The CAR inquisition: ‘We’ve done nothing for the GT-R yet’ – Shiro Nakamura, CAR+ January 2016 | CAR Magazine

The CAR inquisition: ‘We’ve done nothing for the GT-R yet’ – Shiro Nakamura, CAR+ January 2016

Published: 15 December 2015 Updated: 01 December 2016

► We interview Nissan design boss Shiro Nakamura
► On the company’s disparate styling wardrobe 
► Why he hasn’t signed off the new GT-R yet 

Sure, many of us saw the full-size (silver) Vision 2020 concept at the 2014 Goodwood Festival of Speed and thought how cool it would look on real roads, beyond its initial Gran Turismo video game purpose. But the re-boot unveiled at the 2015 Tokyo motor show in awesome matte-red metallic and with more fully-realised detailing, was temptation too far for eager speculators. This has to be the next GT-R right? 

We may have got giddily carried away but Nissan’s senior vice president and chief creative officer of design Shiro Nakamura hasn’t. ‘The Vision 2020 is a pure study,’ the veteran behind the current GT-R, plus the 350Z, Cube, Qashqai and Juke says. ‘It’s an example of our new design language, “emotional geometry”. It was not created for any specific production car but it brings a lot of inspiration for our designers. There is no form change from the Goodwood concept but we added some illuminated tail and head lamps and interior details.’ I suggest it looks too good to ditch and besides, isn’t a new GT-R long overdue, the current model surfacing in production guise back in late 2007? ‘Seriously we’ve done nothing for the next GT-R yet,’ Nakamura adds,
before smiling and reverse-gearing slightly. ‘We have several ideas, but nothing’s decided. There’s a facelift in 2016 but a new car will not be until 2020 or so.’ Which, dear conspiracy theorists, would explain the aforementioned concept’s title. Anyway, moving on… 

There’s a lot more on Nakamura’s design plate than the next Nissan supercar. Also revealed at the Tokyo show was the Teatro for Dayz concept which – daft name aside – suggests how a Mk4 Cube could look. It dispenses with regular knobs, switches and upholstery in favour of an interior envisioned with smart fabrics to allow a fully-digital dashboard to communicate with friends, or battle at video games when stationary, plus a changeable seat pattern, variable from button-back Chesterfield to woolly-and-woven. Nakamura describes it as ‘a place to invite friends for a virtual get-together’. Either way, it’s very Japanese and very cool.

He sees Nissan’s third Tokyo concept – the sharply-styled IDS – as ‘a bridge to the Leaf’. Although a bit bigger than the current electric hatchback, it’s his attempt to ‘democratise EVs’, tacitly admitting in the process that the current Leaf didn’t quite hit the mark from a desirability perspective. The IDS is a good-looking car with an elegant interior featuring a fold-away steering wheel to underscore Nissan’s well-advanced autonomous driving car technology. Nakamura’s Cube concept: not so much a car as ‘a place to invite friends for a virtual get-together’

Unfortunately, he’s got less to confirm about the IDX concepts, the stunning, ’80s-inspired compact saloons, shown in 2013. Design-award-winning they may be but their production future looks bleak. He sighs: ‘We made a customer survey and the cars were not received as passionately as you and we thought. I don’t know why unfortunately. We still think that’s the car. But we need to understand more deeply. It’s too early to say we’re giving up on them.’ 

Late in the evening of the second motor show press day we’re at Nakamura’s party in his super-cool design studio in the heart of downtown Tokyo – appropriately called the Creative Box. He has just turned 65, but is still full of life and professional ambition, as well as playing double bass in a professional jazz group in his spare time. Does he have any plans for retirement? ‘This is always a discussion I have with other designers of my generation, including [the just retired] Walter de’Silva who is only one year younger than me. At some time we hand over, but when? It’s hard to say. Not too long. I am still very much enjoying my work and feel I have achieved a lot. My original goal was to bring Japanese design to a high level and be recognised as one of the world’s leading designers, so from that point of view I’m quite satisfied.’

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

Tell us about your first car…

‘The first car I drove was a Mazda R360. I was about 12. My uncle owned it and let me drive it on a normal road with him beside me. It was completely illegal. I was like this… [he shrinks down in his seat and feigns reaching far in front for the steering wheel]. The first car I owned was an Isuzu Bellett GT. Very European and elegant for 1964.’

Which achievement makes you most proud?

‘Becoming a designer was my dream. Japanese car design culture was not very mature when I started. My primary objective was to design nice-looking cars but I’m proud of building the team at Nissan and with our colleagues in France, it means more than anything else.’

What’s the best thing you’ve done in a car?

It’s more a memorable moment. I was in my wife’s black VW Golf, October 20th 1999, just three days after I joined Nissan, driving on the Wangan highway to the Tokyo Motor Show, listening to the radio. All of a sudden, a news commentator said “Shiro Nakamura has been hired as head of Nissan design from Isuzu…” It was the first time in my life I heard my name on the radio. I got quite nervous in the car after that.’

Tell us how you screwed up…

‘When a car doesn’t sell and the design is so-so. Unlike fashion items, a car stays for six or seven years, so you have to live with any mistakes. I don’t want to say which cars!’ 

Supercar or classic?

‘Both. But now I’m collecting classics. I have five, including a Nissan Silvia. Only about 550 were made. They are almost impossible to find. It’s my favourite, design-wise.’

Company curveball…When did Nissan open its first design studio?

‘In the late 1950s. It had seven people. The head of design was Mr Sato, he did the very square, but very nice Datsun 110 and the first Bluebird. His drawings in watercolour were fantastic.’

By Guy Bird

Contributor, cultural curator, design commentator