In Conversation With Shiro Nakamura: The Legendary Designer of GT-R

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During the 12th Auto Expo, I had the pleasure of meeting Shiro Nakamura san – the man behind the design of the legendary GT-R. The celebrated auto designer heads the design department for Nissan, a company which is considered to have great prowess in car design and is regarded very highly in auto design circles. This was the second time I was meeting Nakamura san, having met him about 7 years earlier in Mumbai. I turned a fan after that brief meeting, with the old gentleman winning me over with his humble demeanor and an infectious, almost childlike enthusiasm for automotive design. So here it is, the essence of the conversation we had during those brief 30 minutes, which passed in a blink. I’m sure you will enjoy the insights the living legend has shared about car design as much as I did…

By Amit Chhangani

What’s the design direction Nissan is taking for its future products?

Well, we are looking at becoming more consistent with our design. We are working towards providing the brand a more recognizable identity as regards the headlamps and grille. If you look at the Friend-Me Concept showcased at the Auto Expo, that’s somewhat how we visualize future Nissan products to roughly look like. The face of the Friend-Me Concept represents our new design direction rather well

Nissan Friend Me Concept Auto Expo 2014 (10)

 Nissan Friend-me concept

But sir, Nissan products have been known to vary wildly design wise. From the retro looking Micra, to the funky Juke – the variety and non-adherence to a family look is what I think the essence of Nissan’s unrestricted, expressive, exciting design. Don’t you think binding it within a certain ‘family look’ will take that unrestricted edge away?

That’s a very good question, and I completely understand your concern. I would like to state here that by a new identity, we definitely don’t mean similar looking products. There will some minor similarities, but the products would still have very strong identities and characters of their own. The family resemblance will be very mild. To make you understand better, let’s consider the GT-R, the X-trail, the Micra and the Juke, and let’s put them on four different corners of a square. So the future products are not meant to be concentrated at the center of the square. We see the new products still residing in quadrants close to the originals, but slightly closer to the center also.

So what keywords would define the upcoming Nissan design? Are there any contemporary products in the Nissan portfolio which represent the new design language well enough?

It’s difficult to define the entire design philosophy in only two words, but if I really have to, I will probably use the words ‘modern’ and ‘agile’. Among the current products, I think the new X-Trail, new Qashqai and new Murano represent the new philosophy rather well


 New Qashqai

Nissan Resonance Concept previewing the new Murano

 The Resonance Concept previews the new Murano

What do you think the interior design of a car should focus on?

For me, inside the cabin of a car, comfort is extremely important. In addition to comfort, the design should also focus hard on the functionality part and intuitiveness. Simplicity should prevail within the cabin, and the number of switches and buttons should be reduced to a minimum possible.

What has been the affect of new engine and transmission technologies on automotive design? Has it given you more breathing space as designers, or bound you tighter?

If you talk about only new engines and transmissions, I think they have become smaller in size, and thus have liberated more space for designers to play with. With smaller engines, we can now make the bonnet line go lower and reduce the overhangs – this works particularly well for more aggressive, sportier designs. So yes, modern power-train has given us designers more space to use our imagination.

Shiro Nakamura Amit Chhangani

Yours truly, with the great Shiro Nakamura san – the humble legend 

Apart from engines and transmissions, other technologies have also had their impact on auto design. New lighting technologies such as LEDs have reduced the size of the headlamps, allowing the designers to create a sharper look. Also, emergence of new plastic polymers and less dependence on steel means we can design and mold the panels in shapes which were not possible with steel. This, again, has helped us come up with lines and curves which were earlier not possible.

I must, however, mention here that hybrids are not particularly good for auto design. You have to allow space for engine, as well as batteries and motors, which leaves us with lesser space to work with.

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What direction do you see the future of automotive design heading towards?

Well, I think in the future, cars are going to focus very hard on fuel efficiency, compact dimensions and maximization of space within the cabin. So cars of future are going to be more functional and technically correct than driven by a designer’s wild thoughts. They will be more practical than emotional.

Shiro Nakamura GT-R Sketch for Motoroids

 A basic sketch of the GT-R, made by Shiro Nakamura for Motoroids

So what do you prefer personally – practicality or emotion?

For me, personally, and being a designer, I think the emotional appeal is a very significant aspect of a car. The visual impact is very important for a car to create a strong connect with the user. I think every car should convey a message – it should have a personality which should be evident in the very first glance.

What are the core values you look for in a design? What’s the first thing you notice when you look at a car design for the first time?

For me, proportions are everything. A car has to be well proportioned to look good. If the proportions are not right, there will remain some awkwardness to the design eventually.

Are there any exceptions to this rule according to you?

To me, personally, there are no exceptions. But it also depends on personal taste – what does not appeal to me may appeal to someone else. The Jaguar E-Type, for example is considered a very beautiful car by many. But in my personal opinion, it’s too long, too horizontal – the proportions are not balanced.


 The Jaguar E-Type

I also strongly believe that the character of a car should reflect very clearly. Every car model should have a personality, which should instantly reflect. If you look at Nisan cars, this trait shines through. For example, the Juke is ‘charming’ and the GT-R is ‘aggressive’.

There are auto designs which are extremely simple, like the original Mini, the Fiat 500 etc. And then there are designs which are extremely complicated like the Veyron and the Pagani cars. What do you prefer?

I personally prefer simplicity to complexity. Cars which look beautiful with simple lines and curves are more timeless.

What’s your opinion on Chris Bangle’s design?

Different people have different tastes, and that’s why different designers and different cars appeal to different people. I may or may not like the designs of Chris Bangle, but to be honest, that’s inconsequential. What’s more important to note, is that Chris Bangle is not afraid of experimenting. At BMW, he experimented, and did what he thought was modern, aggressive and contemporary. To go out and do such a thing requires a lot of courage, and that quality should be appreciated – whether or not the result is appreciated by everyone.

One final question, sir – what are your personal favorite models as regards design.

I think the 60’s Pininfarina designs represent my taste. I absolutely love the 275GTB and the 250GTO -

The Ferrari 275GTB

Ferrari 250 GTO

 The Ferrari 250GTO

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