As a general rule, when a concept car sees the light of day, its manufacturer has produced it for a clear reason. It could serve as a design study, to introduce and promote new technologies and/or a new design approach, or to present a nearly complete version of a model destined for production in the near-future.
That a company would build a concept car from scratch for none of these or any other discernable reasons is virtually unheard of. And yet, this is exactly what INFINITI has just done with what it calls the Prototype 9. Why? Well, the why – and the how - is a story as fascinating as it is far-fetched.
Roughly a year ago, Alfonso Albaisa (freshly installed as Senior Vice President for Global Design at Nissan) received an unusual request from the company’s Japanese communications and marketing department: could he sketch out a vision of what an old, long-lost car found in the back of a barn – a “barn find”, as he himself puts it – might look like.
The designer was, he admits, game but somewhat perplexed. “I didn’t want to simply reproduce a model that looked like all those that were produced in the 1930s,” he explains. "At the same time, I learned that a Grand Prix-type race had been held for the first time in Japan in 1936. And that was the inspiration I took.”
The team working under Albaisa set about imagining what might have resulted if the company’s designers, at that point in time involved in the manufacture of airplanes, had decided to design a race car able to take on the fastest cars of that era, like the celebrated Mercedes-Benz W154.
Work began under a thick shroud of secrecy, and in any case all those involved, as Albaisa reminds us, assumed it would never move from paper to reality.
The passion of the Japanese
One fine day, an engineer sitting high up the hierarchical ladder visited the design studio and noticed the sketch as imagined by Albaisa. Filled in on the details of the story behind it, he was enthralled, and manifested his desire to go ahead and build the thing. A call was placed to the company’s plant in Yokohama, Japan to make sure it was ready to proceed with this crazy labour of love.
At that moment, the upper brain trust at Nissan still had no idea of the project’s existence. Work continued discretely, no one involved being paid the slightest penny for doing so. Albaisa explains that this is a typically Japanese trait, part and parcel of working for a company fueled by a strong form of pride that is indescribable.
Nissan’s oldest and largest plant then became the setting for the construction of a concept the company’s upper management team had not requested, and one that had been intended to stay on paper and on paper only. The vehicle, inspired by 1930s-era racing cars, quickly began to take shape. The NISMO division also became involved in the project and added its two cents worth to the conception of the chassis. The engineers decided to use the organs of the next-generation Nissan LEAF for the vehicle’s insides.
“It was totally crazy,” adds Albaisa. “The project started to move forward at an insane pace. It was never meant to be more than a design sketch, but all of a sudden, employees were developing a body at the factory by hand.”
Albaisa understood that he had to bring upper management in on the secret project. He decided to send an email to Chief Planning Officer Philippe Klein. “I wasn’t sure how to announce it to him,” he admits. “Generally, the planning heads receive ideas that will allow the company to produce a vehicle with the potential to generate profits. This wasn’t one of those cases.”
So Albaisa put together a PowerPoint presentation and sent it to Klein. “Usually, when you get a quick answer from someone in upper management, it means the news is bad. I told myself “well, that’s it, I’ve just lost my job.””
Lo and behold, and luckily for him, Klein was seduced by the idea. “When he learned that employees in Japan had decided to give of their own time to develop this car that had no practical use, he went over to meet them in person. That’s when I knew the project would be completed,” he says.
Nine months later, the model was complete.
In Pebble Beach, where we were invited by INFINITI to participate in Monterey Car Week, a long-standing celebration of classic cars, we had the opportunity to see the Prototype 9 up close and learn the details of its incredible creation story.
The tale is a refreshing one, especially since genuine concept cars have become a rare species in today’s automotive landscape. And while there’s little-to-zero chance of the Prototype 9 making it to Nissan dealerships, we’ll be keeping an eye out for any of its elements that might make it into INFINITI’s production models one day…