How Nissan’s Shiro Nakamura became the crossover king

TOKYO — It came virtually out of the woodwork at the 1993 Tokyo Motor Show. The Isuzu VehiCross concept wasn’t quite a truck, not really a car. It seemed to almost cross over both segments.

Shiro Nakamura didn’t pen the VehiCross himself, but as a chief designer at the Japanese 4×4 specialist, he was among the first to realize that customers wanted a truck that drove like a car.

Before the term crossover was even coined, Nakamura was pioneering new ground.

That instinct for latent demand and flair for taking creative risks helped get this urbane, talkative, jazz lover noticed. Among Carlos Ghosn’s first moves after taking control of Nissan Motor Co. in 1999 was poaching Nakamura to help reboot the flailing company. Nearly 18 years later, Nakamura is now retiring, having helped make “crossover” a household word and transforming Nissan and all of Japanese design in process.

At Nissan, the car-cum-trucks kept coming — with an early one, the Qashqai, rescuing Nissan’s beleaguered European business when the production version arrived in 2006 and became an overnight sensation.

Other creations of the Crossover King: the sophisticated Murano, the everyman Rogue, the quirky Juke and the Infiniti FX, still touted by many critics as the luxury marque’s landmark look.

“He made his mark with those vehicles,” said John Manoogian, a professor of transportation design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and a former General Motors designer.

“Nakamura did a lot of things many people would have been afraid to try,” Manoogian said. “With their crossovers and SUVs, Nissan has blazed its own trail.”

Ghosn was an early believer. He singled out Nakamura’s hiring away from Isuzu as a key step in his 1999 Nissan Revival Plan. A strong statement, indeed, for a designer.

It is almost fitting, then, that the two executives who entered Nissan the same year and helped steer its turnaround should be stepping down at the same time. Ghosn, 63, announced last month that he would hand the duties and title of CEO to Hiroto Saikawa on April 1.

Nakamura, 66, will retire the day before, under a personnel shuffle announced last week. Taking over as Nissan Motor Co.’s global design director will be Alfonso Albaisa, 52, corporate vice president for design and executive design director at Infiniti.

Former BMW design chief Karim Habib was hired to lead design at Infiniti.

“I have big shoes to fill,” Albaisa said by email of his appointment to succeed Nakamura.

Quirky and cool

Nakamura said crossovers were his big break but they were a natural result of pushing limits.

“We wanted to create something unique that had never been done before,” Nakamura said in an interview last week after the announcement. “That’s why we went with crossovers. That’s why people think I’m a specialist in crossovers. But it’s not just crossovers.”

Indeed, Ghosn granted Nakamura wide latitude to pursue much more. The dapper, mustachioed design maestro delivered by hitting sweet spots such as crossovers. But he also pushed the envelope with some of the Nissan’s most daring and memorable, if polarizing, vehicles.

In the process, he put Japan’s No. 2 carmaker on the map for cutting-edge looks.

The Juke urban runabout, with its wild fender flares, winglike running lights and scrunched-up proportions, earns both kudos and boos. But at least everyone had an opinion.

Other undertakings seemed to draw straight from Japan’s anime culture.

The series of bubble-shaped Pivo concepts were both cute and futuristic, foreshadowing Nissan’s two-pronged push into electric and self-driving cars. Even the Leaf, with its bulging headlights, and Cube, with its iceboxlike contours, challenged notions of what a car could be.

And then there was the off-the-wall, three-seat, open-top, triangular BladeGlider in 2013.

Nakamura also recharged Nissan’s performance heritage, with a resurrected 370Z and an edgier, angrier GT-R for the global market.

All told, Nissan’s design workhorse presided over three generations of product portfolio.

And that was just at Nissan. Before that, Nakamura logged 25 years in design at Isuzu, including a stint at GM’s Advanced Design Studio in Detroit.

Return to roots

Lately, he is championing a new, even more dynamic language for the Nissan brand dubbed V-Motion. Its hallmarks include a plunging V motif in the grille, a “floating” roof, boomerang headlights, narrow greenhouses and angular creases throughout the sheet metal.

The latest Maxima sedan and Murano crossover boldly exude that V vibe, and the Vmotion 2.0 concept shown this year at the Detroit auto show hinted at an upcoming Altima makeover.

Nakamura’s creativity reinvigorated Japanese auto design across the board, pressuring rivals from Mazda to Toyota to step up their own styling.

He forced an uncomfortable realization upon Japanese automakers long complacent in their niche as purveyors of reliable, if boring, appliances: Design sells cars.

Drawing inspiration from samurai swords, washi paper and Kabuki emblems, he wasn’t shy about expressing Japanese culture in his cars. And it worked; Japan design became something hip, even avant-garde.

“I wanted to express Japanese DNA in the design,” Nakamura said.

As guardian of the brand’s aura, Nakamura used design as a fulcrum to change old American perceptions that Nissan was a discount brand while winning new respect in Europe.

Stylish dandy

Nakamura’s persona only helped the cause. His impeccably tailored silk suits are a personal trademark, along with his manicured mustache. The Osaka native is also a jazz bass player who refuses to carry an iPod for fear that it will limit his discovery of new music. He enjoys making his own violins.

Fluent in English, he sometimes gushes about Italian design, especially Alfa Romeos and Ferraris from the 1960s. Yet when it comes to his own cars, Nissan’s design guru sticks loyally to home. In his garage are a 1965 first-generation Nissan Silvia sport coupe and a high-performance version of the original Z sports car — a 1969 Z 432.

Nakamura said the biggest evolution during his tenure was the creation of a more unified look across a lineup that spans vehicles from minicars and supercars to commercial trucks and pickups, in markets as diverse as India, Europe, the U.S. and Japan.

“In 1999, we had very diverse products that didn’t have a common Nissan brand expression,” Nakamura said. “Now each car has individuality but looks more Nissan.”

Looking ahead

As chief creative officer, Nakamura began to ruminate publicly about retirement in recent years, though always remaining a fixture at auto shows. He also focused on planting kernels of future creativity to sustain Nissan design after he leaves. Part of that included expanding Nissan’s studio empire to the U.S., Britain and China.

The challenge covers not only attracting right-brain types with artistic talent but also logical left-brain types who can plot a design business strategy and manage the team.

“The next generation has to be as strong or even stronger than today,” he said. “How to create a strong creative team was my big homework.”

Looking to the future, Nakamura predicted that cars will split into two design tracks, not unlike today’s wristwatches.

Some cars, such as the Leaf, will be high-tech, utilitarian appliances, like an Apple Watch. Others, think GT-R, will be more old-school aspirational collector’s pieces, like a fine-crafted mechanical Swiss chronograph. But how that plays out in metal, he said, is anybody’s guess.

“In 10 years’ time, I would like to see what my successor does with the looks of the GT-R and Leaf,” Nakamura said. “It’s not my design, but it will be very fun to see that.”

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