Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Thirty years on, is this DeLorean...redux?

I'll never forget the day I saw my first DeLorean. It was early 2001, I was thirteen years old and having never seen Back to the Future (yes, yes...I know), my jaw hit the floor of the car in which I was riding and I fell in love instantly. Something about it just spoke to me and the way it sat and how it looked just latched itself onto my brain and refused to let go. Now, almost thirteen years later I still covet the DeLorean and vow to own one someday very soon but there is only one other car whose first sighting stands out in my mind so clearly and that is the Fisker Karma. It was on Canyon Road in Beaverton and let me tell you, when I saw that white cheetah heading up the other way, I damn near ran my car into the rock wall I was gawking so hard. It was the only new car I've ever seen that actually caused me to consider turning around and chasing it down and I stand by it when I say that the Karma is the singly most beautiful car made in the last twenty-five years and will probably go down in history as one of the prettiest cars ever.

Henrik Fisker was still a toothless newborn crying in diapers when charismatic and ultimate man's man John Zachary DeLorean rocked the automotive world with his lightweight and high-output Pontiac GTO in 1964. Although DeLorean developed an impressive number of important features, many of which are still found on new cars today, he is best known for three things; the GTO, his namesake gullwing door sports car and the drug scandal which brought the dream to a tragic end. Just in case you've been living under a rock since 1984, DeLorean was acquitted of all charges due to a bumbling FBI and a failed entrapment scheme. John never spent any time in prison but still, up until the untimely end of his company, the parallels between him and Henrik Fisker are absolutely shocking. In fact, they border on almost surreal.

With the first production models celebrating their thirty-first birthdays this year, the DeLorean has remained stately and timelessly handsome, its stainless steel body panels aging as gracefully as Helen Mirren. While the Karma is drop-dead gorgeous in that girl-next-door sort of way, one must remember that in 1981, the DeLorean was just as striking and that can still be seen today when you place it next to other cars of the late 1970s and very early 80s. Together both of these cars showed people something nobody had ever seen before.

Both Henrik Fisker and John DeLorean surrendered successful careers with major car companies to chase their dreams of seeing their own names emblazoned on dealership signs and steering wheel insignias. Both thought they could do better that the massive corporations from which they came. In 1974, DeLorean departed General Motors (despite being rumored to be the next head of Chevrolet) to found the DeLorean Motor Company while Fisker defected from Ford in 2004 after designing such legends as the Aston Martin DB9 and, earlier in his career, the BMW Z8 among others. DeLorean set out to build a reliable car that was fun to drive, beautiful and well-made with an expected service life of twenty years, unheard of at the time. Fisker embarked on a quest to build a car that was as environmentally friendly as it was beautiful and in a way, both succeeded.

The companies headquartered in the United States but for financial reasons, the DeLorean was built in Northern Ireland and the Karma in Finland and just like the DeLorean, much of Fisker's money is coming from government sources although with different prerogatives. The British government, desperate to put a tourniquet on the bloodshed taking place with 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland in the late 70s, backed DeLorean's manufacturing plans with upwards of £150 million of taxpayer money between 1978 and 1982. This was done under the guise of job creation and the idea of keeping people employed meant they were less likely to be out on the streets causing trouble. To date, Fisker Automotive has received some $193 million from the U.S. Department of Energy under the prospect of creating 'green jobs' and like DeLorean, is already running into issues at this crucial stage. While DeLorean could smile and wink an eye at Parliament and receive another £25 million without question, Fisker must prove it is making headway to receive the further $336 million in the coffers and thus far, it's not looking promising. The company has already failed to convert a former GM assembly plant in Delaware and after laying off a considerable percentage of the contractors involved in the project, it is now telling others to be patient and 'just wait'. Its sub-$40k NINA model is now indefinitely delayed and should they be unable to find a solution soon, chances are good that things won't end well.

Originally, the DeLorean was set to go on sale in 1979 but production line issues stalled the delay to early 1981 when catastrophic build quality lead to further waits. Orders were cancelled as dealers and customers grew impatient and those who did wait didn't get their keys until August or so of that year. A similar quandary has plagued Fisker which was originally boasting some 1,300 orders with deliveries said to start taking place at the end of 2009. Well, the first Karmas didn't hit showrooms until summer of 2011 and the first ship over saw only 239 cars on board. Considering it's a starter effort, the Karma is decently well-made but like the DeLorean, there are a number problems with fit and finish. The trunk lid does not line up with the fenders in the slightest (I was able to fit an entire finger into one such opening) and some of the minor controls are taken from other cars, most glaringly are the turn signal and wiper stalks which came out of a Chevrolet Cobalt. I cringed upon discovering that but at least Fisker isn't having to completely rebuild some of its first efforts the way DeLorean did after setting up Quality Assurance Centers (QAC) around the country to correct what the Dunmurry plant failed to get right at first.

To take a moment and focus on the differences, it doesn't take a trained eye to spot that these are two totally different cars. While the DeLorean is a fairly small two-door, two-seat sports car sheathed in 304 grade brushed stainless steel, the Karma is a positively enormous four-door sedan coated in a psychedelic paint job that is incredibly heavy on a special kind of metallic flake. I suppose you could call it eco-bling. Stretching some eighteen feet from bow to stern and seven feet across at the widest point (those massive hips), the Karma manages to qualify as a large car outside but only as a compact car inside. It's tight but comfortable and even a Hyundai Elantra has more interior room and feels airier. Once inside, both give you the sensation that you've been entombed, the DeLorean especially but for front seat passengers in the Karma, at least, there is plenty of room.

Despite the differences in the cars themselves, the demographic is similar. The DeLorean was famously backed and owned by entertainer Johnny Carson and the car was also purchased by Kenny Rogers, Jimmy Osmond and KISS member Ace Frehley who sings about rolling his DeLorean in the song 'Rock Soldiers'. While the Karma hasn't received as much celebrity adoration, teen pop star Justin Beiber was stopped by California police for speeding close to 100 mph his Karma while claiming to be running from paparazzi. Personally, I think he should have been stopped simply for the crime of adorning such a beautiful car with such a garish chrome finish but that's just me.

There is one DeLorean-Fisker similarity that is simply inescapable and that is the fact that the cards are stacked very heavily against Fisker's favor and as I like the car very much despite its shortcomings, that pains me to say. Although I'm a very optimistic person and the Karma is the only non-female thing that gets me all hot and bothered just looking at it, the stark and saddening fact remains that within a year or so, Fisker Automotive may very well join the DeLorean Motor Company as just another name in a long line of defunct auto manufacturers. And just like the DeLorean, its beauty will slowly fade from the every day, spending their time under covers in garages and in storage. Excepting a number of devout fans who get together to work on their cars and fantasize about what might have been had the company survived, only a few will remember what a Fisker was. But regardless of what happens, the Karma will always have its looks and someday, maybe twenty years from now, a thirteen year old boy not yet born will see his first Karma on the road and just like yours truly and the DeLorean, it will be love at first sight.