'Chief Negotiator' took Nissan's r&d efforts stateside with Quest
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1973
Role: Manager of product planning, Nissan Motor Co.
Key influence: Worked with Ford Motor to jointly develop the Nissan Quest and Mercury Villager minivans. The project pushed Nissan to set up a full-scale technical center in the United States and expand local r&d operations.
Nakatsuji's mission sounded simple: Bring Nissan's big American rival on board to jointly develop a minivan that would break Chrysler's vicelike grip on the segment during the early 1990s.
But getting what would become the Nissan Quest and Mercury Villager to market was far from simple. Nissan and Ford sparred over volume, branding and design. Yet thanks to give and take on both sides, the minivan was a showroom success despite its short life.
U.S. r&d buildup
The payoff for Nissan didn't end there. Like no project before it, the Quest/Villager pushed Nissan to take U.S. r&d seriously and led to the start of the automaker's first functional stateside tech center.
“Nissan's exports were increasing, and we wanted to develop on-site to react as quickly as possible to customer needs and work more closely with local suppliers,” Nakatsuji recalled. “We had to expand our r&d capabilities abroad, especially in the United States.”
The result was Nissan's r&d center, set up in 1988 in Plymouth, Mich. An earlier office in nearby Ann Arbor, Mich., had been little more than a listening post that collected intelligence on U.S. automakers.
The Plymouth operation was a temporary outpost until 1991, when Nissan moved into its Nissan Technical Center North America in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills. Production of the Quest and Villager began the next year at Ford's Avon Lake, Ohio, plant.
Nissan had been seeking a rear-wheel-drive minivan since the early 1980s but was struggling with the powertrain and cost. Nissan forecast volume of only 50,000 a year in the United States. Executives at headquarters weren't sure the minivan was worth the extra investment.
Ford approached Nissan in 1986 but wanted annual volume of 150,000.
Nissan worried that a Ford-badged minivan at those volumes would all but bury Nissan's rival offering, so the Chief Negotiator went to work. Ford agreed not only to sell the new product through the Mercury channel but to cut its volume to 85,000 units a year.
Other compromises came in design.
“I drew the first lines of the vehicle according to our expectations,” Nakatsuji said. “They were shocked because the floor was very low and said, "No, we can't.' “
Nissan wanted a low ride to provide better handling and comfort. But Ford wanted it higher so the shock absorbers wouldn't have to be laid out at an angle. The resolution called for lowering the minivan but using wider, thinner leaf springs to amplify the cushion.
While drawing the model's second generation, Nissan was the one to backpedal.
Nakatsuji wanted a longer wheelbase and roomier interior. By then, though, Ford had the Windstar minivan and didn't want the added investment for a bigger minivan that might cannibalize sales of the Ford nameplate.
Ford and Nissan stayed with the same wheelbase but extended the overhangs.
Ford left the program after the second generation in 2002. The automaker had wanted to boost profit margins on a third generation by $2,000, a goal both sides found untenable, Nakatsuji said.
So Nissan went solo with the 2004 Quest. That freed Nakatsuji to redesign the vehicle with a longer wheelbase and styling points such as a “skyview” roof to lend a more upmarket feel.
Nakatsuji even coined the term “modern sexy mom” as the target customer.
“Unfortunately, sales weren't so good,” Nakatsuji conceded.
After more than three decades at Nissan, the 55-year-old now is general manager of overseas business at Autech Japan Inc., a Nissan Group affiliate specializing in customized vehicles.
The Quest/Villager ended up a one-off deal for Ford and Nissan, but the project proved invaluable in teaching Nissan how to work intimately with a foreign corporate culture. That skill continues to play out in the success of Nissan's alliance with Renault SA.
As for Nakatsuji, the minivan venture left him with something more personal — the other nickname, “Pete,” which adorns his business cards. The sobriquet, bestowed during his days in Detroit, is an enduring tribute to both his penchant for Peter Fonda films and the fact that Americans still can't pronounce his name.
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