LOS ANGELES - Jerry Hirshberg, the loquacious and controversial designer who penned some of Nissan's most distinctive vehicles during a 20-year career, will retire as president of the company's Southern California studio June 30.
Hirshberg said his retirement had been planned for five years, since he signed his last employment contract with his Nissan Motor bosses in Japan. His last day as president of Nissan Design International will be his 60th birthday, the same day the Z sports car will be a finished design.
Said Hirshberg: 'I never wanted to be someone who leaves his fingernail marks in the wall from being dragged out of there.'
Hirshberg also said that last year he turned down the job as Nissan's global design chief. 'I thought it was extremely important that a Japanese person take that position,' he said. 'In order for Nissan's design staff to rebuild confidence in itself and do the kind of work they need to do, it required someone who was part of the Japanese culture, not an outsider.
'I have skepticism about global design. I'd much rather have a clear delegation of authority to each key zone.'
So Hirshberg chose to conclude his career, and Nissan hired Shiro Nakamura away from Isuzu Motors to take the head design job in Japan. Hirshberg plans to continue working with the company as a consultant.
Said Jack Collins, Nissan North America vice president of product and marketing strategy: 'Jerry has made great contributions to Nissan. He's been a tremendous spokesperson for the company and someone who has pushed the company to take appropriate risks that are well-thought-through. He has contributed a lot in a strategic way, particularly since the alliance with Renault has been formed.'
Hirshberg recommended that NDI Design Director Bruce Campbell run the studio until Tom Semple returns from a one-year stint in Japan as Nakamura's right-hand man. Semple and Campbell were in Japan last week and could not be reached for comment.
Semple, 55, joined Nissan in 1980, and was a part of the team that designed the 19861/2 Hardbody truck and Pathfinder, the Infiniti J30 and 1993 Quest. Prior to Nissan, Semple worked for General Motors design for 13 years, culminating as assistant chief designer for the Chevrolet and Oldsmobile divisions.
Campbell, 47, also joined NDI in 1980, coming from Tesa Design. He was chief designer for the Gobi concept pickup, Cocoon show car, Pulsar NX and Quest.
Although Nissan Design International has unveiled numerous vehicles during Hirshberg's career, he is most proud of the first-edition two-door Pathfinder. He also ranks the Pulsar NX compact, Infiniti J30 luxury sedan, Xterra sport-utility, Altima sedan and Gobi concept pickup as among his favorites, even if some may not have met with market success.
Since his designs will continue to debut until 2003, it would be reasonable to see him in ongoing Nissan television advertising, he said.
But Hirshberg also says he is the proud father of NDI, having created a studio with little hierarchy or structure but with sand volleyball at lunch and movie runs to break brain-lock among his 55 designers, engineers and modelers.
'My sleekest, most efficient, best engineered design would have to be NDI,' he said. 'This is an engine that keeps purring along, whether I am there or not, and that's gratifying.'
Before creating NDI, Hirshberg worked at GM, where he designed the original Pontiac Firebird and rose through the Buick design hierarchy. But he says GM's bureaucracy was too much for him. So he jumped at the chance to create his own studio at Nissan. Not that this venture lacked the same sort of politics.
'Nissan basically ignored this (North American) market through the 1990s, and that was a disaster. But Ghosn isn't going to let that happen again,' Hirshberg said.
Although many executives who leave jobs use family as an excuse for their departure, Hirshberg means it. He intends to return full-bore to his first loves of painting and music, two activities he would rather ignore than merely dabble in.
'It's going to be hard to walk away from this,' he said. 'But I think about my wife and home, that I'm 60 and just became a grandfather, and I have a clarinet gathering dust and a tray of paints waiting to be squeezed.'
Hirshberg says his departure is bittersweet.
'I'm leaving at a moment when design is gaining in authority, not just at Nissan but in North America as well,' he said. 'We're entering a golden age of design right now, with more freedom and support than ever. But I feel I was part of that process of getting there. I like to leave when everyone is having a good time at the party.'