By Deepa Seetharaman
DETROIT (Reuters) - A boutique carmaker led by former General Motors Co executive Bob Lutz and China's largest auto parts supplier made an offer this month to buy cash-strapped "green" car company Fisker Automotive, people familiar with the matter said.
VL Automotive and China's Wanxiang Group are looking to gain control of Fisker through a prepackaged bankruptcy. This comes alongside a separate push by investors in Europe and Hong Kong, including billionaire Richard Li, to buy out the U.S. Department of Energy's position in Fisker.
Sources cautioned that efforts to revive Fisker are ongoing and may fall apart. They spoke on a condition of anonymity because the talks are private.
Fisker, maker of the $100,000-plus Karma plug-in hybrid, has faced a barrage of negative news this year while it scrambles to find a buyer and preserve cash. Fisker hired bankruptcy advisers and fired most of its workforce this year.
The automaker, which has not built a car since July, is also struggling to repay its federal loan. Last month, Republican lawmakers grilled company co-founders Henrik Fisker and Barny Koehler over the automaker's finances.
Henrik Fisker left the automaker over "major disagreements" with the company's executive team in March. Since then he's been in touch with various investor groups to discuss a potential role for himself in car company should Fisker finds a new owner, sources said.
Fisker, Wanxiang, VL Automotive and the DOE were not immediately available for comment. Henrik Fisker declined to comment through a spokesman.
HALF OFF THE KARMA
Details of the bid from Wanxiang and VL Automotive were not immediately clear, but both companies have an interest in Fisker's survival.
Wanxiang bought Fisker's lithium-ion battery supplier, A123 Systems Inc, out of bankruptcy. This week, a judge approved the bankruptcy plan for A123, which changed its name to B456 Systems Inc.
At the Detroit auto show this year, VL Automotive showcased a car called the VL Destino, which combines the shell of a Fisker with the guts of a Chevrolet Corvette ZR1.
The company is a venture between Lutz and his partner, industrialist Gilbert Villarreal. They build the Destino, which will sell for around $180,000, in Auburn Hills, Michigan.
"I want Fisker to live and succeed, if only to ensure a continuing supply of Karma bodies for my and my parter's (sic) VL Destino, a de-electrified Karma with a Corvette drive train, for which there is brisk demand," Lutz said in a blog post posted on Forbes.com on April 26.
Any attempt to revive the company faces an uphill battle with future investors, dealers and consumers, said Donn Vickrey, an analyst with research firm Gradient Analytics. In some areas, the Karma prices have fallen by half.
"They're literally selling at something at 50 cents per dollar right now," Vickrey said. "That's a lot of confidence lost. I'm not sure how you get that back."
He added that it may be "more feasible" to fold Fisker's operations into another firm, rather than continue to operate the company as a standalone automaker.
BUYING OUT THE DOE
Henrik Fisker founded the company with Barny Koehler in 2007 and together they raised about $1.2 billion in private funds. In 2009, Fisker won a $529 million DOE loan in 2009 as part of a U.S. government program to promote advanced vehicles.
Fisker got $192 million in funds before the DOE froze Fisker's credit line in mid-2011 after Fisker missed key performance targets. The resulting cash crunch prompted Fisker to overhaul its management team and look for buyers.
The terms of the loan have been a source of friction between the DOE and Fisker. Prospective buyers have been unwilling to assume the obligations spelled out in the loans, sources close to the company have previously said.
Last year, Fisker tried to refinance the federal loans through a bond offering that did not gain traction, according to sources and internal DOE documents released last month during the congressional hearing. In April, the DOE seized $21 million from Fisker's coffers to repay a portion of the loan.
Investors from Europe are working with Hong Kong businessman Li, who is chairman and chief executive of the Pacific Century Group, to buy out the DOE's position in Fisker, most likely at a discount, sources said on Tuesday.
This measure would allow Fisker to wrest free of the loan's current obligations and allow the DOE to recover more than they might get in a bankruptcy. But this route may open the DOE to criticism and raises questions about Fisker's future strategy.
"That's not that uncommon in the financial circles," Vickrey said. "If you can settle that debt at discount and sell the assets to another automaker, it might make sense as an investment."
(Reporting by Deepa Seetharaman; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)