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.”

Pioneers of technology

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.

Developing the cam-less engine

“Our strength is not mass production, it is innovation and procurements, unique features and technology,” says Christian von Koenigsegg. One of these innovative solutions is in the testing stage at the company’s headquarters and other sites. “We have developed a new valve system that eliminates the need for camshafts,” explains Koenigsegg. “If you look at the underside of this unit, you can see that there is no camshaft – the actuators drive the valves.

“The valves are driven by air,” he continues. “It’s a revolution in cylinder head technology. It takes out the biggest restriction in creating performance in a traditional internal combustion engine. It means we don’t need a throttle body because we can throttle with the valves, determine when they lift, how much they lift and how long they are open for. Essentially, this offers infi nitely variable valve timing, separately, on each valve.”

That’s not the only advantage of the system. “It’s so fast, you can two stroke up to 3,000rpm, doubling torque and power, thereby reducing the gearbox to half the size because you have every other gear located inside the engine.

“You can still get good turbulence and combustion at idle speeds of 200rpm or 300rpm because you can open the valves so late. With a standard engine, because the cam is optimised to run at 6,000rpm, you get poor combustion at 700rpm or 800rpm idle speeds. Even if the cams are variable, it is only to a certain extent, so they spread the optimal ‘sweet spot’ between maybe 3,500rpm and 6,000rpm. Now we have the sweet spot at any engine speed.”

While improving power, the air-actuated valves also offer the potential for greatly improved fuel economy. “Just by throwing away the throttle body we reduce drag, and we don’t have a vacuum, and that in itself reduces fuel consumption by around 10 per cent. With the other benefi ts, the fuel saving is potentially 30 per cent. The improved turbulence at idle and cold start means you don’t need to fi re all cylinders at cold start at the same time. Just by doing that, you can reduce emissions by 50 per cent.”

The devil is in the detail

At first glance, the valve looks like no more than a plain metal cube, but inside is where the design really counts. “The company holds about 17 patents – 12 of them are related to this actuator. One of the related patents covers how we managed to reduce the energy consumption compared to existing conventional systems. With these, when you pump up the piston, you have pressure behind and you cannot simply pump it out. What this system does is throw in a compacted packet of air behind the piston then closes it off. It allows the air to expand to match the surrounding pressure. The energy delivered by the expansion of the gas is equal to more than 90 per cent of the energy used to compact the gas.

“There are some intricate parts needed to make this happen. For example, the piston accelerates at 10,000Gs every time the valve opens; in three hundred microseconds it moves 1mm. Theoretically, if this was set free for a second, it would travel out of the earth’s atmosphere.

“The actuator pushes on a little piston and this pushes on the valve stem instead of the camshaft. The piston is driven by low-pressure air, only up to seven or eight bar and it has an oil rail that allows it to be lubricated and pressurised by engine oil. When you change the oil, you also service the valves. It’s an all-metal component, so there’s no real heat in it; it actually gets colder the more you expand air into it, meaning there is no visible wear.

“It’s all very intuitive. The piston is landing on a cushion of air, it has a little pocket of engine oil so that it lands softly – and quietly. That was one of the most diffi cult things to achieve, a quick closing and a soft landing. It’s really a mix of all other systems. You can say that the engine oil is a hydraulic, it has the same action as standard electro magnets opening and closing the valves, then we have air, which is the pneumatic driving the valves; it’s three theories in one, but we call it the pneumatic valve because air is the driving force.”

Less is more

Koenigsegg explains how the air used to actuate the valve is generated. “All the drivetrain for the camshaft is removed. It’s replaced by an air pump, compressor, a belt-driven or electrical compressor. That is what you have to add when you take away the camshaft, sprockets and other parts. This results in a much narrower, shorter cylinder head, so you gain a lot of space, which already compensates for the weight of the compressor.

To simplify what it does, it gives you 30 per cent more torque, 30 per cent more power, 30 per cent less fuel consumption and 50 per cent less emissions in the test cycle.

“You could, depending on the strategy, create pressurised air while you were driving. You could pump in air to pre-load the system. You don’t have to replace it like a battery, it doesn’t weigh as much, it’s not as toxic, and you don’t have to recycle it. The tank is about the size of a battery.”

Are we looking at sub-100g/km CO2 emissions? “It makes it easier to achieve that target. This is the only system we know which is cheap to produce, hardly more expensive than a camshaft. Even if it cost four times that, you would save the difference in fuel. And you can downsize the engine: a three-cylinder engine is as powerful and offers the same torque as a current four-cylinder version. If you make a three-cylinder, 1.5-litre engine with the same characteristics as an equivalent four and cut off the extra cylinder, then you really save money, and you can improve interior space or build in extra crash structure.

As for mass-producing the unit, Koenigsegg says the company is already doing so. It has been tested by third parties in truck engines for several years, non-stop, and has been found to outlive any current diesel truck engine. “For a normal car engine, it offers several times the life of the other components within the engine,” he concludes.

Working with carbon fibre

“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.”

Fourteen weeks from start to finish

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.