Christian von Koenigsegg talks about his passion for all things automotive, and his continuing drive for innovation
Christian von Koenigsegg is, like his father and grandfather before him, an entrepreneur, who formed a company with the sole purpose of bringing his personal dream to fruition.
Now 36, the self-styled engineer and CEO of Koenigsegg Automotive in Angelholm, Sweden, is reaping the rewards of his single-minded dedication. “When I was five, I saw a movie called ‘Pinchcliff Grand Prix’, about a bicycle repairman who built a race car with a rocket engine in the rear and a 12-litre engine in the front.”
The story served to kick-start Koenigsegg’s ambition. At 19, he started his first company, an enterprise he describes as “basically buying and selling stuff”. Some of the money generated from this operation was used as start-up capital for Koenigsegg Automotive.
“My first concept drawing from 1994 is still surprisingly similar to the car we have today.” He is an admirer of the Porsche 911, which has retained its basic form since first rolling off the line in 1963. “The [Koenigsegg] car doesn’t follow any design cues. It’s like the 911 in that the design remains the same. The new car doesn’t have one bolt in common with the model from three years ago, but it still looks similar.
“If you build on your experience, you have a greater chance of succeeding than if you build a model from scratch – especially if it’s working well. I never wanted to make a trendy car, I wanted to make something aerodynamic, timeless – and recognisable. If you look at our 2001 model, it’s essentially the same car, the lights are older, the shapes are less distinct, but the overall design is similar.”
The company’s first car featured a steel chassis with carbon fibre floor. The construction methodology has since changed to a modular arrangement. “When we started, everyone was talking about platforms, but I noticed that wasn’t suitable for us. It was better to have a subframe block, rear subframe block and an engine block, and then you could adjust and modify them individually as you required without having to change the other assemblies.
“Saab and Volvo have looked at that, and now they’re talking about modules instead of platforms. I don’t know if we pioneered this concept, but we used the idea because it was a natural fit for us,” says Koenigsegg.
“We can do a sub-assembly of the front subframe, the rear axle and then put them together. Trucks are already built that way and now more cars are produced using this method,” he explains.
While the underlying assembly may have changed, the aluminium honeycomb and carbon fibre body remains, a direct product of the steep learning curve demanded of all carbon fibre users. “A lot of the shapes of the car are dictated by the material, how it can be used, produced and optimised.” Koenigsegg says.
“We have a lot of experience of working with carbon fibre. You have to feel, touch and try when learning how to use it, experiment to see what kind of carbon fibre you need, how many layers, the curing process, which shape, and after a number of years of using it, this becomes second nature. But this is based on our experiences; maybe we have taken a different path to that of a German or Italian company doing the same thing.”
He believes carbon fibre will make further inroads into mass production. “It is becoming more accessible and within the production price range of standard cars, but it’s still difficult to mass-produce. The process doesn’t lend itself to mass production, you can’t just stamp and cut it. You have to heat up tools and understand the curing process. The processes are improving and it will become more widely used – but at a slower pace. When we first started, the carbon fibre producers said that they’d be in mass production in two or three years’ time. They’ve been saying that for 15 years.”
Koenigsegg says that steel has its advantages and you can work with it to make it lighter; it also doesn’t have the fatigue properties that aluminium has. “We use chromolly for the wishbones in our cars. Mass production processes will still use steel for the foreseeable future.”
Lotta De Salvatore, Director of Communications at Koenigsegg, says that the company will be increasing production by increments of 25 per cent over the next two years. While this only adds up to a production run of 25 cars in 2009, each car represents a total of 4,000 labour hours, including production of all carbon fibre parts.
“In the past, we produced about 80 per cent of the car in-house. Now, a company in Britain – Aerostructures – provides most of our carbon fibre. It has taken moulds for the whole chassis and the finished parts are shipped back to our factory. They are transported in closed containers, two monocoques at a time.”
As the epoxy in the carbon fibre becomes hard and unworkable if left at room temperature for a week or more, the rolls are stored in a large freezer; a wise precaution seeing that the material costs about €100 per square metre.
“Now we just produce some of the smaller parts - the instrument panel, and headlight housings, for example. Each piece stays in the oven for five to eight hours at 120 degrees Celsius. We have two ovens, for smaller and larger pieces. It’s efficient, energy wise.
“For the outer skin of carbon fibre, we make sure that the pattern of the material matches exactly at each join,” says De Salvatore. “This has to be done inside the curing bag, which is quite a job. Getting the carbon fibre to line up correctly, on the body and when all the closures are put in place, takes up to 1,000 hours.”
Some manufacturers drape the car in carbon fibre once it is finished and then cut out a final matching layer, but Koenigsegg does it for each piece, layer by layer.
Once the monocoque has been delivered, it is taken apart and put together again to check for panel alignment, before being prepared for final finishing. “At this stage, we add other parts, including the fuel tanks. We have two different tanks: the standard fuel tank is plastic, but for the models using E85 biofuel, these are aluminium, because of the corrosive nature of the fuel. There are three tanks in the car, one in each of the sills and one behind the cockpit, with an active system that balances the fuel by weight between the three.”
This is also when the car is identified as being left- or right-hand drive, and is prepared for the customer’s choice of engine. “We have two V8 engines, a 4.7 and a 4.8-litre, both will dual superchargers,” explains De Salvatore. “The 4.8-litre version is offered in the Edition cars and produces 880bhp or 1,018bhp. The more powerful version uses E85 biofuel, this creates a higher compression and so more power, but can also use standard fuel. The engine is cast aluminium, with many of the parts made from carbon fibre to keep the weight down. The engine was first cast in Scotland, but now most of the casting is done in-house.”
To help improve turnaround times, Koenigsegg installed a combination paintbooth and carbon fibre preparation room.
“Carbon fibre is a notoriously difficult material to paint. We used to send our body shells to Italy to have them finished.
Following problems with turnaround, we invested in our own paintbooth and asked the Italians to teach us how to do the job. It’s good to have this process on site – if we’re test-driving a car and it is scratched, we can immediately fix the damage. The booths also feature an underfloor vacuum system to remove carbon fibre dust and special, high intensity lights for identifying imperfections.
“For painted cars, we first add an extra layer of surface treatment. In very bright sunlight, over perhaps 10 years, carbon fibre can turn yellow, so this coating acts as a UV filter. Unfortunately, we can’t do this with clear-coated cars.”
Once painted and polished, the body parts are moved through to the assembly hall. At the same time, bins are loaded with the parts and electronic modules that will come together to make a car. Production starts with a chassis, engine, transmission and axles already fitted.
“We have some inventory inhouse,” says De Salvatore, “but these are not standard parts. Mostly, we order parts when we get a customer order. It would cost too much, otherwise.
Also, everything for the car is more or less handmade, so each item, the same item on different cars, can require custom fitting, especially with the CF parts.”
The car itself is assembled on a production line comprising seven stations, the first three being for pre-assembly and the rest for final assembly. The first starts with a completed chassis; electrical systems, including the batteries and wiring harnesses, are then added.
At the second station, glass is fitted and interior parts, including the instrument binnacle and engine items such as radiators, are installed, while at the third station, exterior panels and closures, and the exhaust assembly are added.
Production of any Koenigsegg model (CCX, CCXR, CCX Edition and top-of-the-range CCXR Edition) only starts once the customer has made an initial 30 per cent deposit. As the CCXR Edition model is priced at €1.5 million ($1.9 million) plus applicable taxes, this can add up to a considerable sum.
“Each car takes about 14 weeks to complete,” says De Salvatore. “There’s no shift work – we work 40 hours a week. Koenigsegg Automotive has 52 staff, of whom 42 work directly on producing the cars; the rest fulfil administrative and development roles.