With help from some very significant friends, a young Swede hopes to knock off the McLaren F1 as reigning supercar.
NOVEMBER 2001 BY DAN NEIL
The first thing you notice about Christian von Koenigsegg is that his eyebrows are gone, replaced by tattoos. After an inevitable double take, you realize the 29-year-old Swedish entrepreneur has no beard or eyelashes, either. Koenigsegg suffers from alopecia areata, an autoimmune disorder in which the body turns against its own hair follicles, a condition often brought on by prolonged stress.
Koenigsegg was asking for it. In 1994, he decided to get into the supercar business.
Yet Koenigsegg is serene-at least on the outside. “It’s not true that everybody who gets into the business eventually folds,” he says affably. “Look at Pagani, Mosler, Edonis, Saleen. It’s about a 50-percent success rate, which is better than a lot of businesses.”
Koenigsegg hopes his silver CC V-8 will unseat the legendary McLaren F1 as the world’s fastest production car. On March 31, 1998, Andy Wallace piloted a McLaren F1 to 240.1 mph. No car has ever seriously challenged that record until now, and when you see Koenigsegg’s headquarters-a 200-year-old thatched-roof farmhouse that looks as though Pippi Longstocking just moved out-you wonder how serious he is.
Mounted amidships under the car’s double-humped bonnet, a 4.6-liter Ford 32-valve V-8 huffs 19 pounds of intercooled boost from a Paxton Novi supercharger. Koenigsegg claims 655 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 553 pound-feet of torque at 5000 rpm, divided by a curb weight of just 2800 pounds, for a weight-to-power ratio of 4.3 pounds per horsepower. The body’s drag coefficient is 0.30, yet at 200 mph it manages to create 110 pounds of downforce in front and 154 in back.
The arithmetic says that with a final-drive ratio of 3.36:1, a redline of 7000 rpm, and 18-inch wheels, the car could conceivably top out at nearly 235 mph in fifth gear-within spitting distance of the McLaren’s record.
Gordon Murray is skeptical. After an article on the CC appeared in the British car mag Evo, Murray, McLaren’s technical director, wrote a dismissive, even derisive letter claiming the McLaren would never be surpassed, least of all by some upstart from Sweden. Koenigsegg treasures the letter.
We saddle up for a quick spin through the Neverland scenery around Ängelholm, in southern Sweden. The driver’s door swivels up and forward on its marvelously engineered, multi-axis hinge and closes with the sound of a fastball finding the pocket of a catcher’s mitt- whooompff. The car sweetly stutters into first gear, and we’re soon gliding down a country two-lane, 100 mph in a lazy third gear. Koenigsegg gives me the “go” sign, and I roll into the throttle. An eye-rattling blur, a roar, my head tossed back into the headrest, the landscape geysering toward me in fauvist greens and yellows- oh, sweet Jesus!-and I grab fourth, wham! there goes my head again. The road shrinks to thread. I stretch for the 7000 redline, then jam the billet aluminum shifter northeast for fifth. Moments later, the car nears 200 mph, and it isn’t even breathing hard. I am.
Christian von Koenigsegg was born in Stockholm in 1972, the son of a wealthy entrepreneur. The family name is German for “king’s blade.” The car bug bit Koenigsegg when he was three, after he saw an animated movie about a Norwegian bicycle repairman who builds a supercar for Le Mans. “I thought that was real,” he says. “In the back of my mind I always had it that a bicycle repairman built this amazing car.”
As a child, Koenigsegg (say, koh-neegs-egg) pored over stacks of car magazines. Much later, he took business and economics courses at the Scandinavian School of Brussels, always planning. “Building a car company was the only thing I studied with my whole heart.”
In 1994, he began his first prototype in the family garage, using his own money. In 1995, Koenigsegg applied for-and much to his surprise, received-a loan of $150,000 from the Swedish Board for Technological Development.
Over the next two years, Koenigsegg developed a space-frame and composite prototype powered by a 4.2-liter Audi engine. He took the car to a BPR race in Anderstorp. Test driver Rickard Rydell lapped the circuit a second faster than the pole-sitting Lamborghini Diablo.
In 1997, Koenigsegg hired two clay modelers from England, veterans of Lambo and Jaguar projects, to create the buck for the carbon-fiber molds. But by now Koenigsegg had burned through his government grubstake.
Then a funny thing happened. Word got around. “A lot of people, when they heard about the car, were very excited to learn it was being made in Sweden, and they wanted to help.” Among the first was Kjell Nilsson, a former vice-president of Electrolux who signed on as chairman of the board, working for free “just to see it happen,” says Koenigsegg. “He opened a lot of doors for us.”
Some of those were back doors. Saab engineers quietly donated their expertise in engine management, helping to develop a Trionic system for the flat-12 motor Koenigsegg is working on. Volvo took shares of the company in exchange for wind-tunnel and test-track time, kicked in expertise in many areas, and greased the wheels with Sweden’s suppliers.
By 1998, capital was flowing. “Strangers would walk through the door and say, ‘How can I help?’ And they would write a check.” Of the company’s 160 suppliers, more than 120 are Swedish. More help came from across the pond. James Glaser, an American composite engineer from Newman/Haas Racing, found himself unemployed in Sweden after moving there with his Swedish wife in 1996. He called to see if he could work on the project.
“Jim is very skilled at working with big composite pieces,” Koenigsegg says. “He changed the way the chassis is put together.” Under Glaser’s guidance–and with a little free advice from Glaser’s friends at Swift Engineering in California–the CC V-8’s carbon-fiber and Kevlar-honeycomb tub was simplified into large, Lego-like components, as big as possible while still preserving the negative draft angles required for pulling parts off molds. For instance, the front bulkhead unit includes the batwing-style dash, footwells, crash-resistant A-pillars and headliner, ventilation ducting, and suspension pickup points. Outside the tub, the balance of the body consists of only seven discrete components.
Although not, strictly speaking, either 100-percent composite or full monocoque (the engine is cradled with a steel subframe), the Koenigsegg body/chassis is a phenomenally refined bit of high-tech origami. One trick: The top comes off easily and can be stowed in the nose of the car over the custom-fitted leather luggage.
Specialty Motor in Stockholm turned the box-stock Cobra engine into the CC V-8’s fire-breathing dragon. The transformation begins with a shot-peened forged crank, cross-drilled and balanced, with billet con rods pumping Manley racing pistons. The stock valvetrain is bolstered with forged cams, stainless valves, high-pressure springs, and hardened valve seats, all under carbon-fiber cam covers. The heads are ported and polished and a dry-sump added. Billet fuel rails feed 43-pound Bosch injectors. A ram-air intake situated between the cowl humps feeds the intercooled Paxton Novi blower. The transmission is a Cima six-speed manual, the same box as in the Pagani. When Cima makes the F1-style servo-clutch unit available next year, Koenigsegg will be able to retrofit the cars with a system like the one in the Ferrari 360 Modena F1. The electric-servo-assisted brakes with ABS pump AP calipers (six-pot in front, four-pot in the rear) around massive Alcon cross-drilled rotors. The car certainly has the go-fast goods.
Meanwhile, the company seems in good shape. Koenigsegg estimates that there are eight million shares in circulation that are currently worth about $2.50 apiece, for a net worth of $20 million, and no debt. He presold his first year’s run of 10 cars at $300,000 each. He expects the company to turn a profit in 2003, when the car will be available in the U.S.
What’s most striking about the CC is its degree of refinement. The trunklid, the hood, and the doors seem to levitate on finely balanced, self-supporting dampers. Koenigsegg designed an elegant brushed stainless circular panel integrating the climate controls, headlamps, outside-mirror adjustment, starter, and headlamp and kill switches.
Other interior treats include the VDO Dayton MR6000 pop-out audio/navigation unit, and carbon-fiber seats, upholstered with leather over pads of memory foam.
Between the rake-and-reach-adjustable seats and tilt-and-reach steering column, it’s a breeze to locate the perfect driver’s position. Niceties often omitted from supercars in the interest of saving weight –electric windows, central locking, ABS, an alarm system, tools–are all present.
The greenhouse, which wraps around like the late Intimidator’s sunglasses, creates unusually good sightlines for a supercar. Rear viewing is negligible, so a hind-end camera is optional.
With the targa top stowed in the nose, wind buffeting around the windshield is minimal. Wind noise gets swamped by the harsh bluster of the single-port exhaust and the hoarse chirr of the supercharger. Body stiffness compares favorably with that of a good-quality wrench.
Koenigsegg’s obsession with weight pays off. For a big car, it’s frighteningly nimble, with racy turn-in reactions out of the TRW power rack and neck-straining lateral grip from the no-profile Goodyear F1s. Smart caster tuning gives the car a settled, centered feeling at high speed.
As much as with any mid-engined car we’ve driven, power-on oversteer is the CC V-8’s natural state of grace. With this much gob-smacking torque available anywhere, in any gear, the car happily slides around corners on greased rails of easy, secure throttle steer. Man, it’s fun.
A full-race suspension of unequal-length control arms and coil-overs holds up the car. With truly miserly amounts of suspension travel, the car arcs flatly through corners, preferring to scrub rubber rather than to lean even slightly.
Under hard braking, the CC V-8 shimmies a little, probably due to the enormous Alcon multipiece rotors. During our outing, the car’s brake-force distributor seized, leaving us immobilized on the road after a panic stop, with all four calipers clamped tight. Now, where’s that tool kit?
The Koenigsegg’s got game, for sure. In late August, C/D technical editor Larry Webster flew to Sweden, where he hooked up the electronic gear to the Super Egg. Webster made four runs to perfect his launch of the powerful car, by which time, natch, the clutch of the well-used development car began to give way. Nonetheless, it was quicker to 100 mph at 8.2 seconds than the last Porsche 911 Turbo (8.9) and Ferrari F50 (8.5) we tested, and its quarter-mile time of 12 seconds flat would have blipped past the Porsche (12.3) and squeaked past the mighty Ferrari (12.1). Imagine what it might have done with a perfect clutch. Its 0.99 skidpad performance was better than the F50’s 0.95 and the Porsche Turbo’s 0.93, and Webster noted that the Koenigsegg was running worn backup tires at the front of the car. But we didn’t have room to run it flat-out.
Can it grab the brass ring? Alas, we think not yet. For now, the Koenigsegg chalks up a beautiful golden goose egg.