By: JOHN GITTELSOHN on January 5, 2006

Jan. 5–Henrik Fisker, a designer of BMWs and Aston Martins, has introduced his first car under his own name, the Fisker Tramonto, a $234,000 sport coupe designed at his Orange County studio.

Steve Saleen, the Irvine builder of racecars and customized Mustangs, unveiled his newest venture Wednesday: a high-performance pickup truck.

Both the Fisker and Saleen vehicles are debuting at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show, which opens to the public Friday. Both auto designers embody the emergence of Orange County, long a home to auto design, as a budding center of auto production.

Saleen made more than 5,000 cars in 2005, half at his factory in Irvine and half at his plant in Troy, Mich. Fisker plans to build his first 150 Tramontos at a factory in Europe, before opening a facility somewhere near his Irvine studio.

“Saleen and Fisker are further along than others, but they’re not the only ones,” said George Peterson, president of Auto Pacific, a Tustin consulting and marketing firm.

For years, Orange County has been an international magnet for auto design studios: Volvo, Land Rover, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz among the Europeans; Mazda and Hyundai representing Asia.

It also hosts numerous world-renowned auto customizers and craftsmen, ranging from hot rod king Boyd Coddington of La Habra to the Gaffoglio Family Metalcrafters Inc. of Fountain Valley.

What’s new is the growth of auto production, a trend enabled by advances in design technology and a growing market for specialized cars. Eric Noble, president of The CarLab, an independent auto research studio in Orange, compared the growth of companies like Saleen and Fisker to the recent proliferation of microbreweries to compete with mega-brewers such as Miller and Anheuser-Busch.

“If you’re going to brew a beer for a community, why not do it there?” Noble asked. “If the technology allows you to design, build and manufacture in proximity to the market, why wouldn’t you? If you’re going to build cars for Southern California, why not do it here?”

Fisker Coachbuild, as the company is formally called, derives its name from the early 20th-century European tradition of creating one-of-a-kind bodies with handcrafted appointments on top of factory-built chassis. But the company logo — a blue and orange circle pierced by two bars — was inspired by Southern California’s car culture.

The bars represent the auto designer’s pen and carving tool. The orange represents the sun setting over the blue Pacific “Southern California is the largest luxury car market in the world,” said Fisker, 42, a native of Denmark who settled in Orange County in 2003. “I live in Newport Beach because I think you need to live and breathe it.”

Beyond their shared Orange County origins, the new Saleen truck and Fisker sports car both represent customization of mass produced vehicles. The Fisker Tramonto is built on a Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG chassis while the Saleen S331 Supercharged truck rests on a Ford F-150 Lariat chassis.

Saleen is introducing his model at a time when truck sales have been hit by high fuel prices. But it doesn’t faze him or officials at Ford, which sold more than 900,000 F-series pickups in 2005.

“Having somebody like a Saleen take the F-150 and add his level of performance enhances our product,” said Doug Scott, Ford’s manager of truck group marketing.

“It’s a much bigger pie than the one for high performance sports cars,” said Saleen, a native of Whittier and former auto racer who designed his first car in 1984. “Where the trend is really going from the automotive standpoint is toward niche marketed, segmented vehicles. We’re speaking to individuals.” Saleen’s supercharged truck boosted the engine’s power by almost 50 percent to 450 horsepower, improved the suspension and enlarged the brakes to accommodate the truck’s 23-inch wheels — compared to 18-inches on the standard F-150.

Saleen also left his fingerprints all over his truck’s styling. He swelled the front bumper and grille to help the bigger engine inhale more air. The truck’s sides taper aerodynamically, like a woman’s waist. Tailpipes vent in front of the rear wheels, creating the truck’s rumble, leading to its nickname: Thunder.

The first trucks, 2007 models, are scheduled to be in about 170 dealer showrooms this summer, including Santa Margarita Ford, Sunset Ford and Villa Ford in Orange County.

Saleen has not set a price, but expects to charge at least $5,000 more than the F-150 Lariat’s $31,180 manufacturer’s suggested retail price. The truck still costs — and looks — like a Ford.

In Fisker’s case, it’s hard to see the Mercedes inside the Tramonto. He and his partner, Bernhard Koehler, enlarged the SL55’s wheels, enhanced the suspension, added horsepower and redesigned the interiors. They kept the SL55’s convertible hardtop, which folds into the trunk like an elaborate piece of origami.

But they completely transformed the Mercedes’ body — substituting 60 percent of the original steel and aluminum shell with carbon fiber to lighten the vehicle’s weight. They designed narrow slits for taillights and a grinning mesh-covered front grille inspired by the silhouette of the F-22A “Raptor” fighter plane.

Fisker and Koehler announced their company’s formation in January 2005 and put the first Tramonto on the road seven months later, a tribute, they said, to their design methods, details of which they said are proprietary.

The obsidian-black coupe and a second Fisker model, called the Latigo CS, have clocked almost 7,000 miles on their odometers as they travel to car shows.

“Our idea was to build a real car that works,” Fisker said.

Neither Saleen nor Fisker would disclose their privately-held companies’ financial data. They raised capital from investors and car enthusiasts around the nation. One of them, Dag Wilkinson, a Dana Point real estate developer, said he hopes to recoup his money in three years, although he’s not interested in buying a Fisker.

“My Puritan streak tells me I shouldn’t spend that much on a car,” Wilkinson said.