Hideaway for styling cars of future

Gerald P. Hirshberg punches a code into a lock, the door opens, and we're inside the high-security zone of Nissan Design International (NDI), the American styling studio for Japan's second-largest automaker. Here secrecy is everything, and a 24-foot wall rings the courtyard. ``We even went to the top of a six-story hospital across the street, making believe we were from Motor Trend magazine,'' Mr. Hirshberg, director of NDI, explains. ``Then we built the wall to the required height so as to block the view from any peering eyes.

``We call this our `star wars' area,'' he adds, pointing to technical shops along one wall and a handful of large design studios on the other.

This is where Nissan's cars of tomorrow -- especially the ones to be marketed in the United States -- will originate. The first of its US-designed cars will hit the road within a year.

NDI is one of five design studios for the Japanese carmaker, but the only one outside Japan. It represents a unique strategy. No other carmaker maintains so extensive a design outpost abroad.

Surprisingly, Japanese car design is going in one direction and American car design in another, Hirshberg points out, yet Nissan has found a way to accommodate both.

``I would have expected that it [design for the international auto market] would . . . become just one big McDonald's sort of thing,'' he notes, ``but it's not like that at all.'' The Japanese are reluctant to go all out for the ``aero look,'' as has Ford Motor Company, for example. They're fascinated with high-tech and have a good time working with it. To many American eyes, the wink-and-blink displays and the ``talking cars'' -- Nissan was the first with its Maxima -- are just gimmickry.

Also, the Japanese are still exploring the architectural, slab-sided, linear look, with a heavy emphasis on detailing. Again, to American eyes it appears to be overdetailing. Of course, some American-designed cars look equally ridiculous to the Japanese.

The Japanese, Hirshberg says, recognize that they are leaders in technology, but not in design. This is where NDI comes in, with its six designers and a team of engineers (including one of Nissan's top engineers from Japan), a team of modelers, and a shop facility. Only three Japanese workers -- including Kazumi Yotsumoto, former design chief at Nissan, who now heads the American facility -- are employed full time at NDI.

What is really different -- and refreshing -- about NDI, says Hirshberg, who left General Motors a few years ago to work for Nissan, is that ``we do not report to the designers in Japan, but rather to the same group of directors and engineers that they do.

``We collaborate; we're nice to one another; and we sometimes compete. Except in rare circumstances, they are providing one kind of thing, and we're providing another.''

In Japan, the engineers, designers, and modelers do their jobs autonomously and in segmented facilities. Then they get together for a time, share ideas, and go back to work separately.

That kind of system would never work at NDI. ``We like to mix it all up and, in a sense, make a stew,'' says Hirshberg. One thing Hirshberg did not intend to do was flavor Japanese cars with Americanisms. Volkswagen tried that tactic with its Rabbit and bombed.

NDI already has finished four vehicles for Nissan, all of them fully engineered and ready to go, but it will be late this year or early next before they hit the road.

NDI's Tom Semple did the major work on the NX-21, Nissan's highly touted show car, which has been on the auto-show circuit for more than a year and is the only NDI product the public has yet seen.

Like the NX-21, NDI headquarters here are more than utilitarian; they are an aesthetic experience in themselves. The whole setting is meant to stimulate creativity. Plants and trees abound. The six-acre site, protected by natural growth, includes the high-walled area for the display of prototype vehicles and general discussions among the staff. A shimmering sheet of water, lit from beneath at night, flows from a fountain. ``It looks like a sheet of Saran Wrap,'' says the director, who describes all the architecture as ``visual food.'' He adds, ``When the designers look up, they are inspired.''

Inside the ``control zone,'' Hirshberg calls attention to the seven styling platforms which also set the California facility apart from Japan. Anchored 40 feet into the ground, the platforms have to be absolutely flat. The tiniest flex of the earth -- this is earthquake country, remember -- could throw off the fit by a hundredth of a mil, which, the director explains, would be a disaster to Japan's highly touted image of first-rate fit and finish.

The appearance of a car changes tremendously when it is brought outside from a studio, I am told. What looks good indoors may not look good outdoors. In San Diego, ``we work outside all day sometimes because of the weather,'' reports Hirshberg. ``We gain months of time by working this way.''

Even with the phenomenal climate, however, the sky isn't entirely blue on NDI's horizon. The director points to an inhibiting factor, the preconception of the directors and their reticence to risk a lot of money on things for which there is not much historical background. Still, so far there has been no shortage of funds.

``There also is stress here, because to be a good, solid, professional design firm means nothing,'' he says. ``We have to try to be exceptional. The stress is self-inflicted. It's not good enough to come to work and do a good day's work. We have to always be right on the edge and trying to grasp something new.''

Hirshberg sees his operation here as similar in many ways to the design studios in Italy.

``The relationship of the designers in Italy is fantastic, and this just doesn't exist anywhere else in the world,'' he says. ``So if we had a pattern, I suppose Ital Design and a few others have been the closest to our dream.''

Beyond cars, NDI also designs products and graphics. Says Hirshberg, ``By doing products as well as cars, there is cross-feed. The ideas come from unexpected resources.''

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