Body Language

Veteran car designer Henrik Fisker has set out to revive the fine art of coachbuilding.

Once upon a time, you bought a car the way you bought a suit from a tailor. A Rolls-Royce or a Talbot-Lago arrived as a simple chassis and motor. You then ordered up the body from a coachbuilder according to your tastes. There was the American LeBaron, the English Mulliner and Park Ward, the French Figoni et Falaschi, the Italian Battista Farina, Bertone, Ghia, Touring, and later, Pininfarina. A few of these firms, notably Bertone and Pininfarina, live on as designers for major car companies, but the great era of coachbuilders essentially ended with World War II.

Now Henrik Fisker, a veteran of BMW and Aston Martin, has launched an ambitious venture to revitalize the art of coachbuilding. Determined to realize the kind of visionary concepts that often get muted inside conventional car companies, the Danish-born designer founded Fisker Coachbuild in Newport Beach, California, last year. The company has just released the first of its high-style, no-compromise models, which are limited to just 150 examples each. "This is about exclusivity," Fisker says. "It's design from a clean sheet of paper, without corporate committees, made for a new type of client."

Fisker utilizes state-of-the-art digital patternmaking technology to convert sketches into finished cars. Rendered mostly in carbon fiber and aluminum, the results possess lovely, more complex and subtle shapes than standard steel-stamping machines can produce. The bodywork is built on Mercedes-Benz and BMW chassis, chosen for performance and safety. Fisker's debut model, the taut-skinned Tramonto, with its retractable hardtop, takes its base from the Mercedes SL convertible. The more aggressive Latigo CS, low and wide with crisp lines, uses the underpinnings of BMW's 6 Series coupe.

The Fisker system is unique: The customer buys the original car from Mercedes or BMW, chooses among Fisker's options for paint color, interior, and electronic equipment, and two months later the firm delivers it completely refinished. "They like us," Fisker says of the German companies. "Every time we make a sale, they make a sale."

When a new vehicle comes to Fisker Coachbuild, the body and most of the components inside are stripped and replaced with Fisker's own. The interior options feature handstitched premium leather, milled aluminum details, and graphically enhanced instrument panels. "All the plastic is gone," Fisker notes.

The company relies on leading outside specialists to do the customization work. Andrea Cecutti, renowned in the aerospace industry for his ability to craft parts in any shape, makes the aluminum accent pieces. Kleemann, the firm behind the Kompressor supercharger technology for Mercedes, boosts the horsepower of the engines. The finished cars are not one-off custom jobs for showy clients but well thought-out, instant collectibles.

"We are 95 percent about design," says Fisker's partner, Bernhard Koehler, who worked with him at BMW. Their team has just three full-time employees. By comparison, BMW might have 5,000 people dedicated to a single new model. "We can move faster," Fisker remarks. "We went from sketches to finished prototypes in seven months."

While embracing the latest technology, Fisker employs more traditional tools as well, starting out with sketches and clay mock-ups. "I believe in hand-modeling and sculpture," he says. His inspiration for the distinctive angled grille found on both the Tramonto and the Latigo came from the F/A-22 Raptor fighter jet, whose flared sides and wings evade radar. "I was sketching and came across a view of the airplane," Fisker recounts. "It was head-on in silhouette against a sunset—it was very powerful."

Fans of Fisker's style will recognize it right away in his latest cars. The Tramonto's high taillights recall those of his BMW Z8, the dashing roadster produced from 1999 to 2003, perhaps most famous for its starring role in the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough. (Only 5,703 were made, and they start at around $90,000 on the resale market.) The side gills and front grilles on the Tramonto and the Latigo have more than a little in common with the models that Fisker created for Aston Martin, such as the sensual V8 Vantage, recently released with a $110,000 price tag. But such similarities shouldn't surprise. "I have a certain way of designing," Fisker states. "You don't shake that out of your system."

Given his profile in the industry, Fisker is being closely watched. Stewart Reed of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, the preeminent school for car designers, comments that Fisker "is extending the model of the best-crafted elegant clothing and furniture to automobiles." He adds that this level of luxury coach design "really does recall the days of carriages with custom bodies."

For Fisker it's all about looking forward and doing something completely fresh. "There is a freedom in starting your own company," he says. "We are launching a new brand and don't have eighty years of history to limit us."
Prices vary depending on options but start at $234,000 for the Tramonto and $180,000 for the Latigo CS;