Wanted: A New Identity

Nissan's design chief blends traditional with the new - but no retro, please. Goal: A signature look for Nissan

From time to time, a slender, 50-year-old bass player named Shiro Nakamura joins in jazz sessions at Ami's Bar, a tiny club in Tokyo's fashionable Ginza district.

Tired salarymen who relax at the club might pay little heed. But Japan's car lovers might recognize him as the television spokesman for Nissan Motor Co.'s newly redesigned Skyline sedan.

In fact, Nakamura is a key player in Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn's campaign to revive the company. As a senior vice president - the first design director to hold that high a position at Nissan - Nakamura must generate excitement in a brand known for conservative, stodgy cars. Ghosn's cost cutting helped Nissan generate record profits in the fiscal year that ended March 31. Now, Nissan's chief executive must shift from cutting to growing. For that, Ghosn needs appealing cars and trucks. That is where Nakamura comes in.

Nakamura's goal: Create a look that customers immediately will recognize as Nissan. It will not be easy. For starters, Nissan lacks design identity. Citing a Nissan survey on its brand identity, Nakamura admitted that consumers have no distinctive image of Nissan. In part, the automaker is hobbled by the need to market a complete lineup of models to serve a wide variety of customers. It is much easier for a specialty automaker such as Audi, BMW or Porsche to develop a distinct image.

On the other hand, Nakamura is not wedded to Nissan's lackluster past. As an outsider, Nakamura has the freedom to push Nissan in a new direction. Before joining Nissan in 1999, Nakamura was chief designer at Isuzu Motors Ltd. Educated in the United States, he was known for the futuristic styling of his VehiCross sport-utility concept. Ghosn announced that he had hired Nakamura on October 18, 1999, the same day he stunned Japan with his sweeping Nissan Revival Plan.

Since then, Nissan has introduced eight models. First was the luxury Cima, known in North America by its twin, the Infiniti Q45. Then the automaker unveiled the Primera sedan and wagon, with radical instrument panels featuring buttons that are pressed down, not forward. The newest introduction is a redesigned Skyline, a performance sedan previously known for high performance and bland styling. The others: the Bassara minivan, Bluebird Sylphy sedan, X-Trail sport-utility and Caravan commercial van.


With these new models, Nakamura's design philosophy is beginning to emerge. Imagine cars as members of the same family.

'The family members somewhat look alike even if they put different clothes on,' Nakamura says. To convey identity, he uses cues such as windows, lamps, grilles and body proportion. Many carmakers seek a unique look in their front or rears, such as BMW's kidney grilles. Nakamura appears to be aiming for a family similarity in his car's side windows. The Cima, Primera, Skyline and the latest concept for the new Z car all have windows with a balanced tapering to the front and back, when the cars are seen in profile. The one thing he will not do is adopt retro styling. Nakamura makes no effort to disguise his dislike for a retro look that slavishly copies past eras. Take the new Skyline, which was introduced in June. This model always has been known for its round taillights. Those who attended the model's introduction were shocked to see L-shaped taillights. Nakamura's message was clear: Nissan will not be chained to the past.

Despite his design philosophy, Nakamura clearly appreciates cars from bygone eras. Favorites include the Giorgio Giugiaro-designed 1964 Alfa Romeo Canguro, the 1966 DeTomaso Mangusta and Pininfarina's 1964 Ferrari 275GTB Berlinetta. 'It's very dynamic - but sophisticated,' says Nakamura about the Ferrari. 'There's no doubt that it has had some influence. I've seen it since I was a kid, and it has been imprinted on my eyes.'


But these cars will not provide the inspiration for future Nissans, Nakamura says. One reason not to go retro may be that so few of Nissan's past designs are worth repeating. To be sure, Nissan experimented with a string of low-volume cars in the late 1980s to show its design capabilities. Those models included the two-seater Be-1 and the snail-shaped S-Cargo delivery truck. But mass-market cars such as the Primera were boring.

To break from its cautious image, Nissan assigned Stephane Schwarz - chief designer of Nissan's European studio - to help design the new Primera. Schwarz says his goal was to 'break free of the stereotypes of design,' such as a balance between hood, cabin and trunk.

A changeover seems more possible at Nissan than before. Even before Nakamura joined, Nissan had begun to restructure product development so designers and engineers could talk more easily. Still, when the design staff unveiled the Primera to Nissan executives, it stumbled into a confrontation with manufacturing engineers. The engineers were worried about the sculpted look of the trunk lid. At first, they preferred something that would be easier to produce. In the past, Nissan's manufacturing engineers held all of the power. If they said something was too difficult, there was no discussion at all: Designers would have to simplify the car.

This time, though, the design team had top management's backing. The production engineers found an easier way to make the deck lid, and the first design survived. It was a significant victory for the design staff.


Now that he has the support of top management, Nakamura's next goal is to internationalize Nissan's design team. Nissan employs six foreign designers in its home studio near Tokyo. The studio includes two designers from Renault SA, plus three others from Automobiles Citroen, Daewoo Motor Co. Ltd. and DaimlerChrysler. Nakamura wants to triple that number to 20, or about 10 percent of the studio's designers.

And he gives his staff friendly tips: 'Don't watch only cars. Look at some other things like architecture and graphics to expand your world.'

For his own inspiration, Nakamura enjoys Bauhaus architecture, and he also studies the work of Tadao Ando, a Japanese architect. Nakamura detects a 'mixture of Japanese tradition and modern' in Ando's work.

'We want our cars to reflect Japanese stuff like art, tradition and culture,' Nakamura says. While he does not consider himself to be influenced by Ando, Nakamura seeks inspiration from cultural tradition. At an automotive conference in Tokyo, he projected the Primera's instrument panel on a screen next to two musical instruments: a traditional Japanese koto and an electronic saxophone. The instrument panel's press-down control buttons call to mind the fingering of the koto, an instrument with strings on a board. Thus the Primera offers a blend of the old and new.

new models

Nakamura will have ample opportunity to test his theories. In the next two-and-a-half years, Nissan plans to launch at least 15 models worldwide. Perhaps the most closely watched product will be the new Z car. As Nissan's flagship for nearly 30 years, the Z car made the company famous in the United States in the 1970s. It will return in 2002, five years after the previous version went out of production. The Z car is 'an indispensable, main actor to rebuild Nissan's brand,' Nakamura says.

His mission: Preserve the Z tradition in the new model without going retro. Nakamura demonstrated how he intended to do this at the Detroit auto show in January. The concept car unveiled in Detroit was a two-door hatchback with a rear window that sloped toward a tall rear end. This look established a link to the Z cars of past eras. But the new Z is stouter, with a bigger grille, fat wheels and trapezoidal headlights. With a price under $30,000, the new Z is aimed at a wide range of consumers, not just men in their 30s.

Z CAR was a hit

The new Z 'is roundish and it looks like a carnivorous animal,' says Yutaka Katayama, the legendary former chairman of Nissan Motor Corp. USA. Katayama, nicknamed 'the father of the Z car,' introduced the 240Z to North America in 1969. With a price tag of $3,600, it cost half as much as most European sports cars. American motorists knew a bargain when they saw one, and the Z car became a hit.

The Z car's glory began to erode after Katayama retired in 1977. The once-stylish sports car ran afoul of tougher U.S. emissions standards, skyrocketing insurance rates and a ballooning price. By the time Nissan discontinued the Z car in North America in 1996, its price had climbed to $40,000.

But the car's American fans have not forgotten. Even before the new model was shown in Detroit, the Z club members gathered at their annual convention last year in Las Vegas. There, Nakamura handed out copies of an artist's drawing that showed the Z car's taillight.

Nakamura's sketch got everyone excited. Now, 'many, many, many, many people here are waiting for the new Z car,' said 'Mad' Mike Taylor, executive director of the Z car club. 'We have many members who have put the deposits down already.'

No guarantee

The Z car's enthusiastic reception in America is a good sign, but it cannot guarantee success for Nissan. After all, it is only a niche vehicle. The real question is whether Nakamura can successfully graft his design theories onto Nissan's mass-market models.

Early signs are inconclusive. Sales of the Cima, launched in January, are ahead of company expectations, but the Primera, which came out the same month, came in below target. For the Skyline, Nissan sold 1,781 units in August. The monthly sales target was 2,000.

Says Hisashi Tsukahara, deputy editor of Car Graphic, an influential Japanese car enthusiast magazine: 'The concept of the Skyline has changed to a premium car from a sports car. I personally wonder if Japanese motor fans will accept such a change.'

It is tempting to look for omens in Nakamura's love of music. Favorite jazz composers include Ron Carter and Bill Evans, but Nakamura also plays classical music with his cello. 'Jazz is intuitive, and that leads to flexibility and to creating ideas,' he says. 'And classical music is analytical. If you have a good conductor, you can make a better sound.'

Look for Nakamura to instill that blend of modern and traditional in Nissan's future cars and trucks. But don't call it retro.

E-mail writer Yuzo Yamaguchi at yyamaguchi@crain.com and writer James B. Treece at jtreece@crain.com

You can reach James B. Treece at jtreece@crain.com

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