Nissan is back with a fresh, conceptual take on its most iconic sports car. It is called the Nissan Z Proto, and it clearly draws inspiration from the original 1970 Datsun 240Z. Because of time zone and travel restrictions, instead of directly interviewing Alfonso Albaisa, Nissan’s senior vice president for global design, we submitted a list of questions to Nissan’s communications team and received an audio file in return. The following transcript of that interview has been edited for clarity and length.
MotorTrend: Is there a specific design language that you want the Z Proto to communicate or to impart to people who see it?
Alfonso Albaisa: This one is definitely where the 300 comes in. Jun Shimizu was the head of design of that year [of Nissan 300ZX], and he very much had this dream that modern manufacturing was going to create this seamless, perfectly flushed, and integrated car, and it did. The 300 was so inspiring to me. It was my first trip to Japan and I walked into the studio and I saw the 300. I literally packed up my pencils and I wanted to go home crying because I couldn’t believe that a car can be so dreamlike—simple and still take your breath away.
So, Tai-san [Satoru Tai, Nissan executive design director] and I really wanted to revisit this sense of seamlessness. The mood of the car, we want the audience, the buyers, the lovers, to feel this seamlessness and [say], “Wow, how did they get this car to come together so cleanly?” but still be an homage to the 240. So these ideas, they’re not in opposition, but at the end, this is why this design was selected as our desire because it mixed tomorrow with our love of memory.
MT: What are a few of the elements or maybe a core element that you feel captures the Z identity in this new design?
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AA: I use memory instead of retro because it’s an important difference. Because when a car is 50 years old and you’re designing in the modern era, I think it’s more healthy to use memory than [be completely] literal. There are a few things that are very much an example of that—the posture in the centerline of the car. Yes, it’s 240, to your memory. But actually the gesture, the hood, and the power is very much of the modern era. Its stance is very wide, very low, much lower feeling. The rear edge of the car is lower than the fender-which the 240, even 260 and 280, did not have. We really, really worked with engineering: How can we get this balance right?
They are lovers, like we are, of sports cars. So we worked on this balance because we want, when you see the car, for it to conjure up happy memories of the 240. And then moving around to the front of the car, of course, the actual 240 has circular lamps. But when we did it, we didn’t love it as much. By chance, we got a car from the Zama museum [Nissan Heritage Collection of historic cars, located in the city of Zama, Japan] which was a special version with the clear lens covering the [headlamp] circle. In some views, the reflections of the environment obscured the circle. And we said, “Bingo! This is it!” That’s where the two arcs—where the interruption between—represents the reflections of that glass lens. It allowed us a little bit more freedom to express a modern front, with again, the memory of 240.
MT: When you look at the production-spec car versus the Z Proto, how much is production engineering pushing back on you? How would you describe the relationship between the Proto and the production car?
AA: I think the word Proto is a wonderful word because it kind of explains where we are, right? The designers and engineers have fallen in love with the intention. Now the baton is handed off and they’re going to make a world-class performance car. They’ll be tweaking and doing things and putting in their love, the final bits of love, because they’ve been involved in all the aero and all of this. They’ve set the architecture, they develop the engine and all of these things. But a car, especially a high-performance car, is really about the drive and the connection between you and the experience. So they have it now, and they’re running full speed.
MT: In terms of the project itself, was Z a competition among all of the global studios, or was it assigned?
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AA: If it was not a competition, that would have been a coup d’état. From the beginning, to avoid insurrection, we opened it up to all members of design in the world. We have many, many studios. Everyone took part. This is where the spectrum of Z really was fully explored. Interestingly enough, the London one and the Japan one were both playing with this kind of modern 240. There was a California one that was a fully modern reinterpretation. As things develop, the energy started around this 240 memory and 300, and this is how it is. So yes, we were all in the pool. I’m not sure if that was a [water] polo match or synchronized swimming. I’m not sure, but we were all in the water.
MT: Which element of the design was the most difficult to achieve?
AA: Probably the part I’m most proud of, and the part that required our eyes on the model at all times, was the centerline, the silhouette. Two elements really helped this: The katana—the silver element on the glass line really helped emphasize the low-slung rear end. Then this character line through the body side, which is at a slight angle. You might ask, well, what is the meaning of that line? When you’re walking around the car, that angled line, as it moves forward, jumps over the fender in a pointy kind of shape, which represents from the 240. That little opening on the hood. Even from that element, we were able to bring a little bit of the memory of the car to help transform this car into what we wanted, which was a very low-slung, low center of gravity, pure performance car. This is not a retro car, this is pure modern performance.
MT: A lot of design teams now work little Easter eggs, or hidden gems, into their designs. Are there any on this car that you want to tell people about?
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AA: That’s a good one. I like to think the whole car was an Easter egg because it’s, at a glance, a modern car. But when it pulls up anywhere, people are going to have the sense of, “Oh my god.” At the same time for many of us, memories will come flying in. Little Easter eggs are everywhere, especially when you get up close to it. The headlamps; the signature circle-but-it’s-not-a-circle. The Z logo on the body side looks, at a glance, like a new interpretation, but it’s not. It’s really almost exactly the graphic of the first one, but a little bit modern in the circle around it. We played between analog and digital on the interior, with the three dials. The graphic on it, which is analog, a physical dial. But when the car starts up, you will see a digital version of the meter. The way we play with constantly jumping back and forth between modern-era technologies and the memories that you hold dear to your heart, it’s a bit of the Easter bunny and the Easter egg.
MT: What’s the thing you’re most proud of in the design of Z Proto?
AA: I think that it all came to me when the Z Proto pulled out of the truck— the sense of memory. Because the car, when it finally pulled out and drove out and I saw it in its full working condition, it’s so seamless and so pure. The car that I love so, so dearly, and especially the growth that I had after seeing a clay model, was in that car. But at the same time, it was the 6-year-old’s memory of the 240. I am proud of the team for being able to make two—or three—cars in one car. It’s not a blending of things. It’s a pure expression of at least two cars. I know when I step in it, on a track, I’m going to be proud of my brothers and sisters in engineering for sure.
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