Infiniti Prototype 9 invokes history, fantasy

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Imagine the unbelievable luck of walking into an old barn in rural Japan and finding there, rusted and abandoned, a long-forgotten 1940s-era Infiniti roadster.

That is the visual impact of the Prototype 9 roadster concept that Infiniti showed audiences last week at Pebble Beach.

The handcrafted silvery retro racer concept, with spoked open wheels and a grille of sculpted blades, is a salute to the tens of thousands of high-end car collectors and luxury-class shoppers who strolled over Monterey Peninsula’s golf courses of restored Maseratis and Mercedes touring cars, Bugattis and Paganis with seven-figure price tags, and 2018 Cadillacs and Jaguars. At the same time, the Prototype 9 is a declaration of what Infiniti is willing and able to do to win the attention of those elite car buyers.

Albaisa: “We wanted to show the DNA.”

“We wanted to show the DNA that became Infiniti,” says Alfonso Albaisa, who oversaw the Prototype 9 as head of global design for Nissan Motor Co. and former design boss of its Infiniti line.

“It’s clearly inspired by a racing car from decades ago, with that airplane-influenced look of an oversized hood, a tapering tail and a driver’s cockpit set back toward the rear. The design of that day was really all about engine and tires.”

In the classic fantasy scenario of Pebble Beach attendees, such an antique Infiniti “barn find” would be pulled into the sunlight to be inspected. It would be trailered home to a garage, where the collector would spend months tracking down classic replacement parts and restoring it to the sort of bold look that would have shocked Japanese audiences 70 or 80 years ago.

But here’s where the fantasy ends, Albaisa says: There was no Infiniti in 1940. The brand was created in 1989. Infiniti was launched as a modern Japanese challenger to what was — at least for a time in the 1980s — a tier of waning European luxury makers that seemed stuck in their decades-old legacies.

Imagined legacy

Infiniti has no such legacy, and so it has created one.

“We tried to build a car as if we were there,” Albaisa explains. “It is to show people that what Infiniti is today has roots in the spirit of that era, when cars were still very new and exciting to people.”

He admits it was a pretty zany idea for a project. But as the Prototype 9 took shape, it became a bigger mission inside Nissan and Infiniti. It gave the more passionate car lovers there a channel to problem-solve and try new ideas.

Albaisa was still head of Infiniti design last year when he received a text message from Allyson Witherspoon, who was at that time director of marketing for Infiniti North America. She is now manager of global brand engagement for Nissan in Japan. Witherspoon challenged the designer to draw such a “what if?”

What if Infiniti had existed in the era of the Mercedes W154 or of Grand Prix-winning Bugattis? What would it have looked like then? And what components of that old look would have evolved into the look of Infiniti 2018?

Albaisa remembers chuckling at the text message.

Thought provoking as it was, he was too busy to think about it. He was about to become the first non-Japanese head of design in Nissan’s history, succeeding Shiro Nakamura, Nissan’s influential, long-serving global design chief. He also just had taken on a series of nondesign corporate duties.

“I was kind of busy,” Albaisa recalls. “But I kept thinking about it.”

Photo credit: AUTOMOTIVE NEWS ILLUSTRATION

‘Build it?’

Albaisa enlisted a young Japanese designer to give the idea a stab. He then involved a designer out of Infiniti’s styling studio in San Diego.

“The early drawings looked pretty much like a racer,” he says. Other designers began to get involved. Soon, a manufacturing group at Nissan’s old Oppama plant in Japan found out about the drawings and contacted him.

“They said, ‘We want to build it,'” Albaisa recalls. “I said, ‘Build it? There’s nothing to build. It’s a computer drawing.'”

He assumed the workers were envisioning a traditional inexpensive foam model typically used to make concept cars, and Albaisa reminded them that they had no expertise in producing foam concept models.

But they clarified their desire: They wanted to build it out of metal.

Albaisa was astonished to learn that a manufacturing team intended to receive training in the old art of “hammer forming” vehicle bodies.

The work involves a group of craftsmen using hammers to delicately shape precision body pieces, meeting strict tolerances just as on any other automobile.

The employees had taken the training on their own time and now proposed doing the work after hours.

The factory also had just acquired a dieless forming machine that had not been used. A seldom-used alternative metalworking technology, dieless forming works with programmed computer designs to create small batches of parts without the need for expensive dies.

Given the go-ahead, the factory team had within weeks an actual open-wheel metal prototype to show the designer.

Making it a runner

At that point, Albaisa was startled to be contacted by Nissan’s advanced powertrain department.

“These are the guys who made the powertrain for the Leaf and were busy working on the next Leaf,” Albaisa says. “They said, ‘We’re in, too.’

“I said, ‘What do you mean, you’re in?’

“They said, ‘We’re going to make the car run.'”

Advanced powertrain created a twin-battery electric powertrain for the concept vehicle. That part was no real feat for the group. Their challenge, Albaisa says, was packaging the modern electric powertrain into the racer’s elongated retro design.

The battery pack had to be fitted to the layout, with modern steering, brakes and electronic powertrain controls routed around the car to fit the design.

“At that point, there was nothing I could do to hold the project to the ground,” Albaisa says. “I realized I’d better tell Mr. Klein that this thing had taken on a life of its own.”

Philippe Klein is Nissan Motor Co.’s head of global product planning, with responsibility for product strategy and business plans around the world — and there was no Infiniti Prototype 9 in the company’s business plans.

Albaisa emailed the executive and alerted him that “a lot of dominoes are about to fall and it could be loud.” He explained the project that had sprung to life on its own.

Klein emailed back almost immediately, a reply so fast that Albaisa was certain he was about to be fired.

Instead, Klein was fascinated and wanted to hear the details. He interrupted his schedule to travel to the Oppama plant to see the rogue concept for himself.

“He really supported it,” Albaisa says. “Like me, he loved the idea of a design concept that celebrated the company’s spirit of undertaking a project like this.”

Supported by whom Albaisa calls “protectors” in the company, the concept vehicle remained an underground project until it was ready for display this month.

Infiniti now wants the public to see it as an expression of what the brand is about — not actual racing heritage from the last century but modern-day passion to take an idea and turn it into a car.

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