The Fisker Karma has died and been reborn as the Karma Revero. But design legend Henrik Fisker and longtime auto exec-slash-fighter jet enthusiast Bob Lutz remain committed to ripping out that hybrid engine and shoving a supercharged Corvette engine inside, as well as bringing us the wildest-looking Viper ever. Here’s what’s going on with VLF Automotive, their new new Michigan-based supercar company.
We’ve written about VLF Automotive’s Destino and Force 1, but we really don’t know much about the company itself until I got a chance to check it out at a recent party at their headquarters in Auburn Hills.
It’s located in a building that looks like a regular, run-of-the-mill office/warehouse situated in a gigantic industrial park filled with automotive suppliers like Dana, Valeo, Brose, Continental and at least a dozen more.
I stood in an enormous garage in the back of the building surrounded by VLF Destinos and Rockets for about a half an hour with my eye towards the door, waiting for Maximum Bob Lutz’s arrival.
There were only seven or eight journalists there, making for a nice, intimate talk with the company’s executives, which was good because I really wanted to ask Lutz about that Chrysler helipad rumor.
And it was. Bob Lutz (the “L” in “VLF”) and CEO Gilbert Villarreal (the “V”) walked in (Henrik Fisker was absent), and spoke with us in a very relaxed, frank dialogue, the central theme of which was the idea of “lean” design and manufacturing—an area in which Villarreal is the expert of the three partners, bringing experience from the aerospace, marine and auto industries.
This word “lean” is an idea that basically translates to “Let’s spend as little money and time as we can developing these things, and make as much money as possible.” VLF plans to do this by heavily basing all of its cars upon already existing platforms, and charging big sums of money for “exclusivity.” Seems like a good plan to me—if people are willing to buy, that is.
VLF makes three cars today, the Destino, Rocket and Force 1, which all follow the same formula: take a surrogate platform, have Fisker redesign the fascias and sheetmetal, put in a big-ass American motor (or modify the existing one), and make the interior ridiculously swanky. Step 3: profit. At least that’s the plan.
The Destino is a gorgeous car, despite being built on a rather dated Fisker Karma platform. Really, if I’m honest, the only thing about the Fisker Karma I liked was the styling, and VLF apparently agrees, because it has ditched the crappy hybrid powertrain, and thrown in a 6.2-liter, 640 HP Chevrolet LS9 motor along with a six-speed automatic transaxle.
It looks good, and the power figure is nice. Plus, it weights 1,100 pounds less than the Karma. Still, it ain’t cheap, as VLF is asking $229,000, or about $120,000 that if you already have a Karma to be converted.
So VLF is basically taking a bunch of mothballed Karmas, or buying used ones, throwing in a big motor and trans, tweaking the fascias and suspensions, doing a bit of development testing here and there, and selling the cars for a shit-ton of cash.
Then there’s the Rocket, which is a 725 horsepower Mustang with a 5.0-liter supercharged V8, carbon fiber body panels, a flashy interior and a fascia that gives me nightmares.
It’s been around for quite a while now, even before the whole VLF partnership came about. But VLF has taken over production of the souped-up Mustang from Fisker, currently making them exclusively for huge auto dealer Galpin Ford, though VLF says it plans to sell the $100,000+ cars to other exotic car dealers.
Then there’s the VLF Force 1, a menacing 745-horsepower, $269,000 sports car based on the Dodge Viper platform. Similar to the Rocket, it’s got new sheetmetal (well, carbon fiber), a new fascia, a swanky interior, and a modified version of the surrogate-car’s motor. Between that and a modified suspension, that’s enough to bring the base price up to nearly twice that of the car on which it is based.
There’s also a fourth car coming, which VLF says will be based on a currently-produced high-volume car, but that will have a completely different body style than its surrogate. VLF says it plans to build the new car in Detroit, and sell as many as 1,000 overseas in Saudi Arabia and Dubai for about 90 grand, but none will be sold in the U.S.
Lutz says Fisker actually starts every car design with the headlights from a late-model car, and integrates them in a way that people won’t know the donor vehicle. The idea here, Lutz said, is to avoid the two-year certification period for unique headlights.
Another interesting tidbit from Lutz was that VLF keeps the windshield angles and touchdown points the same as on the surrogate vehicles, and the instrument panel and seating position also remain unchanged. Keeping these aspects of the donor cars the same allows VLF to avoid having to re-certify airbags.
VLF also says much of the engineering work, like adapting the OBD and stability control system on the Destino (it turns out, a Karma chassis and a Corvette ZR1 powertrain aren’t a match made in heaven) is actually farmed out to contractors, allowing VLF to employ only 35 people in total.
When asked about Tesla, perhaps the most well-known small startup, Lutz said his company is going to take a completely different path, saying VLF wouldn’t do like Tesla and “reinvent the wheel” by designing new platforms from the ground up. VLF, Lutz said, will continue building cars based on good, existing platforms.
When asked if VLF would ever build an electric vehicle, Lutz said it’s not in the cards anytime soon because VLF is so small, it doesn’t need to worry about building “compliance vehicles” to meet government fuel economy regulations, and also there’s “no profitability in electrification.”
Lutz and Villarreal said they were amazed at “how cheaply you can actually build a new car,” adding that they’ve spent about $10 million over the last few years, where other automakers would have spent 20 times that for similar, from-the-ground-up projects.
“We can make serious money at very low volumes,” Lutz said. I can’t say that’s particularly surprising, since the company’s business model essentially involves building supercars dirt cheap by having other people do most of the dirty work, and then selling them for huge sums to wealthy buyers.
It’s a clever idea. Let’s see if it works.