In Japan, automakers rarely hire outside designers. Carlos Ghosn did. His choice reinvigorated Nissan design.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1999
Role: Design director, Nissan Motor Co.
Key influence: Developed important design trends for Nissan and Infiniti brands after Renault and Carlos Ghosn took over Nissan Motor
Clearly, Nissan lacked eye-grabbing design.
That was unacceptable to Carlos Ghosn, the executive dispatched by Renault SA to run Nissan Motor Co. in 1999.
Ghosn's headhunters came calling on Shiro Nakamura, head of design at Isuzu Motors Ltd., to oversee a new era of Nissan global design.
Nakamura was an inspired choice. He established Nissan as a styling leader among mass-market brands with such products as the Murano, the current Altima, GT-R and Versa and the Infiniti FX and G35 sedan.
For Nakamura, 48 at the time, the opportunity to help shape Nissan as an outsider was impossible to pass up.
“It was very rare for them to come recruit me outside of Nissan,” Nakamura reflects. “In Japanese culture, this just isn't done.”
Ghosn did not pretend to know the single answer to what Nissan's future models should look like. What he wanted, he told Nakamura in his job interview, was for the world to understand that Nissan was genuinely changing.
Ghosn pressed Nakamura to begin work immediately. But for his first six months, the recruit from Nissan's small rival preferred to observe. He traveled to Nissan's studios in San Diego, London and Michigan, talking with experienced Nissan stylists and listening to their suggestions about where Nissan should go.
“I saw that there was no lack of creativity in this company,” he says. “My challenge was to manage it, to identify what was good and elevate it, and make sure that the best of our designs were recognized.”
Nakamura, who is intense and studious, insists he did not arrive on the job with a portfolio of ideas to implement.
“That wouldn't work,” he says, dressed in a stylish suit that captures his dual company role as artist and executive. “Nissan has its own DNA. There were things that told you that a car or a truck is a Nissan. And we spent a lot of time asking what that was. What are the common elements that make up our DNA? What words express it? They are words like "boldness' and "simplicity.' Sometimes in the past we forgot those characteristics.”
Nakamura's shaping yielded the sporty Infiniti G sedan and elegantly styled EX crossover. But not every drawing out of his global network of studios has been a hit. The 2004 Quest, styled to offer buyers an alternative from minivan ordinariness, alienated more shoppers than it attracted.
“To move forward, we couldn't go back and copy cars we did in the past,” Nakamura says. “Our direction is forward. But in the vehicles we created after that, and in the cars that we're still working on now, we've identified the essence of the Nissan spirit. We won't lose sight of that again.”
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.