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Aston Martin

Henrik Fisker on Aston Martin, Ford, and general Automotive Design: Part 1
By Andrew Gardner; photos courtesy Ford Media
Jan 15, 2005, 21:34 PST
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Henrik Fisker, Design Director for Aston Martin


Once upon a cool morning in Irvine, California, Henrik Fisker stepped out of his office at Ford’s Advanced Design Studio – the same place where such great designs as the Shelby GR-1 concept have been made - and into his company car, a Jaguar XKR convertible (he is currently awaiting delivery of his personal Aston Martin DB9 convertible) for a drive to the local El Torito restaurant. His objective was to sacrifice time from his very tight December schedule for an interview with

The next hour was filled with great insight from Henrik on design – his designs, the art and philosophy of design, and the essence of Aston Martin – all set to some delightful Mexican polka, which was blaring from the El Torito’s speakers.



For those of you unfamiliar with Henrik Fisker, he spent a few years with BMW starting in the early 1990’s, where he designed the Z07 concept, as well as the exterior of its succeeding production counterpart, the Z8 roadster. After a stint as president and CEO of BMW’s subsidiary DesignWorks, Henrik moved on to the positions of Director of Aston Martin design and Director of Ford’s Irvine studio. His work on the Aston DB9 and V8 Vantage are stunning credits to his ability.

For us, this Irvine meeting was lesson two in design from Mr. Fisker. Lesson one came from a brief interview on the Shelby GR-1 at that car’s unveiling in Pebble Beach this past August ( After a few more of these meetings, we hope to be certified automotive designers…or at least better educated aficionados and critics.


A sketch of the AMV8 concept


We now begin our lesson with master designer Henrik Fisker with a discussion of the V8 Vantage:

MSC: So what is the status of the AMV8?

HF: I have signed off on the design; basically, the car is done. There is just the tuning of the suspension - the car is at the Nurburgring currently undergoing testing. Ulrich Bez drives a lot of miles in it, to get it setup...It is the show car. Aside from some very little details in the interior, this is what you saw in Detroit.

MSC: Does the V8 Vantage adhere to the new European safety law regarding pedestrians?

HF: The Vantage actually comes out before that law takes effect. Just to give a comment on that - and this is just purely my opinion, not reflecting on Ford Motor Company - but there is a problem today, in my opinion, where you have too many government officials that don't understand the car industry but are making up laws, with good intent, but they end up really lingering the progress of even safety. You are only looking at one aspect; when you force only one aspect on a car, like pedestrian safety, you force the company to spend all their time and resources on that aspect, where if you look at it in a more holistic way - like, for instance, what Volvo has done for years; they have always had an eye on safety. Where does it make the most sense to improve safety? Volvo is the one that came out with a lot of [safety improvements] first, not from government regulations at all. That would be, for me, the better way to do it.

This pedestrian safety restriction, I think, is a waste of opportunity. And it's going to cost a lot of money, and it is money that will be paid for, in the end, by the consumers.


Henrik Fisker walks an interested aficionado through his design


I think there are more innovative ways to deal with [safety]. Maybe some of that will come out; there will be some adjustment - that's my prediction. Unfortunately, we will spend a lot of money in the next few years, but then somebody will realize that maybe that was not the bet ideas, and then there will be some new ideas coming up.

MSC: You said you signed off on the design. What is the process of signing off on a design at Aston Martin?


Mark Fields, Ulrich Bez, and Henrik Fisker: the three key figures of Aston Martin


HF: It's basically Ulrich and myself. We are sort of the main people who are in it. Really, at Aston Martin, [the design] is a constant work in process. We really don't ever surprise anybody, because, at Aston Martin, we really have to get [the design] right the first time. We cannot do ten different models and wait around for different groups of people to see them, and then do focus groups, and go back and change things; Aston Martin is too small for that. We have to get right to it.

With the AMV8, I did one sketch and that was basically it - I knew this was it. I made a “tape drawing" – that’s a package drawing where the designer puts tape lines on top, to make the design fit the package and give modelers information to make the model - and showed it to Ulrich and said, "I know this is it," and he said, "ok, it looks good." I made a full size clay model. And as we made the model, we had to deal with two issues: the first issue was, even though we were making what was supposed to be a show car, we had to keep in mind that we couldn't tell people later that they couldn't get exactly that - the people we are dealing with, they can afford almost anything, so they would say 'why can't we have that?'



The second issue was, there wasn't much sense in just doing a show car. This is Aston Martin, and we have only a few cars, so it didn't make sense to do it that way. We knew we were going to do a small car - the AMV8 - based on the DB9 chassis. So we took the chassis and we fit it to the design.



One of the things we did is we kept the wide track of the DB9. The original idea was to really narrow the car, to make it smaller than the DB9, but my feel was to keep the track and tuck in the waste - when you look at the car, even though it's a smaller Aston Martin, it still has an amazing presence because of the wide track - it's an incredible wide track. And I think to do that; it really set the AMV8 apart from any of the competition - the standard 911, or the standard Ferrari 360. So I said we should do this, and Ulrich agreed, and we moved forward, and that was one of the big cornerstones I should say.



There were other areas, like the AMV8 has an incredibly low fender line - it's really tight over the front wheel. It might be one of the lowest fender lines of any car in production. The engineers had to work really hard to tune the suspension so that we didn't have to raise the fender line. Actually, we did have to raise the fender line about 2.5 millimeters, because there was just that last little bit [of suspension travel] to accommodate, the engineers just could not quite do it. So we added a bit of clay, just shaved it in and raised it that 2.5 millimeters - and it had no effect on the design. So that's what we were down to, talking about millimeters.



We also had a rear diffuser, where we had to lower it slightly to get a better airflow, to get better cooling for the transmission. So those are the tiny things we changed. Also, we had to rework some things behind the front of the headlamps, for legal reasons, to accommodate some new rules. That was really it, the rest of the exterior is there. One of the things that was very difficult to do was the front fender with its air outlet, and the way also that sculpture continues up to the door - the stamping people and the engineers spent a lot of time on that. We even had to hand-sand it a little bit to get it to fit just right; and that was an important feature, that was important to me, because in building the Aston Martin we still wanted to maintain some of that hand-built quality in it.

So the sign off process, then, was showing the design - and, of course, Ulrich had been there through the whole process - to a larger group of people, and the marketing people had to have a look at it; and when all of the top people in the company had seen it, we all agreed this was the way. I was very confident that this was it, and so we decided to build the show car. It was significant that we knew when we built the show car, that we could actually build it [as a production car].

I think that is the future of building show cars, that when you show the car and if people like it, then you have done enough of the engineering to know that you can actually build the car. Otherwise, you have to go back to the drawing board, and find out there are things with the design you cannot do, and then you have to go back to the customers and say, 'well, we could not do this, we could not do that...' With the AMV8, the dimensions are exactly the same as the show even have the option of getting the 19" wheels you saw on the show car.

So the signoff on a design is a continuous one. There is only a real final signoff when we go into the work where we decide to actually build the car. And you get to a certain point where you need to signoff on the business case, where of course Mark Fields gets involved, because he has to signoff on the business case and make sure everything fits, and maybe engineers have to make a few changes. There were no changes from a design perspective, because a design that is beautiful - except for the manufacturing challenges - is no more expensive to make than an ugly design. There is no excuse, really, for doing an ugly design.



MSC: You say you went straight to clay with your sketch of the AMV8 concept - implying you had the right idea of how the car needed to look, what it needed to be, and then you drew it right the first time. When you have seen the chassis and you know the size the car needs to be and you know the role this car needs to play in the model lineup, does all of that drive your design? Or from what else did you draw ideas for this design?

HF: With the V8 Vantage, right when I arrived at Aston Martin, Ulrich told me I had the opportunity to do two new cars - the DB9 and the V8 Vantage - there was nothing set yet on the Vantage. The DB9 already had parameters set [by former A.M. designer Ian Callum]. Immediately when I arrived, I was thinking how this was not a design we were replacing another car with, there was nothing there. So [drawing a new model] is a completely different thinking.

When you are replacing a car, you look at the previous design, and think about - if it was really successful - what do I need to carry over to the new car and reinterpret it and make it more modern, but still so you have the feel that this is the replacement. But with this car [the V8 Vantage], it could be anything. I did some personal research on Aston Martin - reading books, talking to some of the people at Aston Martin - and I had some crazy sketches. But the more I talked to people, I realized that Aston Martin is really quite unique. All you need to say to people is "I have an Aston Martin." And I think this feeling when you have an Aston Martin is, "I have an Aston Martin." It doesn't matter which model it is. Within Ford, it matters whether you drive a Mustang or a Ford Taurus, or a Ford GT, or a Ford Focus. Within Ford, there are brands within brands - the Mustang is almost its own brand. An Aston Martin is an Aston Martin.


An elegant interior, a key part of an Aston Martin. It sure does feel nice to be in there.


I thought it was important that the car be recognizable as an Aston Martin for several reasons. First, because I found that the brand was very strong as itself. The second was that when we started to work on the AMV8, Aston Martin was still in this really accelerated phase of growing again, and sort of being known again - being up there with Ferrari and Bentley and everybody else. Aston Martin was sort of coming from underneath. When I just arrived from America, leaving from BMW, talking to people over here just days before I left, just normal people like my neighbors, people didn't know what an Aston Martin was. And that has changed dramatically in the last 2 or 3 years.

So for me it was important to send a clear message when we launched this car, and when you see this car on the road, that you could immediately recognize it as an Aston Martin. For me, this is important right now as you are building up the brand. You want to keep that recognizability of the brand. This car should really be seen as an Aston Martin. I also decided, as I looked back at the heritage, that I wanted to do a modern car, not a retro car. I felt that was very important for Aston Martin. Ulrich Bez was also very adamant about that.


A prominent Aston Martin grille; Henrik made the grille on the V8 Vantage bigger than that on the DB9; this accentuates the vantage's smaller size.


When I looked back at the DB4's and DB5's, and even some of the earlier DB2's, those cars had very large grilles - they were very pronounced, they were very strong. Somehow, after the V8 and then the DB7, the grilles got very small almost to the point of being so understated, that it was tough from a distance to maybe see it 100% clearly. So I decided to make the grille on the V8 even bigger than on the DB9, to give it even more of a strong impact. What it also did is emphasize the size of the car being smaller - that the grille on the smaller car was bigger than the grille on the bigger one, suddenly the V8 Vantage felt smaller than it really is. And that's something where when you see it in pictures you think it's really small, but when you see it in person you say "eh, it's not that small." Because you need a certain size to convey power.

At that time, I knew I had the chance to design the new tail lamps for the DB9, but I knew they were also going to go on the smaller car. Of course many companies will decide they should design new tail lamps, but the unique thing is for Aston Martin to actually design new tail lamps. In the past, the tail lamps from Aston Martins were actually from other companies - like the DB7's were actually from a Mazda, but many people do not know that because they were very well disguised. I wanted these new tail lamps to look unique and really say "that's Aston Martin."

But where do I get the idea for the design? Whenever I'm awake, I think about cars. It's not really something that's from 9 to 4, and it's not even exclusive to the 5 days a week; it's 7 days a week. It's when I drive to work, I look at cars and I wonder, "why'd they do that? I would not have done it like that." Whenever I watch television, I always watch what cars people are driving...everything, it's always cars. I think my inspiration just comes out of looking at cars, looking at what type of people are in cars, looking at how light reflects on the cars, that's how I get my ideas. And I always have more ideas than I have cars to do, so I don't think there's ever a danger of running out of ideas. It's more the other way around; you don't have enough opportunity to actually put your ideas out.



And you might not know if your idea is a super idea until you get to the stage where your car is in the 3D model. Of course, not all ideas we are able to get that far with - we only come out with about 10% of the actual work we do. There are more ideas from us than people will actually see. And that is the nature of the car business.

MSC: Is that frustrating to the designer, to not be able to get more ideas produced?

HF: Yes and no. I would say if you haven’t had the opportunities that I have had in my career, it could be frustrating. Some designers probably feel they have this great idea but nobody is letting them try it out, not letting them get far enough with it. However, it is a process, because of the investment amount in the car industry. We are talking about so much money, that it needs to go through a certain filter.

What you have to realize as a designer, sooner or later, is it’s not only you and your car. You are designing a car for the company. It has to fit into the company; it has to fit in the company’s product line. And, ultimately, you have to make a car that people will like and that they will buy. It is not even enough that they like it, they need to buy it. You can create a car that people like, but maybe it’s too expensive and nobody will buy it. How many times have [automobile manufacturers] created cars that young people like but it’s too expensive and nobody’s going to buy it? There are so many aspects. When you get into the car industry, you have to realize these things. But I think many car designers get the opportunity within the company to go to a full size model or go to some sort of model, where you do get to see your design. And then, sometimes, you have to realize: ‘well, it’s not as hot as I thought it was going to be.’ Usually you do see some problems [with the design].

If you look at a car – and this is something not too many people think about – but if you look at a car, I would say it is probably the most difficult shape in the world to actually design. A building is easier because you know your volumes, you know it’s mostly squares and blocks, and that determines certain mathematical things. A house is the same thing. Smaller products, it’s usually something you have within grasp; you can turn them around and look all around them.

A car, once they get in the full size model, you have to walk around it. And even though it might look slightly boxy, it shouldn’t have many straight lines on it, because then it starts to look like a hanging line – instead of looking like a positive line, it looks like a negative line. So to get all these lines to work, you’re working always in three dimensions - because you’re using lines that you want to curve.

As soon as you curve a line, you lay that line over a surface, which is curving in another direction, and that line and that surface have to look good from any view when you walk around it. Once you’ve got that, that line will end somewhere, and then what you just designed at the back doesn’t line up with that now, and you have to redesign that to make it line up. There are all these aspects of the sculpture, the graphics, and the actual lines in the car. And then there are the overall proportions. There are so many things that have to come together. And that is why you can do a drawing that looks really good…you can’t turn a drawing around. You draw the perspective, which is one view - which you can make work, as a designer, it is your view – but what you don’t know is what happens when you turn this. That’s when you see it in the three dimensions.



Henrik will continue his treatise on design in the second part of this interview with a discussion of his duties in Irvine as a director and a mentor.

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