It Started With An Egg

It's long and low and rides close to the road. The new J30 Infiniti, due out this spring, echoes the classic Jaguars of the '50s. Compared to the Euro-look of the Infiniti Q45, with its high rear end and stubbier look, Nissan Motor Co.'s $35,000 J30 looks positively feline.

The idea of a Jaguar-inspired Japanese auto wasn't born in London or Tokyo. The J30 sprang from the doodling pad of a young American designer working in San Diego. There, in the fall of 1988, Doug Wilson scribbled an egg crossed by an arched line. Wilson worked at Nissan Design International Inc., the Japanese auto maker's Southern California design shop. His sketch became the organizing principle behind NDI's sloping retro concept for a new midrange Infiniti.

But that was only the first step. The American Nissan designers had to compete against the home team in Tokyo. The U. S. team had already lost out to the more conservative Japanese for the design of the Infiniti Q45. This was going to be round two. The design derby heated up in January, 1989, when NDI shipped its first quarter-scale J30 model to Nissan headquarters. The reaction from Japan surprised the NDI designers. "Frankly, we thought that in a country that loves the wedge, the fight would be over the rear of the car," says Gerald P. Hirshberg, design vice-president at the San Diego studio. No quarrel there: Nissan's Japanese executives liked the low, gently sloping back end instead of a high haunch. But they hated the front.

The rejection taught Hirshberg an important lesson about cultural differences in visual perception: When Westerners conjure up an image of a car, he says, it's a side view. With the Japanese, it's the front. "The Japanese read personality and expression into the 'face' of the car," he says.

All the negotiations between Tokyo and San Diego centered on whether the "eyes" were sleepy or awake, and whether the "mouth" gesture was appropriate. "We don't even think of headlights as 'eyes' or the grill as a 'mouth,' " Hirshberg says. In the end, San Diego beat out the Tokyo team and got to do the Infiniti -- after a compromise: The headlights and grill were redesigned to make for bigger, more expressive "eyes" and a smaller "mouth."

While the J30 is the most ambitious project yet for Hirshberg's team, it's just the latest in an impressive series of designs to come from Nissan's American studios. With the arrival in 1992 of the new Stanza, to be built in Smyrna, Tenn., and the Ford-built Quest minivan, which will be sold by both Nissan and Lincoln-Mercury dealers, fully half of the models that Nissan markets in the U. S. by the end of next year will have been designed by Americans.

That's a record that not one of the dozen design studios that foreign carmakers have set up in Southern California can come close to matching. Nor can they boast products other than cars: Nissan's San Diego shop is, in fact, the only car-company design studio in the world that accepts outside commissions. "It's funny that no one else does it," Hirshberg says. "It's such an obvious source of creative ideas."

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED. The practice has imbued the studio with a diversity of experience that translates into subtle yet significant differences in all it designs. Outside clients love it as a place to turn for the unexpected. RDI Computer Corp., for example, hired Nissan Design to create a dramatically different looking computer. The result, a $9,000 portable engineering workstation, has a series of undulating surfaces, rather than the simple geometric shape of most laptops. "Normally we would have gone to someone like frogdesign the prominent Silicon Valley studio," says RDI President Rick Schrameck. "But we figured that would give us just another computer. We wanted a computer we could hang on the wall like a piece of art."

Outside commissions account for 5% to 10% of NDI's work. Doing this kind of product design has a real payoff in designing cars. Traditional car designers start with the basic form of an automobile and add details such as headlights and door handles as styling supplements, almost as afterthoughts. "We don't immediately start drawing cars," Hirshberg says. "We sit around and think about the product and ask questions about its functions. It forces you into a world of relationships where small things are as important as the big shapes."

Even before he founded Nissan's California studio in 1980, Hirshberg, 52, had made his mark at General Motors Corp. Just three years out of college, he became Buick's youngest chief designer ever. "He never was a car nut like the rest of us," recalls Charles M. Jordan, vice-president in charge of GM's design staff. "He didn't draw wild sketches but approached things with a certain amount of thought and analysis." Says Hirshberg: "Detroit represented everything I loathed about American design, the esthetics of excess."

TURNING POINT. Hirshberg's first successes at Nissan were the 1986 Hardbody truck and the 1987 Pathfinder, a Jeeplike sport-utility vehicle. Unusual features such as trapezoidal rear vent windows were used to accommodate the Pathfinder's roll bar. The vehicle has achieved an almost cultlike following.

NDI first got noticed by the automotive world with its 1987 Pulsar NX. It was a bizarre little car, easily transformed from a sporty coupe to a convertible to wagonback with a series of interchangeable tops. Modularity was the product designer's answer to the auto designer's question: How do you get a single car to serve a number of functions?

Critics raved, and it won major design contests, including the Japan Car of the Year award, Nissan's first ever. It completely shook up the Tokyo-based design staff. Experts contend that the Pulsar marked the turning point in Nissan styling, from a well-deserved reputation for boxy, boring cars to its current stylish lineup. "Nissan's American studio's clear significance is its ability to guide Japanese stylists toward designs more appealing to American tastes," says Christopher W. Cedergren, senior vice-president at market researcher AutoPacific Group.

That ability will be tested with the J30 Infiniti. So far, NDI has attracted the attention of other designers with a number of interesting cars and other products, including a tiny black audio tweeter, a glossy blue outboard motor, a sterile white IV pump for hospitals, and the deck of a 105-foot motor yacht. But none of its efforts has translated into a runaway marketing hit. The J30 may change all that.

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