You won’t be able to escape politics at Europe’s largest and most significant annual motor show in Geneva this week.
Britain’s Business secretary Vince Cable is in town to try and persuade General Motors bosses to keep Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant open; Renault, Peugeot-Citroen and Fiat bosses will again be bemoaning how unprofitable building small cars in western Europe is; and poor sales of electric cars even with government subsidies will also come under scrutiny.
Across the pond, politics looks also to be threatening the very future of start-up Californian car maker, Fisker. The US is currently in an election year, and the opposing Republicans are not happy about the Democrat government’s Department of Energy (DoE) loans handed out to help ‘green’ firms get their businesses up and running.
This pressure has intensified following the collapse of one start-up, solar panel maker Solyndra, with huge debts. The Republicans believe that there should be no fiscal support in such a proudly capitalist society. If these firms go bust, argue Republicans, the US tax payer loses out.
Fisker was granted a $529 million loan by the DoE. It has withdrawn $198m of it so far, but hasn’t been able to access the rest since May as the DoE claims Fisker has missed targets that were outlined as part of the loan agreements.
Fisker insiders claim the firm is being used as a “political football”, and as such has appointed ex-Chrysler boss Tom la Sorda as its CEO in place of company founder Henrik Fisker, the talented former Aston Martin designer but a man not keen on ‘playing politics’.
La Sorda knows all about politics having been in charge of Chrysler in a very volatile period in its history between 2005 and 2007. And having retired in 2009 having overseen the Daimler-Chrysler split and Chrysler’s filing for bankruptcy, you’d think Fisker is one problem he could without.
He disagrees. “I never would have taken the job if I didn’t think the future of this company was bright,” said la Sorda following his appointment last week. He added that he had been “quite impressed by the passion here and the brand itself”, and he had “personally invested in the company” to show just how dedicated he was to the cause.
The DoE loans are at the root of Fisker’s problems at the moment. All the DoE money has gone towards developing its second model, the BMW 5-series-sized Project Nina. This is now on indefinite hold.
Meanwhile, its first model, the Fisker Karma, is now being delivered in the US and Europe at the rate of more than 100 per week. Insiders say this model is financed from private equity money completely independently from the DoE, and la Sorda says its success will ensure Fisker turns a profit in 2013.
But the negative headlines around Project Nina are a very unwelcome distraction, and could harm the Karma. Fisker says it could ultimately find funding away from the DoE for Project Nina, but what’s not clear is whether or not securing the firm securing DoE funds influences the private equity money.
Fisker is just starting to walk with Karma, and doesn’t need to start running with Nina until its first model is established. The Karma looks great, has a futuristic powertrain that actually works, and has an air of exclusivity to it. And that people are buying it is even better.
On Nina, la Sorda “really can’t say when production would start”. His job in ensuring it does will be an interesting one.