In the past decade, Nissan made interesting design a top priority. Diane Allen took full advantage, penning the Nissan 350Z sports car and Titan pickup.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1984
Role: Designer, Nissan Design America
Key influence: Helped restore bold design to Nissan after Carlos Ghosn's ascendance. Led team that designed the Nissan 350Z and Titan full-sized pickup.
Diane Allen, a young Nissan designer in Los Angeles, was ready. She designed two key vehicles that contributed significantly to Nissan's comeback, the 350Z sports car and the Titan full-sized pickup.
The 350Z, which debuted in 2002, “showed the future design of Nissan,” she says. “We had an opportunity to go retro, which was very popular at the time, or to make a more modern statement. Due to the quest to get Nissan to be more visionary, we thought we'd go with more of a future statement but still capture the spirit of the 240.”
The 350Z was well-received and brought back many driving enthusiasts who had drifted from Nissan in the previous decade.
Immersion in the South
Allen, now 47, had spent more than a decade at Nissan preparing for her Z-car moment. Hired in 1984 out of design college, she worked on the original Nissan Quest and other vehicles.
“There are car designers who love cars, and they know about every famous car,” she says. “Then there are designers who love form. I'm from that genre — putting form together, creating a personality and a point of view into something that has motion in it and beauty. It's a very exciting process for me.”
After the 350Z, she tackled the Titan pickup. The job required a full immersion in pickup culture and the South.
“Our challenge was to put together a truck that was undeniably full-sized, absolutely Nissan, but very aesthetic in a handsome, tough modern way. We felt a lot of the trucks at the time were very conservative and very conventional.
“The project was so big they loaned us four young Japanese guys. So we took these guys on a road trip. We did things like Route 66, not the traditional roads. We took them through the South. Here were these young guys who did not know why we were doing this big truck and didn't know much about the U.S.
“These Japanese guys were used to eating rice bowls, etc. for lunch. Here we were stopping at truck stops and getting big hamburgers and piles of fries, biscuits and gravy. By the end of the trip, they were wearing Stetson hats and cowboy boots. They embraced the South and the big trucks.
“I, myself, had never driven a full-sized truck before that program. So the whole team was immersed. It bonded us. It led us to the reality that people need these trucks for their work. We saw this with fresh eyes. Our naivete was our advantage.”
Competing with Japan
The pickup reached showrooms in 2004, in time to let Allen start on the redesign of the Z car for 2009.
“We were competing against Japan but only had seven weeks to do a full-sized clay model. This was right after (Hurricane) Katrina. There were some oil refineries that were destroyed there that impacted the clay we were using.
“Because of the oil, the body side was falling off the car. They couldn't keep the clay on the car, so we shipped in some more clay from Europe. This is now three weeks into it. We did the Z to compete in Japan in only four weeks. That's unheard of.
“We went to Japan with the car. The execs don't know who did what car. Ours was chosen. I'm proud to say that was my second Z to win.
“That was intense, the "09 Z. The designers in Japan really wanted this one because they lost out to us on the previous model. So for us to pull that off, it was an incredulous moment.”