inversely on the lower side. It is nice, but in my opinion and that of several other designers who saw the car at Frankfurt, too closely linked to a known identifying shape.

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