Fisker to Produce Cars at GM’s Mothballed Wilmington, Delaware Plant
By Chris Haak
GM’s former plant outside Wilmington, Delaware has in its recent history produced some real automotive duds. The Chevy Chevette, Chevy Corsica, Chevy Malibu, and Saturn L-Series all come to mind. Most recently, the plant (which has capacity to produce about 300,000 vehicles annually) has been building GM’s Kappa roadsters. You know, the small, good-looking convertibles like the Saturn Sky, Pontiac Solstice, and the related Opel GT and Daewoo G2X. The plant also made a few Solstice Coupes.
The plant appeared to have met its end in July 2009 when GM ceased production of the two-seaters. There were some rumors that production of the Solstice or Sky could continue post-GM with slightly-restyled bodywork had GM managed to sell the models’ intellectual property, plant, and tooling.
Well, as it turns out, “Old GM” (doing business now as Motors Liquidation Company) sold only the plant, for $18 million. The buyer was Henrik Fisker’s eponymous start-up automaker, Fisker Automotive, and Fisker intends to use about $175 million of the $528.7 million in low-interest loans that it received from the US government from the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program to retool the plant for production of the company’s second mass-produced vehicle.
Aside from a few re-bodied (and somewhat interesting-looking) BMWs such as the Fisker Tramamoto and Latigo CS, Fisker’s first vehicle of its own is slated to be the $87,000 Karma plug-in hybrid. The Karma will be produced in Finland under contract by Valmet Automotive, the same firm that built the Porsche Cayman and Boxster and many Saab models over the years. The Karma is to be a range-extended plug-in hybrid vehicle similar in concept to the Chevrolet Volt. However, unlike the Volt, the Karma will be tuned for performance, and will pack a 260-horsepower turbocharged direct injection GM-sourced four cylinder to supplement its electric drivetrain. According to Fisker, the Karma will accelerate from zero to sixty in less than six seconds, have a 300-mile range, and be able to travel 50 miles per day on battery power.
In a somewhat surprising twist, the Wilmington plant comes with a ready-made workforce; UAW Local 435, which has represented the plant’s workforce for decades, will represent workers employed by Fisker. The company’s action is unusual; most start-up auto manufacturers (and transplants) purposely avoid union representation by setting up shop in states without a strong union presence. It’s why most new assembly plants have been built in places like Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina over the past few years.
The advantage of the UAW for Fisker may be that a workforce that knows how to build cars, has generally been seen as having a good relationship with management, and is already more or less in place. If Fisker is to meet its aggressive timeline of designing, developing, and certifying the vehicle, training its workforce, and starting production by late 2012, having an experienced workforce may be a benefit to Fisker, even though it will likely cost more in labor expenses. According to company founder Henrik Fisker, the Wilmington site was chosen because of its production capacity, world-class paint facilities, access to modern shipping ports, rail lines and skilled work force.
The new car to be built in Delaware is a more mass-market, mid-size family sedan. Although the car doesn’t have a name, its project does have one: Project NINA. The car is expected to retail for about $39,900 after Federal tax credits, which is several thousand dollars more than the Chevrolet Volt is projected to cost (the Volt is likely to be around that price beforethe tax credits). The as-yet unnamed Fisker car, if it’s indeed classified as midsize, would probably trump the Volt in terms of interior space; the Volt is only a four-seater because there’s a giant tunnel through the center of the car to hold its batteries.
Fisker anticipates that Project NINA will create 2,000 production jobs in Wilmington and 3,000 vendor or supplier jobs by 2014. The company also expects production to eventually hit 75,000 to 100,000 vehicles per year, with many of them slated for export.
The Fisker Karma is a good-looking car (though I’ve heard that the back seat is somewhat impractically small), and Henrik Fisker is a talented designer, so I’m confident that the family car that Project NINA produces will be a looker. Mr. Fisker must also be a heck of a salesman to score more than half a billion dollars in loans from the US government, in spite of not yet producing a single production car. It reminds me a bit of the situation that Koenigsegg will find itself in as it takes over Saab, but Koenigsegg has at least produced a few dozen cars.
As someone who doesn’t live far from this plant, I welcome the investment in the local economy and wish Fisker all the success in the world. Delaware has a long tradition of auto manufacturing that came to an abrupt end after Chrysler closed its Newark plant (that most recently produced the Durango and Aspen) and GM closed its Wilmington plant. Now, Delaware has a chance to start a new chapter as a manufacturing center, this time for next-generation clean vehicles. I think this industry needed some good news after the past several months.
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