Tucked behind a Mazda dealership and across from a Yoshinoya "beef-in-a-bowl" fast-food outlet in Yokohama, a city south of Tokyo, sits a seeming anomaly: the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Studio.
Mercedes-Benz incorporates classic Teutonic styling, but finds value in having a design studio in Japan. Though small, the studio's staff allows Mercedes to stay abreast of the latest trends in design, luxury goods, and high technology.
The studio's role within DaimlerChrysler can best be seen by the concept cars it has produced: the technology-laden F 500 Mind and F 600 Hygenius, and the Mercedes-Benz Maybach concept.
Contrary to what some might assume, though, the Japan studio is not an isolated outpost charged with keeping an eye on Lexus. It is fully integrated into Mercedes-Benz's global design efforts, says Peter Pfeiffer, senior vice president of design at DaimlerChrysler. Mercedes also has advanced design studios in California and Italy.
"Mercedes-Benz must push design forward in order not to be ruled by the past," says Pfeiffer.
As head of the Japan studio, Olivier Boulay is charged with ensuring that its designers push forward but also remain true to Mercedes' heritage.
The studio he oversees is not particularly large. It has a staff of less than 20: seven or eight stylists, five modelers, one studio engineer and two computer specialists. It opened in 1993.
The studio has modelers and large open spaces on the first floor and computer workstations on the second-floor mezzanine. In typical Japanese fashion, the building's limited space is configured for maximum efficiency. Its mainframe computers, for example, are in a room that fits under the stairs to the second floor.
Within DaimlerChrysler, the studio is known for its modeling expertise.
"We have one-third the space of our American colleagues but produce as much as they do," says Boulay.
That is partly due to the local work ethic. "They are obsessed with schedules here," says Boulay, who was Mitsubishi's chief designer from 2001 to 2004. "They hate to not finish a job. It's a question of pride. They want to show they are capable. So they'll use free time to finish a job. When I was back in Europe, it was too slow. I couldn't stand it."
Not just copiers
Japanese are unfairly characterized as great copiers who show little creativity of their own, says Boulay. The reality is that they have a strong track record of learning and absorbing ideas from abroad.
Consider some of the Japanese impressionists, he says. Painters like Tsuguhara Foujita worked in Paris in the 1920s, mingling with such contemporaries as Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera and Man Ray. They took what they learned and created art that incorporated both contemporary trends and their Japanese heritage.
"They are very curious, and are always learning from others," says Boulay. "Can we say the same thing about the Europeans? I think not."
Perhaps Boulay's greatest challenge is to give the Japanese stylists enough guidance to make sure they remain true to the Mercedes-Benz brand without stifling their creativity.
"If a person says, 'I want a Mercedes,' he wants a German car," says Boulay. "I tell the stylists, 'You have an advantage, being far from Germany. But your assignment is to make a typical Mercedes-Benz, not a Japanese Mercedes."
To do that they must "analyze the brand DNA. Concentrate on the proportions. Ask, 'What is a true Mercedes'?" he says.
Add "some positive elements from Japan, like elegance," he urges them. "Some Benzes in the past were not elegant. Others were."
Several of the advanced design concepts that emerged from the Japan studio were known more for their technology than their elegance.
Japan's high-tech reputation makes it a logical choice for designing cars packed with gizmos. The studio is a key location within DaimlerChrysler for tracking the latest in audio and mobile communications developments. But the studio's concepts have gone well beyond sound systems on wheels.
Consider the F 500 Mind, unveiled at the 2003 Tokyo Motor Show. It is powered by a V-8 diesel hybrid powertrain, and has night vision and pressure-sensitive pedals. Instead of pushing down on mechanical pedals for the accelerator and brake, the driver merely increased pressure on the pedals. Electronics did the rest.
The car's rear doors were hinged to open from either the front or rear. The driver got information either via a head-up display or by means of an ultrasound system that targeted the sound only at the driver; others in the car would not hear the alerts.
The F 600 Hygenius takes a different approach. Based on the Mercedes
B class, it debuted at the 2005 Tokyo Motor Show. It is powered by a fuel cell with sufficient electricity-generating capacity to power cupholders that can heat or cool drinks.
Loaded with technology, those concepts inevitably drew comparisons with the Batmobile. So what? says Boulay. "Some of the old Mercedes-Benzes in the past, they were also very Batmobile-like," he says.
The Maybach might seem an odd studio mate for the F 500 Mind. Boulay insists they are a natural pairing.
Wealthy people typically have several luxury vehicles in their garage, he says. One will be a chauffeur-driven sedan. Another will be a weekend sports-car "toy." In that sense, the Maybach and F 500 target the same customer.
Japan is an important luxury market, so it's a prime place for a Mercedes outpost.
Louis Vuitton, the luxury French designer, does more than 50 percent of its global business in Japan, Boulay says, while most fashion designers make 60 to 80 percent of their money from Japanese buyers.
"Japan is immensely rich," says Boulay.
"When you look at those numbers, we realize we have to be here," he says. "We've only scratched the surface" for potential Mercedes-Benz sales. In 2005, DaimlerChrysler sold 46,161 Mercedes-Benz cars in Japan.
If the company wants to raise its sales to Japanese luxury buyers, it needs to do a better job of appealing to their tastes and desires, Boulay says. It also needs to tap into Japan as a producer of luxury items from clothing to cosmetics.
"Mercedes-Benz claims itself as a luxury brand," he says. "Where is the know-how for luxury goods? Europe and Japan. Sad to say, it's not America or China. Those countries' production aims at a mass-market lifestyle."
Luxury vehicles in Japan are perceived differently than in other markets, he adds.
"Japan has a lot of chauffeured cars. This is not luxury, but a service," he says. Companies provide those cars to employees who work late and live far away in the suburbs. Even news reporters often ride in chauffeur-driven cars. "People don't want to sleep in a small car en route home," Boulay says.
In 1993, the same year that the Japan studio opened, Boulay went to the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance with then-Mercedes design chief Bruno Sacco. Despairing of the dull sameness of today's cars, in contrast to the beautiful cars of the past, they discussed Mercedes' creating a super-luxury car.
Nothing came of it at the time. But after Renault unveiled the Initiale concept at the 1995 Paris motor show, Sacco endorsed the idea. It took several more years to convince top managers to approve the project. When they did, Boulay was given six months to come up with a design.
At the time, Mercedes was being criticized for its plans for the A class and Smart. The Maybach was seen by some as Mercedes' response that it was not abandoning the super-luxury segment.
"It could only, I think, come from here, from Japan," says Boulay.
With little modesty, he claims the Maybach "relaunched" the ultra-luxury segment. The segment had been stagnant, but after the Maybach appeared, Rolls-Royce and Bentley unveiled bold new models of their own.
Maybach sales have not met expectations, and its future is doubtful. But not in the mind of its creator.
Says Boulay, "I think it's still a great car."
You may e-mail James B. Treece at [email protected]