Automotive history is full of family trees, some more successful than others. While passing the torch from founder to foundling is not uncommon, Kevin and Lukas Czinger are doing it differently, creating and running a car company together.
Kevin Czinger is a popular interview subject, enthusiastic and talkative, the classic entrepreneur. His son Lukas came into the family business at age 22, and now, at age 28, is COO of the manufacturing arm, Divergent, and co-founder of the Czinger car company. Lukas is quieter than Kevin, less eager for the spotlight, but he wants to make it clear that he’s not just following in his father’s footsteps; he’s making his own path beside him. We met up with the younger Czinger for coffee and a chat about modern manufacturing and saving the world through supercars.
Car and Driver: Let’s start with something I see a lot of people get wrong. It’s “Zinger,” right, not Singer?
Lukas Czinger: Yeah. You just ignore the C. It’s like Czar.
Now that that’s out of the way, how long have you been working with your dad? Was that always your career plan?
I started at Divergent almost six years ago. I had been working in finance after school, doing biotech M&A [mergers and acquisitions] at a bank. And Kevin was in the Bay Area giving a presentation at a hardware conference, so I took a day off to see him speak, you know, just support my dad.
Have you always called him by his first name?
No. No. That’s after working with him. I don’t know, he’s still my dad.
Does it feel more professional, for when people don’t know that you’re connected?
Yeah. I think people know, but we’re in boardrooms, we’re talking to CEOs of car companies frequently. I want to speak off his points, he wants to speak off mine. I don’t want to start with, “My dad said.”
Okay, I get that. Back to the presentation. What was it on?
He laid out his ideas for automotive manufacturing. They weren’t fully fleshed but they were looking at design software, some sort of additive manufacturing, and some sort of assembly. The narrative was that how we build is just as important as how we power it all.
I studied electrical engineering, and I have always loved cars, I love building things. I thought what he was talking about sounded pretty cool. So I called him after and said, “Hey, how about I come work for you.” And he said, “Are you sure? This is early stage startup. There aren’t even 10 people in it.”
You were saying your dad asked if you were sure you wanted to come in on the new project. What did he feel the risk was?
I was certainly in a privileged position, because I always knew that I could fall back on my family if I absolutely needed to so in terms of risk, it was a soft risk. It wasn’t like I was going to be on the street the next day if didn’t work out, but I was already working in a position that was going to lead to something if I stayed in it [in biotech], and if you exit that when you just start, it might be hard to reenter on a similar track or get back into a good job market. And I knew the way it was going to look too, which was I was going to go work with my dad, and everyone’s first impression would be, “Did he get hired because it’s his dad?”
Divergent and Additive Manufacturing
What’s special about Divergent? It’s not the only company trying 3-D printing.
There’s kind of three pillars to Divergent. There is the software side, which is how we design the parts. And we’ve got a software team that has written natural source code for our own optimization, our own design software, and then assembly.
So you’re not using any production modeling programs?
We tie some in, but the core optimization is our own. We’ll still use an LS-DYNA [structural analysis software] or a Radioss for crash simulation. That’s a standard physics engine that’s been verified by the whole industry, and we’ll plug our design into that and run it. But we’ll optimize the part before we plug it into a standard software. That’s done by our internal software, which we call BDESO, Bidirectional Evolutionary Structures Optimization, where you add and subtract material against all your requirements, your load cases. You input stuff that you know it’s going to experience, and you can add and subtract material and run a simulation of what mass target you’re after . . .
What’s happening up top when it hits a pothole down below?
Yeah. Yeah. And eventually it converges, and we call that braid optimization, which is optimizing for more than one variable at once. That’s something that you can really only do with super-computing, because if you’re trying to solve even just a basic multi-variable function by hand or as a human, you’re going to spend hours to do one round. We’re doing tens of thousands of simulations and hours and converging on these solutions. That’s the software side.
The additive manufacturing piece, which is the 3-D printing, but also the software that runs the 3-D printers—which is its whole own topic: How do you steer these lasers, how long do you turn these lasers on, what’s the pattern you’re using?
Then there are the materials. We’ve got our own aluminum alloys, and once we have those 3-D-printed parts—say it’s 30 of them for the rear frame of a vehicle–we come to the last part of the process. How are we going to put them together in a way that extends all these benefits of digital manufacturing? Those benefits being fast iteration and lighter parts. If I want to make a design change, my software does that in minutes or hours. My 3-D printer is ready to print that new design. And I don’t want an assembly process where I’d have to make new fixtures to hold that new part. That would just add all this time and analog process to what was a clean digital manufacturing process.
When I came in to Divergent, we hadn’t developed that third part. We needed to make an assembly system that was not design specific, that can take any number of 3D printed parts and do structural assembly that’s going to be automotive and aerospace grade. We can do the 21C frame one day and directly after do an OEM piece for a client, and then an Aston Martin frame, and then a defense piece, all on the same hardware.
Your goal is not to be a massive automotive brand, but to expand into the automotive industry so that other brands are using these techniques. Right?
Exactly. Czinger is very focused on being this performance company, and it’s our creativity and we think it can be a really big business itself. But Divergent is very much so a tools company that should be thought as manufacturing as a service. I can’t say all the OEMs we work with, but I can say publicly we’re shipping frames to Aston Martin, and there are seven others that’ll be announced.
When did you decide to do a hypercar? How did you go from this experimental manufacturing process to, “You know what, let’s go up against McLaren”?
Divergent was really a tools company, an environmental company. All throughout that time we had a concept car called the Blade. It wasn’t a hypercar. It was a demonstration of what this technology could look like in car form. But it wasn’t an engineered car, it wasn’t a performance car, it wouldn’t have broken any records. We were building that car just so that we’d have something to show, when investors come in; “Here is what the structure could look like.”
After a few months of that, we said, “Divergent is working out. The tools are working. We’ve always wanted to build a car. Let’s go ahead and try and do this thing.” And that’s how I became a co-founder in the car company with Kevin.
The Czinger 21C is a long, lean two-seat hypercar powered by a proprietary 2.9-liter flat-plane-crank V-8 that revs to 11,000 rpm and makes some 1300hp. Two electric motors power the front wheels, and 0-60 comes in less than two seconds. Driver and passenger sit single file.
When you guys were talking about doing a car, was there any point in that process where you thought, “Maybe not a hypercar. Maybe a car of the people, maybe something more affordable”?
We thought through many different options, many different situations. In the end, you have to pick something that you also operationally believe you can deliver on. And trying to go after something that’s hyper volume, hundreds of thousands, millions of units as a company at our scale, it’s just not a business plan that’s sustainable. For the car company, it was much more about what can we demonstrate to the world, what can we show, what are we passionate about? What can attract attention to the technology?
So now it’s 2020, and you’re in charge of a new car company, with your name on it. What happens next?
My mom was actually super passionate about not calling it Czinger. She said, “Don’t put your family name on something.” Such an ego heavy thing to do. But the marketing people were really pushing to call it, Czinger. She’s come around a little bit to it now. But back to the car, we had a small staff working on the Blade, and we sat down and looked at what we would need to do to take the Blade concept car and turn it into an actual record-breaking hybrid car.
We came up with a 12-month plan, and then we just got to it. We hired 40 or so of who I think are the best automotive engineers. We took the Blade to the 21C, and then we ran the 21C at Laguna and got that unofficial/official production car record at Laguna.
What will success look like for you?
I’m very connected to these companies and care deeply about both of them. I’d like to lead both of them in the future directly. I think with Divergent, I’m lucky because a lot of people don’t get to have a career where they’re able to do the thing they really care about, the technical development or the environmentally sound mission. I’d love to see a thousand Divergent factories all over the world. On the Czinger Vehicle side, I’d love that car company to grow into the American performance car company that it can be, and demonstrate to the rest of the world what innovation looks like.
How did you decide on the hybrid powertrain for the 21C?
It was all around performance, honestly. I was thinking about track performance but also streetable performance, and EV-only is not going to perform lap after lap on the track. EVs are just not there yet. It’s also not the most enjoyable driving experience in my mind. We wanted something that you could run lap after lap, and that meant you needed some sort of combustion engine in it. But we also wanted something that not only would run fast on the track but would be genuinely competing for track records, and having four-wheel drive and the EV system when you’re rear-wheel [traction] limited is where that strong hybrid really shines. You can shave seconds of meaningful time off by having the electric system in it. It’s the best architecture, for a high performance car. It’s basically what F1 cars use, in terms of charging and discharging.
The 21C engine is a 2.9-liter V-8 of your own design. Why not use an available mill?
We knew we had to do something that was a bit above and beyond to gain respect in the industry, to also gain customers who were going to spend their hard-earned money on a car company that’s relatively new. Building your own engine in the car world shows capability, earns a ton of respect. We didn’t want to build something that was just buying all the best bits and figuring out how to integrate them in the production, we wanted to make the best bits.
Senior Editor, Features
Like a sleeper agent activated late in the game, Elana Scherr didn’t know her calling at a young age. Like many girls, she planned to be a vet-astronaut-artist, and came closest to that last one by attending UCLA art school. She painted images of cars, but did not own one. Elana reluctantly got a driver’s license at age 21 and discovered that she not only loved cars and wanted to drive them, but that other people loved cars and wanted to read about them, which meant somebody had to write about them. Since receiving activation codes, Elana has written for numerous car magazines and websites, covering classics, car culture, technology, motorsports, and new-car reviews.