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Behind the design: Nissan Z Proto
September 16, 2020

Nissan design chief on how the prototype car came to life, honors more than 50 years of Z heritage
The Z nameplate has been cherished worldwide for more than 50 years. The Nissan Z Proto, unveiled on Sept. 16, signals a renewal for the legendary sports car at a time when Nissan is also transforming itself as a company. As both the Z and Nissan embark on a new chapter, the model is a key ingredient in maintaining Nissan’s heritage of passion, excitement and innovation.

In this interview, Alfonso Albaisa, Nissan's senior vice president of global design, talks about what the Z Proto means for Nissan. He also tells the story of how his design team brought the Z Proto to life, and discusses the delicate balance of paying homage to past Z cars while modernizing design and performance.

Q: What's the purpose of the Z Proto?

Albaisa:
Above all, we want to tell the world that the next Z is coming! The Z is a key model for Nissan. It represents how we democratize technology, such as with the Nissan LEAF, which was the world's first mass-market electric vehicle. The Z is the democratization of a true sports car.

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Q: What was your approach to designing the Z Proto?

Albaisa:
We explored two directions – one with a strong homage tone, and one with a futuristic feeling throughout. Our designers made countless studies and sketches, researching each generation to better understand what made it such a success with generations of fans and owners. Ultimately, we agreed that this new Z Proto should travel between the decades, including the future.

Q: How important was it to include references to the original Z?

Albaisa:
Making a car with such an iconic history is a big challenge. Roughly 1.8 million Z cars have been sold around the world, including more than 1.3 million in North America. That means there are millions of past and current owners with their own unique history and stories with the Z. People remember the first time they saw one. We wanted to take a different journey than a purely retro look with the car, to see what fond memories would surface, and tap into them with a sincerity that builds on those memories and brings a smile to everyone's face.

I remember seeing the first-generation Z when I was a six-year-old boy growing up in Miami. It made a big impression on me. Somehow, it always looked fast, even when parked. Since first laying eyes on it, I always followed the Z through the generations – from a pure precision machine to the 300ZX of the '80s and '90s with the latest in tech. Eventually, my own hands would help bring the 350Z to a new generation of wide-eyed wonderers, sharing the same aspirations and intrigue that I felt.

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Q: Did any other Z models besides the first generation (S30) inspire your team?

Albaisa:
We took inspiration from all generations during the initial design phase, with a strong homage to the first-generation Z but also with nods to the 300ZX. The 300ZX represented a technological breakthrough for Z and Nissan. The seamless surfaces and absence of bodylines gave it a river stone-like, smooth quality. The extremely slanted projector headlamps communicated a sleek, advanced look. You can see that in the Z Proto. The smooth exterior surfaces give it a dream-like, clean aerodynamic shape.

Q: Besides the profile silhouette, where else can we see references to past Zs?

Albaisa:
There are nods to the past throughout, some more apparent than others. One key exterior design element we wanted to get right was the height of the hood. Just like the first generation Z (S30), the hood is higher than the tail. This was quite difficult for our designers to achieve, but we knew we wanted to keep that iconic silhouette.

Also, the LED headlights have two half-circles that owners of the first-generation ZG "G-nose" model may recognize. The ZG features a clear dome lens over the headlight bucket. Under light, that dome shape gives off two circular reflections. We liked that unique characteristic and discovered it naturally fit with the Z Proto's identity.

The rear taillights were inspired by the 300ZX's illuminated pill-shaped taillights design. Just as that 300ZX was a symbol of a technological leap for Z, we applied the latest design methods on the Z Proto's taillights to create a clean, sharp edge illumination that beams bright, day or night.

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Q: What are the standout characteristics of the Z Proto?

Albaisa:
Even with elements of the first Z, this car has a different attitude. The "aggressively low" center of gravity gives the Z Proto a completely new posture. The exterior sculpting gives it a natural, alluring look while also maintaining muscular dynamism. The low, rear-fender haunches push the wheels outward, giving the impression of a cat ready to pounce.
The first-generation Z was lighter and more agile. This Z Proto has a muscularity that builds on that. It hints at the "hair raising" power within, ready to release on a cool morning run, blipping between gears while carving around terra firma.

Q: The Z Proto has a striking yellow paint job. Is this another hint at the past?

Albaisa:
Yes, we chose a pearlescent yellow as a nod to the original Z and 300ZX yellow color option. We added the pearlescent quality to add a brilliant, shimmering look under the sun. The 300ZX had a color in this range but due to technologies of the day was not able to maintain the level of chroma of the Z Proto.

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Q: What approach did you take with the interior design?

Albaisa:
It was important to us that stepping into the cabin should be a transformative experience. The interior needed to fit like a glove, creating a direct physical bond with the driver's body and quick visual access to drive information. Of course, the cockpit is also an enjoyable space both visually and physically during relaxing cruises on open roads.

We put a heavy focus on ensuring that vehicle information could be understood at a glance, to allow the driving experience to be pure and uninterrupted. This is why the digital instrument gauges have a uniform readout. The steering wheel puts infotainment and vehicle controls at the driver's fingertips while still maintaining a classic sports car look.

That said, the interior has a strong modern feeling, with digital elements in just the right places to match the needs of today's drivers without distracting or adding complexity.

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Q: What message do you want to send with the Z Proto?

Albaisa:
The Z Proto represents a commitment to our fans, to our heritage, and staying true to Nissan's DNA. This is not a concept or study of a potential model. The Z Proto is a statement that a new Z is coming, period.

Some may wonder why we are continuing to develop the Z. To me, that's like asking why humans breathe – it's an integral part of life for Nissan. Nissan is a creative community with a diverse product lineup and history. We hope people feel our passion for the past as much as for the future. We love creating automobiles that our customers emotionally connect with. The Z Proto is a homage, but it also speaks of the technology of today, with advanced touches inside and out.

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R_E_L

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I think, rectangle grill aside, they did a great job with the look of this thing. Clean, elegant lines and a classic silhouette. It's not overdone, and I think it will age well. The interior looks good too, although I doubt that big digital dash will be standard. If not, I'm curious what the base dash will look like, whether all analogue or a mix. Between the looks, the engine and manual transmission, I have high hopes.
 

ThreeSeven

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I think, rectangle grill aside, they did a great job with the look of this thing. Clean, elegant lines and a classic silhouette. It's not overdone, and I think it will age well. The interior looks good too, although I doubt that big digital dash will be standard. If not, I'm curious what the base dash will look like, whether all analogue or a mix. Between the looks, the engine and manual transmission, I have high hopes.
This is how I feel about it too. I also see a lot of retro cues and modern take on the design elements of the 240Z and 300ZX. Even if they don't change the front grille it is growing on me already and Im sure there the aftermarket will address it.
 
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I like all the angles except the square front is rubbing me the wrong way. Maybe they will offer options when it goes on sale. Other than that, I love it.
 

626m3

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I like all the angles except the square front is rubbing me the wrong way. Maybe they will offer options when it goes on sale. Other than that, I love it.
Seems the square mouth is the biggest universal criticism so far. I think they can easily improve on it by breaking up that huge gaping rectangular black area by adding some canndards or fins extending inwards from the sides of the air inlet. Maybe someone can photoshop that.
 
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Seems the square mouth is the biggest universal criticism so far. I think they can easily improve on it by breaking up that huge gaping rectangular black area by adding some canndards or fins extending inwards from the sides of the air inlet. Maybe someone can photoshop that.
They said that this is 98% production and I think that the grill is the part that can change. Maybe they wanted to gauge it before going into production. It won't take much to make the cutout less jaring.
 

Seong

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They said that this is 98% production and I think that the grill is the part that can change. Maybe they wanted to gauge it before going into production. It won't take much to make the cutout less jaring.
Hopefully there's more than 2% change in store for the grille hah. Everything else I'm cool with as-is. They did a bang up job.

One thing I hope they don't change even 1% is the blacked out roof with silver roofline trim. I think that is the iconic signature design for this new gen Z.
 

R_E_L

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ec15

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^^^ what he said.
You can even see how it differs between images and walk around videos.
 

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https://www.caradvice.com.au/890200/interview-alfonso-albaisa-designing-nissans-new-z-car/

Interview, Alfonso Albaisa: Designing Nissan's new Z car

The boyhood dreams and the lucky journey that brought us the Z Proto, and what comes next.

It reads like a movie.

"One of the first cars I recall seeing was as a little kid in Miami, in 1970, 71… That's one of the reasons I fell in love with designing cars."

The scene shifts to a young man stepping off a plane, with the caption "20 years later…" (Well, almost.)
"In 1988, as a young Nissan designer on my first trip to Japan, I walked into a studio – after winning a Terrano (SUV) project – I walked in to check some projects and my heart was stolen when I saw the clay model for the (Z32) 300ZX."

"So when the opportunity came, when now we're doing the next-generation Z, I think naturally this sense of 240 and 300 are obviously strong on my mind. It's been an interesting journey, of how to weave a little bit of memory, a little bit to dream of the future…"

CarAdvice, along with other Australian and international media, had the opportunity to speak with Nissan design boss Alfonso Albaisa immediately after the Z Proto concept's live-streamed video unveiling in Japan.
Seated next to the bright lime-coloured concept, near the end of what would have been a full day of interviews, Mr Albaisa shared his very personal Z story with a group of pushy Aussie journalists – and passionately, as though it wasn't the 10th telling in one day.

Was there any early version of the Z Proto that had a more modern or more futuristic look?

I think naturally in the process, to be honest, similarly to the process for the 350 – maybe I'll take your back a long time, 20 years or so – we also then had a kind of homage version on the go, and of course the forward-looking one, which at the time felt like what we wanted to do and what the executives wanted to do. Eventually the full revolution was selected.

In this go-round, it was the same: we had some ideas to say 'let's reinterpret what it means to be a Z' and we chose to explore our history in the context of what it means for a modern car.
It was this one that won out.

We did explore the full range of options from every studio we have – London, China, California, Japan – but then the decision we made was… this.

Here's hoping we get to see them some day! Was there a more retro design in the mix?
Some aspects, when we brought it all up to full size, we wanted to move them around and tone them differently and… at the end of the day, we were trying to recapture that sense of when I walked into the studio and saw the 300ZX.

I really fell in love with the minimalism, this almost 'polished river stone' look that the 300 had. If you remember, there's no character line, no crease, just the graphic DLO (daylight opening) and the waistline.
So this started to get into the cars even with this (Z Proto) proposal, there was a constant rebalancing. You know, the round lights became this kind of double-arched light, this kind of thing.

Was it hard to get a more retro design approved, given the overall modern look of the wider Nissan range?
I think it's probably more a reflection of the mindset that the Z is a different kind of product in our family, because it represents things, arguably, that go even beyond the car. It's our DNA.

As a company, you know, especially as… when Uchida-san came back to us from China to be our boss here in Japan, he was speaking of things with great meaning to him. What is the passion and the greater purpose of our company?

When you start talking like this kind of thing, you obviously start to think about the meaning of Nissan, and how… naturally you look about at the history of our company, our innovations, and one of the things we were reminded of was our founder who shared in writing that his dream was to have a Datsun in every driveway – not because of commercial success, but because he believed that the automobile was going to bring mobility to everybody.

Then you fast-forward to 1967-or-so and Nissan once again had this feeling that we should democratise things that were elusive. The true sports car in the late '60s was a car for the wealthy, so this kind of democratisation of great things… These were conversations we were having during the design of the Z Proto.

And as you reflect on these things, it starts to creep up and you start to see visual cues in these discussions. So, in many ways, this project is a mirror or a window into our company and what we're thinking right now.

Like I mentioned, we had an homage proposal with the 350, but it just didn't feel like that's where we were… we were all, including myself – I was a designer on that project – we're racing racing racing, looking forward, but on this one it was a little more… turning in.

We're still racing forward, with electrification and the Ariya (shown below) and the whole A to Z philosophy… but the Z is a special car that really talks about 'more than a car'.

Is it liberating to design a car like the Z, or is its heritage restraining? What emotions are you feeling with the Z Proto reveal?
In many ways, a Z car represents more than the twin turbo, manual transmission [shown today], it's more than the list of elements.

It's an emotional project for an emotional company – that's not a restriction as much as… you know, we are completely aware of the meaning of Z to the 1.8 million people who have owned them globally.

So we feel the respect, and because of social media, we feel and hear the love and opinions… it tends to be a more complicated project because of those things. It's not restricting, but you feel more responsibility.

The Z Proto's grille seems to be the standout feature that punters are polarised by, tell us about that.
The front end of the car, it's probably a more literal homage to the 240.

The 240, well it depends on the specs because there were special versions and things like this, but what I found very interesting was… usually, we talk about a grille as an object of its own that's on the front of a car, but on the 240, if you look carefully, the grille is really created by the hood, the fender coming around, and the chin.

The grille is really just that space in between those things and the lines.

So if you have a moment, please take a look at that [in this context]. This is the thing we really wanted: the reason it's rectangular is not because it's rectangular, but because it's the hood parting lines come down and straight to the ground, and then the horizontal bonnet [edge] crosses over and defines that space.

Within that space, we're pulling some of the capsule-type graphics from the tail lamp and bringing it inside that top half of the rectangular volume. The grille is much bigger than the 240 because, at the end of the day, the 2.4-litre straight six of the late '60s needed to breath a little bit less – so the grille, as a proportion, has changed.

What of the headlights? What inspired the shape we see here, when you might've otherwise found a way to more closely honour the 'sugar scoop' housing and classic round headlights of the 240Z?
On this, we did a lot of back-and-forth. We had a very modern sleek headlamp at one point but it didn't feel right, and then we had a pure round one and it didn't feel right, and ah… so then we received a car from the museum that was one of the special versions with the closed-off headlights with the cover.

It was a kind of 'Eureka' moment because when you walked around that car, when it has the clear lens, sometimes you only saw the top and bottom of the round lamp inside – and it was like, boom, that's it, so the LEDs represent the top and bottom of the ZG long-nose model's headlamps.

So, how close to the final car are we, with the Z Proto?
The selection of the name 'Proto' is… we didn't call it a concept car because this is a car we've been developing with our engineers. The chassis, the structure, all of these things, this is a real car – it's just not finished.
We often discuss this, it's… we pass the baton to our engineers, because they now own it and they're finishing it and fine-tuning, so what you see has basically gone through the process and it's something that we love, and we feel it's right, and now the engineers are going to do all the very small things.

Final question: Designing classic sports-car tributes with modern safety requirements in mind
Everything we do incorporates the basket of things we have to do for homologation reasons, but also for our own priorities. We have that already, it's a part of what we do every day in all of our projects – I can't say if it's tough or not tough, it's just… it's somehow easier than me waking up everyday in my 56-year-old bones, that's tough, but ah… we're very used to these things – and we care about it too.

We have a mix of people in the design process. We have the pure dreamers with the kind of butterflies fluttering around their face, and we tend to give them a little bit of distance, while those who are responsible for the technical aspects will observe the process, negotiating with the engineers – "my team is going like this, so can you move this here and that there" – and we try to make sure that freedom is there, to keep the designer, the author of the car, to give them space so they can at least get their ideas from their head and into the computer or clay.

You want your creators to know everything, but also you don't want to drown this little idea that can burn out at any moment. It's a tightrope.

You know, I believe a designer has to go into a meeting with that thing you love, but they also need to have a few ideas for almost every eventuality, that they love almost as much – because you have to accept that things 'drop', but they shouldn't drop the quality of the design.

In Japanese car companies… you know, from my 32 years, there is one thing I love so much, is that we have a term, 'Gemba', which means the working group. In Japan, it's a beautiful thing. The engineers come in and they're hashing things out until the last bus leaves the campus at 10 o'clock at night. They're negotiating and resolving together, and as a group they come up with solutions and they're taking care of it.
 
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