By Deepa Seetharaman
DETROIT (Reuters) - An investor group led by Hong Kong tycoon Richard Li is the likely winner of a government loan owed by Fisker Automotive, the now-dormant maker of plug-in hybrid sports cars, people familiar with the matter said on Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Energy picked Li's group after an auction held Friday to sell the green-energy loan. The DOE and Li are now nailing down the final details of the sale, which has not yet closed, the people said.
Buying the loan would allow Li, the youngest son of Asia's richest man and an early Fisker investor, to restructure Fisker unencumbered by the obligations of the DOE funds and potentially avoid a bankruptcy filing that would wipe out equity investors.
Sources familiar with the company have said however that reviving Fisker outside of a bankruptcy would be an expensive and difficult process.
The people declined to be named because the details were private. The DOE said Thursday that the winner would be publicly announced once final negotiations were completed and the sale was closed. Fisker owes the DOE $168 million.
Li beat out at least two other groups vying to buy the loan in Friday's auction. They were German investment group Fritz Nols AG as well as a team that included Chinese auto parts supplier Wanxiang and former General Motors Co
Fisker does not have enough money to pay its outstanding bills and has not built a car in about 15 months. Fisker laid off most of its employees in April to save cash.
The DOE said last month that it planned the auction after "exhausting any realistic possibility" that it could recoup the entire amount still owed by Fisker.
The exact value of Li's bid was not immediately clear, but bidders had to offer at least $30 million to participate in the Fisker loan auction, sources have said.
The DOE also required that all bids include a plan to promote U.S. manufacturing and engineering of "green" cars.
In 2009, Fisker won a $529 million DOE loan under a U.S. program to promote green vehicles. Fisker also got the backing of prominent investors like venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and later won rave reviews for the design of its flagship car, the $100,000-plus Karma plug-in hybrid.
But in mid-2011, the DOE halted payments after Fisker drew down $192 million, citing delays in launching the Karma. The Karma's shaky launch and the disclosure in early 2012 that DOE had frozen access to funding hurt the Fisker's value.
Many Fisker executives left the company this year, including co-founder and well-regarded car designer Henrik Fisker, who resigned in March.
Henrik Fisker had been working with Li's group this spring, although the two sides parted ways this summer, sources said Thursday. They remain on good terms.
Henrik Fisker declined to comment and Pacific Century Group, the private investment group chaired by Richard Li, could not be immediately reached for comment by e-mail.
(Refiles to say "not immediately clear" in 9th par)
(Reporting by Deepa Seetharaman; Editing by Stephen Coates)