Theme: Glamour/Disappointment – The Rise And Fall Of Henrik Fisker

 As a car stylist, you’re only as good as your last design. Oh dear…

Would you buy a watch from this man? Photo (c)

Once upon a time, there was a dashing Dane who, it appeared, could do no wrong when it came to creating sleek, elegant, timeless shapes for sophisticated sports cars. A mere decade later, little of this reputation remains intact – which also taints his past body of work.

I am writing this as someone who used to hold the talents of this particular designer in high regard. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for retro design, I registered an attention to detail in the BMW Z8 he helped pen that outweighed my reservations regarding the very concept of that BMW 507 pastiche.

Moreover, the Aston Martin V8 Vantage and, in particular, DB9 models he was credited with were, plain and simple, the prettiest prestige cars of the decade. These designs formed my view that Henrik Fisker must rank among the very top of the car designers’ ilk, as a man who could hold up the value of good old elegance in the vein of a Pininfarina, during a time when uncouthness reigned supreme.

BMW Z8, Photo (c)

But as with many heroes, the passing of time – and age – can do a lot to change one’s view. Yet in Henrik Fisker’s case, it appears as though it was, above all, he himself who did most of the disillusionment work.

In the years since he left Ford – and hence Aston Martin – he tried to hit the big time, time and again. His first, relatively modest venture was a modern stab at coachbuilding, which gave the automotive world re-bodied versions of BMW’s E63 Six series coupé and Mercedes’ R230 SL roadster, the latter of which arguably was marginally prettier than the base car. Yet in any case both were burdened with ghastly, cheap-looking rims of the Max Power breed and a gaping snout that seemed to be at odds with Fisker’s style of restrained elegance.

Fiskers Latigo & Tramonto, Photo (c)

Rather surprisingly, just as the coachbuilt Fiskers were starting to appear in purchasable form, the maestro thought the time was ripe for his major coup. An ambition that not only meant he would succeed at what a great many men before him had failed to achieve – building a series-production car brand from the ground up, but also involved unproven, futuristic technology. So Henrik Fisker was about to build an electric car. On a grand scale, obviously.

But before that, as the public would learn a while later, he had actually been hired by one Elon Musk to design an electric four-door saloon for the latter’s emerging Tesla brand. It is unknown how far Fisker got with his ideas on behalf of the internet entrepreneur or what they constituted, but Musk certainly wasn’t pleased with what he was presented with – and even more displeased when Fisker unveiled what he’d come up with for his own brand later on. As a result, Musk sued the designer, to no avail.

The electric car Fisker did eventually design in his own image, the Karma, certainly was a striking car, albeit in a Sandra Bernhard kind of way. With its giant wheels, small cabin and hunched silhouette, it looked like some 19-year-old wannabe-designer’s wet dream. In actual fact, it was not just a renunciation of the stylistic virtues that Fisker had been associated with when in his prime, but also a woefully packaged flight of fancy.

This author, having subjected his lanky frame to both cars, can testify that the Karma’s cabin makes an Aston Rapide’s second row accommodations appear positively palatial. It can only be argued whether equipping the Karma with a second set of doors or giving it the kind of proportions it was blessed with in the first place was the more glaring case of style-over-substance thinking.

Fisker Karma, Photo (c)

As is well-documented, the Karma’s karma proved to be of the sinister variety. And as if to prove that he was indeed the John DeLorean of the new century, Henrik Fisker also ended up in the kind of public divorce proceedings the automotive styling industry hadn’t experienced. This was due to his having formerly sought the company of show business celebrities – just for the sake of marketing his car, of course. In this process, the car designer turned entrepreneur turned plutocrat had finally become subject of the yellow press, too.

“Henrik Fisker, founder and designer of the Fisker luxury electric car, seen leaving Chateau Marmot with a female companion in West Hollywood.” Photo & Quote (c)

What followed this drastic fall from grace ultimately proved to be eating away at the very core of Henrik Fisker, the stylist – his previous, spotless body of work was put into question, no less. And by none other than Ian S. Callum.

Things aren’t as black and white as they might appear with the Aston Martin DB9. (c) bringatrailer

The Scotsman may be far from the the most reclusive of car designers, even though he never engaged in anything as flamboyant as Henrik Fisker’s affairs. Yet his public claims that he, rather then Fisker, designed Aston’s DB9 and V8 Vantage models almost to completion will not have been made on the spur of the moment. And the fact that Dr Ulrich Bez, former Aston Martin CEO and hardly known for being a close friend of Callum’s, remains silent on the issue is far from compelling evidence in Fisker’s favour.

Most significant, however, is the evidence Fisker has laid out himself recently: the Aston Vanquish-based Thunderbolt concept car, unveiled last year, above all. It’s design betrayed the fact that, no matter what one thinks of Marek Reichman’s Vanquish Mk 2, there are still a great many elements that could be executed in even more garish and vulgar a fashion. That Aston Martin saw fit to seek an injunction against Fisker, thus prohibiting a limited production run of the Thunderbolt, is but a footnote in the scheme of things.

He’s serious about the grille of that Thunderbolt. Photo (c)

Even more absurd, and hardly beneficial to any of the parties involved, is the $100 million lawsuit Henrik Fisker has just filed against against Aston Martin. It involves yet another Aston Martin-alike concept car by Fisker and the British brand’s attempts to keep the Danish designer from unveiling it at this year’s Detroit motor show.

Aston Martin may currently be experiencing a modest upswing, thanks to positive press regarding the DB10 one-off designed for James Bond’s most recent cinematic endeavour, but any impression of the company fearing competition from Fisker is ridiculous at best.

No Gary Numan enthusiast: Henrik Fisker, Photo (c)

And as for the designer himself, it can only be said that it is a pity how a man of such formerly stellar reputation can not only be trading on past glories, but actually engage in as undignified an affair as this.

If only he’d never started putting his own name onto the bonnets of cars.

Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

15 thoughts on “Theme: Glamour/Disappointment – The Rise And Fall Of Henrik Fisker”

  1. There’s a fair number of people on this site who are either actively involved or have been involved in car design. As I’ve mentioned before elsewhere, I trained as an Industrial Designer with a view to entering car design. But that was in the early to mid 70s, and I became so disillusioned with the rather piecemeal life that profession would have afforded me at that time that I ended up taking a different path. At times I’ve regretted my choice, at other times quite the opposite. Back then I could have looked at, say, Bertone as the pinnacle of a designer’s ambitions, but compared with Fisker’s hubristic path, Nuccio’s ambitions were modest and attainable.

  2. He really does seem to have invested in his own myth, doesn’t he? It’s not attractive …

    1. In another respect, you have to hand it to him. He made the most of a golden opportunity at Aston Martin and got out before everyone realised his ego outstripped his ability.

      So perhaps it’s apt that he’s taken the way of the Bahar in his new venture, for there does appear to be more than a whiff of our Dany-boy in Fisker’s ongoing narrative.

      Certainly, parting the feckless from their cash is a good deal more lucrative than forging a credible body of work. It also allows for the sort of playboy lifestyle both men appear to espouse.

  3. Anyone who thinks I didn’t design the DB9 and V8 Vantage, please leave the room now…

  4. Fisker evidently had one car in him. Von Goertz was another: he had two. Enrico Fumia ran out of stream and did the Lancia Y a second time. Are there others who sputtered?

    1. I believe that claim was discredited. He did an earlier stillborn design for Datsun, but not the 240Z though, for years we were told he did.

    2. Sean, I think you might be right. In Wiki I read that he was with Nissan until 1965, while the Z debuted in ’69. Always check your facts before uttering unfounded half-knowledge…

      So, I’m also wondering: what is the second one?

  5. If you take a look at Fisker´s page on Wikipedia it plainly has been airbrushed. “…is an entrepreneur and acclaimed automobile designer, and was a founding partner and executive chairman of Fisker Automotive.” He seems to have stopped designing cars in the literal sense about a decade ago. The rest of the time he has been entrepreneurial and arranging stuff. In comparison Gandini seems to like designing cars and other machines. The real designers stick as long as they can to actually working with cars and leave financial stuff to others.

    1. You mention Gandini and I recollect an article where he spoke about the great Giugiaro feud. He said that, whenever they met, Giugiaro kept talking about how many people he employed whereas he, Gandini, had no such desires, realising it was a step away from what he liked doing.

  6. Graf Goertz’s name is also mentioned as originator of the Toyota 2000GT, while at Nissan, as a joint venture with Yamaha.

    Nissan dropped out and, some time later, Toyota stepped in. How much of Goertz’s original design made it to production is a matter of dispute, but it does appear that the 2000GT and 240z had a common point of origin.

    Goertz is also given some credit for the first generation Nissan Silvia (1964-68), a rather lovely coupe made – like the 2000GT – in tiny numbers.

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