Toyota concept hints at new Supra

It's not the next Toyota Supra. Or is it?

While paying tribute to the history of Toyota sports cars, the Toyota FT-1 concept unveiled at the Detroit auto show wasn't specifically designed to be the next Supra.

Calty Design Research and Toyota Motor Corp. executives went out of their way to avoid using the word "Supra" for fear of giving the concept the aura of an official production sign-off. FT-1 stands for "Future Toyota."

But Toyota has a track record of developing concept cars that find their way to the street.

"We called this design 'Supra' in presentations. There was a big debate over the name. So it's 'FT-1' now," said Calty President Kevin Hunter. "We're not ignoring that we have a history. The name itself is a different matter."

With that in mind, if the FT-1 were to become a production car, viewers should think smaller. To be perceived as a serious sports car on the show floor, the FT-1 had to have stage presence. That meant the concept would be 10 percent larger than what a real-world vehicle would be, Hunter said.

Had Calty done a real-size concept, there was a risk show-goers and the media wouldn't take the smaller vehicle seriously, Hunter said. In other words, people should avoid taking dimensional measurements and calling the FT-1 a grand-touring car.

Calty's starting point was to design a sports car with a theoretical $50,000-$60,000 price tag, Hunter said. That meant designing something wild, but not so exotic that it pushed the car into the territory that would make it a Lexus.

"We didn't want [Toyota Motor top management] to see this and think it was a $150,000 car," Hunter said. "We also did the Lexus LF-LC [concept coupe] at Calty, so we wanted a different form vocabulary for this car. Anything that looked like the LF-LC was rejected. That car was more touring oriented, while this is a pure sports car."


"We approached the design with the idea of 'functional beauty,' in that it should have a sense of purpose but still be beautiful," Hunter said.

Walking up to the car's front quarter shows the essence of the car's horsepower hugging the wheels close to the body and making the wheel flares taut.

Calty chief designer Alex Shen said the exterior was designed with six large shapes in mind: A torso for the engine, a cabin for the driver and four distinct areas for each wheel.

"We wanted movement in every surface," Shen said. "The fundamental thing with a sports car is stance — how you set up the proportion to set up wheels. We wanted it to have the broad shoulders of a purpose-built racecar."

As for the sculpting of the FT-1, Shen calls the processes "erosion" and "exogenetic," where outside forces such as wind sculpt the car.

"We wanted to see the air flow through and around the vehicle. We wanted large forms that are smooth and slippery, with strategic areas that create downforce," Shen said.

Remember, Calty was the studio that poured mud into water balloons to envision the slippery shapes of the original Lexus SC 400 coupe. These guys think differently than the rest of us.

But the idea of form for form's sake disappears when examining the technical needs of the car, Shen said.

The car's tail has a "trip edge" to emphasize downforce and to enable brake cooling. The front air intakes extend all the way to the rear diffuser for ground effects and aerodynamics, while the front intake vents relieve pressure in the front wheelhouse. In looking closely at the cabin's wrapped windshield and double-bubble roof, elements of the original 2000GT are noticeable.

A key feature of sports cars is the location of the A-pillar. Raking it forward makes the windshield look "faster," and the car's power appears more evenly distributed front and rear. Functionally, however, it sacrifices forward visibility.

Making the A-pillar more upright and locating it further back in the body is classic sports car styling, showing off a long engine bay and placing the emphasis on the rear wheels putting power to the pavement — with the added benefit of excellent visibility. Calty designers even mounted the side mirrors with a "reverse loop" so the stalk doesn't block the turn-in view when cornering.

"We saw that the Ferrari 458 Italia A-post was way back toward the driver. The Lamborghini Gallardo had the A-pillar way out by the wheels, and it felt more like fashion. We wanted to treat the cockpit as a totally separate element, all business," Hunter said.

Even the concept's exterior color was subject to debate.

"Red is a tough color. You need to have beautiful surfacing to show all the forms," Shen said. "We focused on the highlights, not form and shading. We wanted the highlights to dance. With cars getting more high-tech, there are more slivers and edges. We didn't want people to look at lines, but to look at the forms."


So what's under the hood?

As a show car, it's just a battery pack that can barely push the car onto a stage. But, theoretically, Calty "always thought of an inline-six, because it's in the Supra lineage," Hunter said.

Toyota doesn't make an inline-six anymore. But other automakers — BMW, for instance — still do. Hunter dismisses such theorizing. The engine could be a V-6, V-8, hybrid or some other package. However, Toyota and BMW last year announced a joint venture to build a next-generation sports car.

Hunter cuts off the conversation quickly: "We can't talk about engines anyway."


Many show cars are merely exterior styling exercises to stretch the legs of designers. But the FT-1 has a complete interior that seems almost ready for production — complete with a new telematics interface.

The cabin architecture used the original 1965 Toyota 2000GT for inspiration.

"We weren't trying to do a retro design, but there were some cues we could move forward," Hunter said.

Calty's stylists deliberately tried to make the interior into something achievable, even if some of the effects seem a bit far out, said William Chergosky, Calty interior chief designer.

With the instrument panel, head-up displays are all the rage, and Calty took the FT-1 to new level. Rather than beaming the information onto the windshield, a separate screen protrudes up from the steering column. All important information is right in the line of sight. If you remember the head-up targeting display from Maverick's fighter jet in Top Gun, you get the idea.

A cool display is one thing. Interacting with it at speed is another. When Chergosky's team tested competitive exotics at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, no driver recalled looking away from the track — and down at the instrument panel — to visually register any key information.

"We wanted the point of view to be from the knuckles up," Chergosky said.

The clickpad interface for the display resides on the steering wheel itself, with four quadrant-based buttons. All functions are just a couple of button clicks away, and unneeded info can be virtually pushed into the lower "dock" display where traditional gauges normally reside.

"Everything needs to be within the range of your fingertips," Chergosky said.

Calty also was adventurous in terms of its use of materials. Because the FT-1 is meant to make the driver feel like a superhero, Chergosky said, Calty looked at modern comic books to see what costumes are in fashion.

"Batman is basically wearing woven iron today. There's no more blue tights," Chergosky said.

Because this is a purpose-built track car, not a luxury sports car, materials were chosen to display an underlying function. The headliner construction appears more like a roll cage, with heat-treated aluminum giving the impression of a red-hot motorcycle muffler pipe.

Calty then used soft-touch natural-grain saddle leather in the specific areas where an occupant's arm or leg would rest. Sports car wonks — including CEO Akio Toyoda —note that the gas and brake pedal sprout from the floor, "church-organ" style, rather than hanging down from above.

"That was the first thing Akio noticed," Chergosky said.

Being a sports car, if it's to have an automatic transmission, paddle-shifting is a requirement. But there are sharply divided camps as to whether the paddles should be fixed to the steering column or rotate with the steering wheel.

Calty's decision: With fixed paddles, you have windshield wipers and blinkers getting knocked when the driver is cornering and hunting for the paddles with his fingers. The FT-1's paddles would rotate with the steering wheel.

Calty designers weren't ashamed of borrowing from the best on occasion. The intention was for the back seat to be a 2+2 design, rather than an area for actual occupants. Who better to emulate than the Porsche 911? Hunter doesn't disagree. After all, such a layout has worked for 50 years for the iconic German coupe.

So, to the question: Is this the next Supra?

After several hours of rare openness in the studio, Hunter's answer becomes a bit evasive: "We have a history of making these kinds of concept cars, where it is not a pipe dream. We want to feel a possibility that it could happen. … We can't help speculation."

You can reach Mark Rechtin at mrechtin@crain.com -- Follow Mark on Twitter: @markrechtin

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