Aston Martin’s Thunderbolt Lawsuit Is Rooted in a Deeper Question

Source: Henrik Fisker via Autoblog

Fresh off of backing away from a legal showdown with Porsche over the term “GT3,” Aston Martin has officially filed a lawsuit against Henrik Fisker over the Thunderbolt concept that he showed at this year’s Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. The British automaker doesn’t necessarily object to the existence of the car itself, but rather to Fisker’s use of specific design elements that it says unfairly represent the car as an Aston Martin.

As the company’s spokesperson, Simon Sproule told Jalopnik, “He’s taken one of our cars and used our own design IP and claimed it has his own. If anyone puts [those design elements] on a car in an unauthorized way, we have a right to defend it.”

But wait, isn’t the Thunderbolt based on an Aston Martin? It is, but that’s where things start to get complicated. Aston Martin doesn’t object to the use of its car as the basis for the project, and it doesn’t object to the project itself. What Aston Martin objects to is the fact that specific design elements are too close to the factory version, which might trick people into thinking they’re buying a factory Aston Martin instead of a coachbuilt one.

Specifically, the company insists that the grille of the Thunderbolt has’t been changed enough, while the side vents are a definitive Aston Martin design cue. Additionally, it claims that the badge Fisker used for the Thunderbolt is too similar to the original badge. Finally, Aston Martin claims that when Fisker approached the company with his early design plans, he was told that they were too similar to the production model and wouldn’t be approved.

Whether this case ends up going Aston Martin’s or Fisker’s way will be entirely up to the courts, but it does raise a lot of questions about the legal status of tuner cars and coachbuilders. Is it any surprise that the Thunderbolt looks a lot like an Aston Martin when it started out as an Aston Martin and has been tweaked a little bit to look slightly more exotic? After all, even if you don’t like the change, when a girl gets a new haircut and puts on a different dress, isn’t she still the same person?

Galpin-Fisker Mustang Rocket (10) Low Res
Source: Galpin Auto Sports

More immediately, you have to wonder what the difference is between the Thunderbolt and the Ford Mustang-based Fisker Rocket concept. The grille on the Rocket is different than the Mustang’s grille, but no one is going to look at a Rocket on the street and think that it’s anything other than a Mustang. There’s even a Mustang pony logo on the front, which is definitely more recognizable than the Aston Martin logo. Why isn’t Ford suing Fisker for infringing on its intellectual property? Surely Ford has just as much of a case as Aston Martin when it comes to worrying that people are going to think that Fisker’s heavily modified version of its car is a Ford.

This certainly isn’t the first time that an automaker has sued someone for modifying a car, though. Back in 2008, Ferrari took offense to one of its 360 Modena being stretched into a limousine and sued the owner. It was a privately owned car that just happened to be a little bit longer than it was when it left the factory, but according to the Italian supercar manufacturer, the changes were substantial enough to make it no longer a Ferrari.

The more you think about this Fisker lawsuit, the more questions it raises. At what point does a car stop being the original, and how much modification are you allowed to do before you have to make sure that your modified car is no longer recognizable as the original? What are you allowed to take off or replace before you cross the line into dangerous legal territory? If the problem is that Fisker wants to sell the Thunderbolt, does that mean that shops that tune and customize cars are doing so illegally? Is the biggest problem that Ford likes Fisker, but Aston Martin doesn’t like him?

On the one hand, it might sound like a small case between a supercar company and a guy who wants to sell a few modified versions of those supercars to a few very rich people, but the ruling could set a precedent for aftermarket modification in the future. It’s certainly not a Supreme Court case, but there’s at least potential for it to affect the tuner scene in California. I doubt that Aston Martin would have followed through with filing the lawsuit if it didn’t seriously think it had a case.

It will also be interesting to see how this lawsuit affects people’s perception of Aston Martin. Currently Aston Martins are the supercars that everybody loves. They’re the supercars that you can street park without fear of being keyed, and their owners are stereotyped as being cool and classy. The company is going after Fisker to protect its name and its intellectual property, but there’s a big risk that this suit is going to end up hurting Aston Martin’s reputation.

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