It’s Wednesday morning, and at Fisker Automotive headquarters in Anaheim, California, 48-year-old Denmark native Henrik Fisker—company CEO and creator of the brand-new Fisker Karma, the first-ever luxury electric vehicle—is busy brushing clay off his jacket sleeve. "I was in the clay room [working on future designs]," he explains in an accent you’d expect from a guy who crafts cars that show up in James Bond movies.
It was the sight of a silver Maserati Bora whizzing past his father’s Saab 95 when he was 10 that inspired Fisker to design one of the most coveted vehicles on the planet: the Fisker Karma. "I have a very clear memory of getting butterflies in my stomach when I saw that car, which at the time looked like a spaceship," he recalls. "I just knew right then and there that I wanted to have something to do with how cars looked."
"When you work for a big conglomerate, you can only change so much, and I felt like I needed a bigger change. I couldn’t just sit back and put myself on cruise control and enjoy what I was doing. I needed to do my own thing."
— Henrik Fisker
And he did. By age 40, the automobile designer included the Aston Martin DB9 and V8 Vantage as well as the BMW Z8 among his accolades. But for a man like Fisker, who likes to do things people think are impossible, that wasn’t enough. "When you work for a big conglomerate, you can only change so much, and I felt like I needed a bigger change," he explains. "I couldn’t just sit back and put myself on cruise control and enjoy what I was doing. I needed to do my own thing."
The result was Fisker Coachbuild LLC, where, together with veteran auto-industry executive Bernhard Koehler, Fisker designs and manufactures high-end limited-edition cars for people who appreciate the finest in automobiles. It wasn’t until 2006, though, when Leonardo DiCaprio showed up at the Oscars in a Toyota Prius, that Fisker thought about creating an electric vehicle.
A 2007 meeting with a member of the U.S. military solidified everything. "He told me about a new technology that allowed military vehicles to drive in quietly behind enemy lines and go out using an electric range extender," Fisker says. "The big car companies weren’t interested because it didn’t fit in a standard-size vehicle. My response: ‘Let’s build a car around it.’"
"I wanted to bring a new philosophy to luxury, and what it really comes down to is attention to detail and looking at different types of materials. There’s no reason we can’t be as environmentally responsible as possible and still luxurious."
Four years later, the Fisker Karma arrived on the scene. The car, which now belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Gore, and Prince Albert, starts at $96,850, charges almost as quickly as an iPhone, and can go from 0 to 60 mph in less than six seconds; it is the first and only electric vehicle with extended range. Simply put, the technology allows the car to run with electric energy at all times. If you exceed 50 miles of electric driving, a backup range-extending gasoline engine is used as a generator to electrically power the motors for an additional 250 miles of range. Unlike any other electric car on the market (Tesla, Volt), the twenty-two-inch Fisker-designed wheels are not connected to its engine generator unit (a turbocharged direct-injection, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder GM Ecotec unit). The Karma is the most environmentally friendly car with the lowest CO2 emissions on the market to date.
In the driver’s seat the car feels like a masterpiece. Every design element and material—from the barely treated leather from the world’s first self-sustaining manufacturing plant to the wood recovered from the bottom of Lake Michigan—is as close to its natural form as you can get. When you run your hand over the wood, you can actually feel the grain. A solar panel rooftop with a design element to maximize sunlight throughout the day provides an additional 200 miles of range per year.
"Sometimes luxury stalls," Fisker says. "I wanted to bring a new philosophy to luxury, and what it really comes down to is attention to detail and looking at different types of materials. There’s no reason we can’t be as environmentally responsible as possible and still luxurious."
Even the paint, which comes in colors like Eclipse, Deep Ocean, and Silver Wind, is made from recycled crushed glass, an exclusive to Fisker for the next three years. It’s water-based, which is more environmentally friendly and "shows the sculpture of the car really well," he says. "When the sun hits it, it looks like little diamonds."
Innovation isn’t easy, and Fisker Automotive has experienced its fair share of bumps in the road, though the automaker has created 2,000 jobs in the U.S. and will produce its next vehicle in Delaware. And yet, despite all the challenges that come with creating a luxury electric car from scratch and building your own company, there is an excitement and energy within the walls of Fisker that cannot be defeated. "Everybody who works here knows this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Fisker says. "We are making history."
Wendy Straker Hauser is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Men at Work and Sexy Jobs in the City.