In this installment, we cover the early years of Koenigsegg and the process/philosophy under which we operate. It’s a very long article – over 4,000 words – but we think you’ll find it to be very interesting reading.
We recently opened up the comments section here at Koenigsegg and invited you to participate in an “Ask Me Anything” style forum with our founder and CEO, Christian von Koenigsegg.
These are his answers to the questions YOU asked.
The Early Days
Your cars are absolutely sublime. So tell me, what has been your inspiration to create cars such has the Regera and One:1? Your cars have absolutely inspired me….. but what inspired you?
Christian von Koenigsegg: My initial inspiration has been talked about many times.
When I was five years old, I saw an old stop-motion animated film called Pinchcliffe Grand Prix. It’s about a bicycle repair man named Reodor who builds his own race car and wins a race against the odds. I have always been the type of person who investigates and invents things. It’s in my nature to be like Reodor and as I grew up I was constantly pulling things apart to see how they worked, to see if I could make them work better. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t, but I always learned something along the way.
I started with radio-controlled cars, pulling them apart and re-wiring them when I was 5 or 6 years old. I’d make them spin around and do funny things, just to see what I could do. When I was around 7 I got a soldering kit from my Dad and then I got a kit to build my own RC car. So that was how it all started, with RC cars.
I remember taking apart tape recorders and VCR’s to see how they were constructed. I actually managed to repair a VCR when I was about 8 or 9. I quickly learned how electronics and mechanics worked together on an intuitive level. I didn’t read up on it. I just learned that this makes a spark and that brought resistance, which meant less power, things like that.
My parents bought me a small motorcycle when I was 8. It was old, and pretty rusty but I tore it down, put filler on the tank and sanded it, painted it, etc. It looked nice. I sold that bike, bought another and eventually I sold that, too.
I was 12 when I got my first moped – a Suzuki K50. That bike was the first one I started to tune. I took apart the engine. I read about how you could port things. I increased the compression by grinding the cylinder head against the floor of the basement, by hand. I only had very basic tools. I used to heat things in the oven to shrink them. It was all very basic, but it worked. The bike went faster when I was done.
Then I started to trade mopeds. I’d get a bike, make it look good, make it go faster, and then I’d sell it and buy another one. Before I was 15 I’d had around 12 mopeds and I got known as the local moped tuner.
I got a tiny boat when I was 13. It was about 2.5 meters long with a little wraparound screen. It was called a Spitfire and you were allowed to have something like 5 to 15 horsepower on it. I put 35 on it. It was crazy. I put a stereo in it and an automatic bilge pump, some lanterns and a working horn. I sold that one, too.
So that’s how it all started – just learning how electronics and mechanics worked together just by doing things.
I would like to know how did you start the company? I mean, how do you get the idea for a car off the ground, and create a first prototype, with (I assume) limited finance and tools?
CvK: I’ll have to go back a little here. The company started as a job in 1992 but in reality, the effort that allowed me to build cars started well before that.
I’ve already talked about my first experiences – playing with RC cars, motorbikes and boats when I was young. At that time, I also did my first drawings of a hovering car. I figured that was where cars would be going: that they would have no wheels in the future. Unfortunately all my drawings went up in flames in 2003 when we had a fire at the old factory. I had all my old drawings there, right from when I was a kid up until when we started Koenigsegg, and they were all gone.
We had a couple of computers when I was young, a Commodore 64 and then an Amiga 1000. The Amiga had a pretty good drawing program on it (for the time), with thousands of colors and pretty good resolution. So I started drawing cars on the computer in the mid 1980’s. I just kept working on those car designs, which were all mid-engined cars, even back then.
I come from a family of entrepreneurs. Both my mother and father had their own businesses so to me, it was natural that I would one day have a business of my own. They never told me what I should or shouldn’t do. I wanted to build my cars and that was fine by them. But I knew I’d have to figure out how to do that using my own resources. For that to happen, I’d have to make some money.
When I was 19 I already had a few ideas that I wanted to patent and in order to do that, I had to make some money very quickly. So that’s when I started my first company.
I had a pretty simple business plan – I would find out what people needed, I would find that stuff for a cheap price and then I would sell it. It was the early 1990’s and the Iron Curtain had just fallen. There were plenty of people who needed things, stuff as simple as pens or plastic bags. I found a big batch of plastic bags that had been printed with a logo the wrong way, for example. They were going to be thrown out. I bought them and sold them into Eastern Europe. They didn’t care about the logo. They just needed the bags. I sold frozen chickens from the USA into Estonia.
Whatever people needed that I could find at a good price, I sold, and it turned into a good business. It wasn’t a business that I was passionate about at all, but it worked and it made me enough money to get started with my real dream…… building cars.
I started doing that on 12th August, 1994.
The plan I had to build cars was pretty much the opposite of what people usually think is a smart business idea. Nobody was asking for it. It was seemingly impossible. It was expensive. Nobody had ever come from nothing and done it successfully before. So it was a stupid business idea, basically. An impossible plan. And that’s why I liked it. I wanted to prove to myself and everyone else that anything is possible if you put your mind, heart and soul into it. I really believed that and still do.
I haven’t done anything else since.
I had a partner in that first business, Mikael, and he stayed with me through the first two years with Koenigsegg as a car company. But in the end he decided it wasn’t for him. He wasn’t the car fanatic that I am and the lack of a regular income, the uncertainty for his family, was probably a bit much, too. Fully understandable.
Mikael and I wrote the first business plan together. We went to the Swedish Board for National Technical Development and we met this lady in her 50’s, who definitely did not look like a car nut. We asked her whether she (i.e. the Board) would like to help finance this crazy idea for a Swedish supercar company and to our surprise, she liked the car – “How much do you need?”
We borrowed 1.5 million crowns from them to help build the first prototype, but the loan was given on the condition that we moved to an area with high unemployment. So we could go north, way north, above the arctic circle, or we could go to south-east Sweden, to a place called Olofström on the coast. Volvo had a presence there and it wasn’t in the polar region, so that’s where we went.
We had been promised the use of a 1500sqm property that we could rent but it was occupied for the next 18 months, which was good for us as we didn’t need anything that big at that point, anyway. We rented a 400-sqm garage, we found and employed a few skilled locals and by 1996, we were driving our first prototype.
In the meantime, Volvo scaled up their operations and they took our 1500sqm building. The landlord probably thought we weren’t going to be around for long, so it made sense for him to give it to Volvo. We had to move, then, which is when we came to Ängelholm. I spent a lot of time in Ängelholm when I was young as my parents had a summer house nearby, in Förslöv. So when we had the chance to move from Olofström, Ängelholm had some appeal as it was a known area and not as far north as my hometown, Stockholm. Compared to Stockholm there are less people, there is less snow, quieter roads and it’s closer to the European market, etc. It was ideal for this kind of operation.
One of my favourite places in Ängelholm when I was young was a local car dealership. They sold sports cars. I used to ride my moped there and press my face up against the glass, looking at all the cars inside.
When it was time for us to move, I found out that the car dealership I used to visit as a child might be available. We were able to rent half of the space at first, then the full space, and finally we bought the property and prepared ourselves to manufacture cars there. It was amazing – I was doing my dream job in a place I’d absolutely loved throughout my childhood.
Most people know that we had a fire there in 2003. We lost all of our records, and I lost all of my childhood automotive sketches, etc. Thankfully we managed to save the cars that were being built and most of our equipment but it was an extremely hard time. We considered re-building on the same site but it would have taken way too long and we had just started production. We had to keep production going as much as possible or years of work would have been completely lost.
What was it about the existing crop of supercars at the time of the first car’s creation that made you want to create your own unique brand?
CvK: I thought they were a bit fuzzy around the edges. Not as clean and single-minded as they could be. I always wanted to create my own cars. That was always in the back of my mind. I never ever thought of working for anyone else.
What advice would you give to young college entrepreneurs and innovators that have a dream to get to where you are at?
CvK: I get this question a lot and this is probably not the ideal answer. It’s more like the opposite of an answer.
People ask me “How did you do it? What’s the trick?”. Well, there is no trick. It’s dedication, blood sweat and tears, no sleep, innovation, thinking positively about things and not giving up. There’s no trick. In a way, sometimes it is just pain. When that happens, most people give up. Some persevere and look for a match on the floor in a pitch dark tunnel.
You can experience some amount of luck along the way but you only get to do that if you are still around; if you endure the pain, learn from it and grow. You get the luck because you took a lot of hits on the way and survived.
There are a few ways to be an entrepreneur. For example, if you want to do the complete opposite of what we’ve done with Koenigsegg, you could buy a McDonalds franchise. You have a manual telling you what to do and as long as you do it, and do it well, you’ve got a reasonable chance at being successful. You’re still being a business person and an entrepreneur. You can innovate to some degree and make your business better.
And then you have the opposite end of the spectrum, which is what we do. You tick none of the typical SWOT-analysis boxes but you still think “yeah, this is a good idea”.
If you take that second route, then you’ve got to have supreme confidence in what you’re doing. You’ve got accept a large amount of sacrifice. You most likely will fail. You have to accept that, too. But you can increase your odds by being incredibly stubborn and by finding the tiniest opportunity in a space where it seems like there is no opportunity.
Not everybody can do everyone else’s job, but I have a general belief that the vast majority of people can do big things and are under-utilising their potential. But we’re all different.
What is the story behind you buying in 1999 the blueprints, machining tools and the patent for an unused 4-litre Carlo Chiti designed Formula One flat-12 engine and was it ever considered for use in Koenigsegg models?
CvK: Our first prototype, finished in 1996, had a standard Audi V8 with a standard Audi V8 transaxle. I didn’t have the ambition at that time for us to build our own engine from scratch, though I didn’t want to just have a standard Audi V8, either. I wanted to tune it, to take it to 550-600hp. So I went to Audi and I said “Hi, I’m Christian and I’m going to build sports cars. Can you supply me with engines?” and they were surprisingly positive about it – until I mentioned that I was going to tune it.
We had a lot of discussions back and forth and they were interested in doing business, but they weren’t interested in their engines being tuned by others. We almost found a back-channel through an industry supplier in Denmark and we even signed an engine supply contract thinking that we’d be OK buying them this way, but Audi heard about it and shut that avenue down, too.
So we had this prototype, based around a particular setup that we thought we could use and we had no engine supplier. We could have sued but I didn’t want to go down that path.
I met a guy who knew Carlo Chiti via a chain of friends. Chiti ran an engine company called Motori Moderni. They were in a bit of trouble but they used to do Formula 1 engines for Minardi. They had this boxer-12 engine, made in cooperation with Subaru, that had hardly ever raced. They had trouble with the weight and getting the diffusers to work with the layout of the F1 car once the engine was in.
The 12 cylinder engine wasn’t successful in Formula 1 but Motori Moderni had great success building other engines for Alfa Romeo to use in DTM racing. They had proven their worth, so they were worth talking to.
We went and met with them and they were very open. They said they could modify their 3.5 litre flat-12 engine for us. Similar engines had been used in offshore boat racing with twin turbos on them, so we were confident enough in their durability. They put together a 3.8 litre flat-12 and they lowered the RPM from 12000 to 9000. They put different camshafts on it, they stroked it, put in longer intake tracts. It was set up to get 580hp at 9000rpm and I have the dyno tests from where we ran that engine.
When we first designed the Koengisegg monocoque, it was designed for that engine and it was the first engine we put in there. The engine mount positions for that engine are still used in the Agera today.
Unfortunately, around this time, Carlo Chiti died and the company filed for bankruptcy. We had received two engines from them (which we still have) but once again, we found ourselves with no engine supplier.
In early 1997, I ended up winning an auction to buy some of the company’s assets. I got all the tools, the drawings, the castings and some spare parts for the engines. Some of that went up in flames at the old factory. We thought that maybe, with all that equipment, we could build our own engines from Chiti’s designs but when we got the equipment back to Sweden and started sorting it all out, it was a nightmare. There we no computerized drawings. It was all drawn by hand. A lot of the tooling was old and made from wood and it was quite beaten up.
Would the engine have been viable for the future? Certainly at first. It was quite amazing, actually. The whole engine block was under the centre of the rear axle, which gave us a super-low centre of gravity and looked very cool when you opened the rear hood of the car. There was no vibration whatsoever, which is why we decided to bolt it to the monocoque – it was wide, low and solid, so it acted just like a chassis member. We still do that with the V8’s we use today but with a tiny compromise because they’re not as smooth.
The downside of that engine is that it would never have taken us to the level we are at now. It would have been good up to about 750hp with turbo, but that would have been it. As it turns out, the engine package we finally engine layout we went for in 1998, has allowed us to go much further than we could have with Chiti’s flat-12.
Philosophy and process
What’s the creative process like for each car?
CvK: It can be either a really fast or really slow process, depending on how you look at it. In terms of man-hours worked, it’s pretty fast. In calendar terms, it seems pretty slow because we only have a small number of people.
If you look at the Regera, for example, that’s a car that has been developed very quickly. We started work on it in May 2014 and we had what was near to a running car at Geneva this year, less than a year after we started. That’s a car with all-new technology.
I only build cars that I want myself, which can annoy some people because it means I take over a lot during the initial stages of development. We don’t look at what competitors are doing and follow them. There might be some subconscious benchmarking somewhere, but basically it all tends to start in my head. I always want to stay different. We have no place being similar. We’re from Sweden. We’re practical thinkers. We are innovators. We are undaunted and we’re a little different. It should always be that way.
So with the Regera development… We had the idea that we needed a second car model, one that was a little more comfortable and luxurious.
I got my first Tesla Model S in 2013. It was great. The more I drove it, the more frustrated I was that Koenigsegg could not benefit from the advantages that a direct drive electric transmission gives. For example, if you floor the throttle when overtaking, a normal transmission first has to shift down before full power is applied. At the same time no fully electric drivetrain can have the same power density that the Koenigsegg drivetrain offers. So we have a dilemma.
To obtain a similar power level to what we have in our cars by using just electric propulsion, we’d need a battery weighing almost 2 tons! So this got me thinking. How do I get the electric response with no kickdown, and without the penalty of just adding things and making the car really heavy and clumsy?
That´s when I came up with the idea of saving space and weight by removing the entire transmission with all its gears and complexity and replacing it with powerful direct drive electric motors and a small battery, to support the power band of the combustion engine. This also allowed the combustion engine to compensate for the small and light battery when the speed range is not in the direct drive of the combustion engine’s range. So that’s when we came up with the idea of removing the Regera’s transmission – the best of both worlds.
What should it look like? We came up with the idea of something a little more streamlined, more elegant, with a more elegant feeling inside the car. Make it like a space plane, but with a Koenigsegg aura around it and a wraparound screen. My brother-in-law and I – he is a car designer and he came up with a lot of the features – we got together on this. He would draw something and I would point at a part of it, ask for a change. He would draw some more. I would point some more. Who came up with what is a little difficult to say in the end.
After a while, the rest of the company comes into the process, applying the practical things – the aerodynamics, homologation issues, etc. Then you get the full-scale model. It can look good on the computer but when you see it in person you’ll want to tweak it a little here and there. We even had a customer suggest a little bit of a ducktail at the back, and we’ve done that. It needed it.
The Regera involves a lot of different engineering elements. They were new in terms of having been not done together before, but I’d run them together in my head and I was sure they would work. They were all known elements, just combined in a different way. It’s like a new recipe. Batteries have been done before. We knew we could work on the cooling. The electric motors are known. We know the engine as we build it ourselves. It’s nothing more than a different way to put things together.
The Koenigsegg MO is obviously to make the best car. So from that standpoint how does the creative process look for deciding what features are better left out and which ones are absolutely necessary?
Which one of the following does Koenigsegg prioritize?
-Track Usage and Handling
-Daily Usage and Comfort
CvK: The answer is ‘Yes’….. that’s the problematic answer to this question. The answer is “all of the above” and that’s the challenge.
I hate compromise. I want it to be the lightest, most fun, best handling, most comfortable, with the most features, the most powerful car in the category. That is the headache. We operate within an envelope but we’re constantly trying to push the boundaries of the envelope so that we can fit more in, but still keep the car light, for example.
It’s something that we do really well. To do it, you need to figure out systems that are multi-functional. If you have a brace that holds something, for example, make sure it does something else, too. Make into a cooling tube, or something. Then you don’t have the weight of the cooling tube that you originally needed and suddenly you have a feature for free. We try to do this constantly and the benefits can be amazing.
Our roof, for example. We had to make it fit in the luggage compartment in the front of the car and to do that we needed to lower the whole suspension system. Suddenly we don’t just have every car being a roadster, we have every car also having a lower centre of gravity.
Always push. Give every obstacle the opportunity for an upside. Get it all.
This is why there are never enough hours in a day.
How extensive are your customization options? How closely do you work with customers when they are buying a Koenigsegg?
CvK: What we have traditionally said is that as long as you are paying for it, we can build you a helicopter to go with your car if you want. In other words, anything was possible as long as the customer had the money to pay for it and the patience to wait for it.
We don’t have a paint color chart at Koenigsegg. We mix our own paint according to what the customer wants. We have a customer right now who’s thinking of something very special mixed with his paint – we’ll keep that as a surprise – and I’m sure he will get it. We dye our own leathers, we build, pad and stitch our own seats. Steering wheel thicknesses. There’s no end to what we can do.
Right now we are ramping up production. We have high demand and a long lead time. We are in the process of trying to streamline our factory to get the speed of production up. So we’re trying to limit the level of customization that people do. The extravagant stuff. We’re trying to be a little less flexible but having said that, we are still extremely flexible. More than anyone else.
STILL TO COME……
In the next instalments, Christian talks about technology, racing, the future of Koenigsegg and what people need in order to work at Koenigsegg.