CAR Inquisition: ‘It costs as much to make a dull design as an exciting one’, CAR+ October 2015

Published: 16 September 2015

► Simon Cox on how to beat the Germans
► He discusses his own role at Infiniti
► Curveball questions only we would ask

Simon Cox is in thoughtful mood, as you’d expect from one of the more cerebral car designers. Take his breakthrough concept, the Isuzu Vehi-Cross: in 1993 Cox helped conceive a vehicle which fused a 4×4’s toughness with a sports car’s performance. Such ‘crossovers’ are utterly routine now, but it took another decade for the Infiniti FX and then the BMW X6 to make such mash-ups mainstream. 

The FX – or QX70 as it’s now badged – immersed Cox into his current brand, Infiniti, which he serves as director of its London design studio. ‘When I worked for GM I used to travel to the US a lot, and you’d see the FX in its original burnt orange colour. Then I left, worked on the Emerg-e concept for Infiniti, and I needed a new car. So I bought an FX, put my money where the brand was, and spent five years telling people about it! It turns heads, which is what design is about, but it’s a positive reaction.’

Simon Cox’s role at Infiniti

Cox joined the Infiniti payroll in 2013, when Nissan’s global design boss Shiro Nakamura asked the 56-year-old to establish a European studio for the Japanese-American premium brand, next door to Nissan’s London design HQ. What’s his mission? ‘Our role here is to give a European voice to Japan and to our studios in China and California. You can have a design studio anywhere, but it’s nice to have London’s cultural values – influences from museums, jewellery, sculpture, art – as well as seeing the competition’s cars running around, their proportions and how they sit on the road.’

His job is to shape the concepts and production cars to evolve and grow the Infiniti brand. And it needs growing: global sales in 2014 were 186,200, just 10% of BMW’s. The good news was that western European sales doubled, the bad news was to a puny 4800 cars. 

Cox is used to tough gigs: as director of GM advanced design, he was a lynchpin in the multi-billion dollar revamp of Cadillac. He helped shape a series of modernist concept and production cars seemingly inspired by origami (and a stealth fighter), all flat, unadorned surfaces and crisp creases that banished Cadillac’s antiquated image and continues in production 12 years on.

The future for Infiniti

‘We’re busy establishing Infiniti’s first generation of new vehicles,’ he explains. ‘It’s a great challenge and there are frustrations. It won’t happen overnight, we saw that with Cadillac. The similarities are there, except we haven’t got the burden of 100 years of heritage around our neck. We’ve shown the Q60 and Q80 concepts: we need to get those into the marketplace and build. It’s going to take 10-15 years.’  

The Q60 is a 4-series fighter coming late 2016, the Q80 Inspiration a flagship ‘fastback’. Think Infiniti’s Panamera. But first up is the Q30, a hatchback based on Mercedes’ A-class platform, which is steadily ramping up production at Nissan’s Sunderland plant for deliveries in January 2016. It shares a lot with the Merc: chassis, engines, switchgear. ‘That doesn’t mean it’s an A-class or handles like an A-class. In terms of design, it has a fresh feel, it will stand out. Inside there’s a different feel too: it’s asymmetric, with a premium crafted feel that makes the A-class seem basic.’ 

The Q30 should take Infiniti’s ‘double grille’ and distinctive kinked rear pillar – the ‘crescent curve’ – to a wider audience, with its sub-£20k price tag. A jacked-up QX30 version, sharing Mercedes’ GLA approach in more ways than one, also arrives in summer 2016.

‘One of the key words is performance, not just dynamically but a visually sporty nature. We’re not aiming to be a VW Golf. We’ve got to do the [quality] things equally well, but it doesn’t mean you can’t get some flair in there. One of the most frustrating things about this business is how much effort and energy go into making a design that answers a brief but doesn’t make you stop and turn: why can’t it? It takes the same amount of money to make a dull design as an exciting one.’

Cox warms to his theme, listing BMW’s i8 and i3 and Tesla’s Model S as recent cars that have excited him. ‘They gave me a belief that car design – and by that I mean designers working with engineers and developing a vehicle – isn’t dead. Was Project i a smart move from a business standpoint? Should BMW have shared the tech? To move car design on, to move the whole transport question on, companies are going to have to get together. We cannot just carry on the way we are.’ 

Cox signs off, leaving me with the feeling that reskinning Mercedes won’t be his most inspirational Infiniti assignments…  

Cox’s mid-engined Cadillac Cien concept from 2002. He drove it round Le Mans with GM legend Bob Lutz riding shotgun

CAR’s curveballs: 6 questions only we would ask…

Tell us about your first car… 

A Mini of course. My first transport was a motorbike, a Malaguti single-seater race bike which I used on the road. My first car I inherited from my family, a Mini 1000. I put on Cooper lamps straight out of The Italian Job and I did well over 100,000 miles in it. I ended up selling it to a design colleague who rallied it and killed it.

Which achievement makes you most proud?

I’ve managed to establish four different design studios in the UK, for four different companies: Lotus, Isuzu, GM and Infiniti. I’ve tried to recruit from the UK. I’m quite proud of that. More so than any individual car. When you’re designing products they are all important at that time. But when you’ve finished you’ve always wanted to do better! I know which achievement made my mother most proud. I was invited to Buckingham Palace for a reception with the Queen.

The best thing you’ve done in a car?

[Chuckles] I can’t say, you couldn’t write it! It involved the Mini! Seriously, it was driving the parade lap at Le Mans in the Cadillac Cien concept in 2002, with [GM product chief] Bob Lutz as my passenger. 

Tell us how you screwed up?

Not getting the right work/life balance. And also having to do three degrees before deciding I wanted to be a car designer. That wasn’t screwing up, it was jewellery, fine art, sculpture, products – it all comes together in an Infiniti anyway!

Supercar or classic car?

Classic. I’ve got a right-hand-drive Porsche 356A, a 3.2 Carrera and a Ducati. I’ve always been a Porsche fan over Ferrari or Lamborghini: I love Miuras, D-types, and the odd Ferrari but there’s something that Porsche represents, that I’ve tried to build my career on in terms of a nice shape that performs as well. 

And here’s your curveball: what was the second Infiniti launched, and what was it based on?

Q45 was the first. Go on, tell me.

It was the M30, a boxy coupe based on a Nissan Leopard!

I’m glad I didn’t know it then, that’s a positive. For me, the most iconic Infiniti is the original FX. 

By Phil McNamara

Editor-in-chief of CAR magazine