Japanese executives promised to let designer Jerry Hirshberg create distinctive designs for U.S. vehicles. With political savvy, he held them to that promise.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1980
Role: Head of U.S. design studio
Key influence: Created fresh designs for U.S. vehicles that gave Nissan an identity distinct from more conservative Toyota and Honda
But when Nissan decided it wanted to create an American design presence in 1980, it looked no further than Hirshberg, then in charge of Buick and Pontiac design at General Motors.
Under Hirshberg, Nissan created a distinctive look for its U.S. lineup with such vehicles as the first Pathfinder and Xterra SUVs. But the work was a constant struggle. Hirshberg wrestled with the conservative instincts of Japanese executives and the limited budget imposed by Japan's post-bubble economy.
“We've done well when there has been wide-open risk-taking — like with the Z and Xterra, when no one is doing cars like that, and the sales and marketing guys say there is no place for it,” he says.
Hirshberg's colleagues questioned his judgment when he left a 15-year career at GM for budding Nissan in 1980.
Says Hirshberg: “GM was this mighty volcano, and Nissan was this little island. But I was hollering down this empty corridor at GM. I thought I might be able to make a difference at Nissan.”
He was actively courted by Nissan Motor President Takashi Ishihara, who told Hirshberg, “I want to change the flavor of our soup, and I will stay out of your kitchen.”
La Jolla was not the first Japanese design studio on the West Coast, but it was perhaps the most fun. Sand volleyball at lunch was de rigueur. Mouthing off to superiors was encouraged.
Hirshberg fought for his designers' work up the Nissan food chain, even when it was controversial.
“I never wanted to be interviewed later, saying, "If you had seen what we really wanted to do ...' “ Hirshberg says.
Sometimes, that resulted in a smash success on the showroom floor, such as the first Pathfinder and Xterra. Other times, such as with the Infiniti J30, the design was hailed by peers but ignored by consumers.
A savvy insider, Hirshberg won his studio a place in long-range planning and himself a place on Nissan's North American board.
As Nissan whipsawed through the "90s, Hirshberg's studio drew polarizing designs that were embraced by some and denounced by others. But by the late "90s, Hirshberg had won the respect of Japan. About 75 percent of its U.S. lineup was given to the San Diego studio.
He was offered the top global design job by CEO Carlos Ghosn. But Hirshberg declined, saying it should go to a younger, Japanese designer.
Retired since 2000, Hirshberg devotes himself to painting stands of bamboo, earning a place at Renato Danese's famed Manhattan gallery.
Hirshberg, now 68, still gets called to Japan once a year to give his critique on the latest generation of Nissan design. But he says: “I stay out of the politics. I'm just an educated pair of eyes.”
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