Turning back the clock, automaker introduces 1930s-era Grand Prix retrorocket at Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
MONTEREY, CALIF.-A week or so ago, in a lush lawns and country club scene reminiscent of The Great Gatsby, in that many of the men wore blazers, white trousers and two-tone shoes and some of the ladies had on long gowns and large hats, Infiniti turned back the clock 80 years when it introduced to the world a 1930s-era Grand Prix racing car prototype that was never supposed to have been built.
Or, so the story goes.
The retrorocket Infiniti Prototype 9, which none other than famous “car guy” Jay Leno called the most interesting automobile on exhibit at this year’s annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance (Jerry Seinfeld, Gwyneth Paltrow, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dario Franchitti were also there), started as a flight of fancy and quickly became a labour of love.
An initial suggestion of “what if?” soon captured the imagination of just about the entire Infinity division of the Nissan Motor Co. From text message to pencil on paper to finished product, complete with an electric motor, took about a year.
But what is it, exactly?
By designing a racing car that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Grand Prix circuits of the world 80 years ago, did Infiniti set out to try to invent a legacy for itself?
Or did its marketing department figure out a way to capture the headlines at the world’s most famous Classic Car exhibition by putting on display a fictitious car that, if real, might — maybe — have been put away in a barn decades ago and forgotten about?
Or maybe it’s a little bit of all of the above?
Whatever, it’s complicated.
First, let me tell you about the car, which is stunning. As you read these words, think of the famous Mercedes or Auto Union “Silver Arrows” racing cars of the ’30s, the ones that Bernd Rosemeyer would have raced, or the 1950s roadsters that guys like Jimmy Bryan or Bob Sweikert drove at Indianapolis.
The single-seat race car is 4,330 millimetres (170.5 inches) long, 1,820 mm wide (71.7 inches), 910 mm high (35.8 inches) and has a ground clearance of 65 mm (2.5 inches). It’s got handmade steel body panels covering a steel ladder frame, wire-spoke wheels and weighs 890 kilograms, or 1,962 pounds.
It’s powered by a Lithium-ion battery with an electric motor in the front of the car that has 120 kW (148 horsepower) and 236 pound-feet of torque. It has a single-speed transmission and rear-wheel drive and can reach 100 km/h from a standing start in 5.5 seconds and go all the way up to 170 km/h (105 miles an hour), although the battery only lasts about 20 minutes at that speed.
Why a racing car?
For that, I was most fortunate to talk to — not once, but twice — Alfonso Albaisa, a stick-thin Cuban-American who is head of global design for Infiniti. “The story is all very complicated, but also simple and beautiful in the end,” he told me.
“One day, nine months or a year ago, I got a text message. Allyson Witherspoon was the head of communications and they were brainstorming with marketing. They were looking for something unique to publicize and they asked if I would consider imagining a ‘barn find’ (in which old cars are sometimes put away and forgotten about)? What if we found an old Infiniti in an old barn on an old Japanese farm? So, I dashed off some sketches.”
Albaisa was worried, though. He fretted about inadvertently copying another company’s car — “I didn’t want to do an Auburn” — but a light went on when someone started talking about Grand Prix automobile racing. What if Infiniti had built a car back in those days? What would it look like?
“Boom! That was it! We got it,” Albaisa said with a passion that frequently would see him switch back and forth between the past tense and the present. “That was something we really didn’t do. I thought this would be the perfect angle for us on this kind of project which, at this point, is just drawings. So, we kept drawing, we kept imagining, because we wanted whatever we had to be realistic.”
To be completely realistic, of course, meant there had to be competition, so Albaisa and — by this time — others settled on the Mercedes-Benz W154 that ran in the 1938 and 1939 Grand Prix seasons.
“We’re ‘engineers,’ and we see a Mercedes 154 for the first time at the Grand Prix,” he said, “and it changes our lives because there were no monsters like that in Japan at the time.”
By this time, Albaisa — the son of an architect who fled Castro’s Cuba shortly after the Bay of Pigs failure — was talking to others in his 800-strong design department.
“The story to my guys is to make a car as if you were an engineer and your goal is to attack the 154. Racing cars in the ’30s and ’40s were kind of primitive. In the ’50s, they started changing a bit; they started to get better racing cars. But we wanted that primitive angle.”
It’s at this point that I just turned on the recorder and let Albaisa talk. Nothing can screw up a good narrative than some writer — me, at times — “interpreting” things and getting in the way.
“So, we start falling in love with the sketches, because one of the sketches from one of my young Japanese guys looked part airplane, part car. It was unusual because, in those days, the cars were upright, the driver was upright, and the hood was high. It was like the airplanes of that era — 12 cylinders, long hoods. I thought, ‘This is really getting somewhere.’
“I said, ‘Let’s make a little model — but don’t tell anyone.’ I didn’t tell my boss. We make a model. One day, an advanced engineer comes in and sees the model, and I tell him the story, and he says, ‘We’re in.’ Then he called his buddy in the factory, and the factory said, ‘We’re in.’
“So, now, no one is supposed to know. But everybody knows. The biggest and oldest factory Nissan has, in Yokohama, is making a prototype car by hand. Advanced engineering is taking their advanced electric motor for the next Leaf, not the current one, and modifying it for more speed. And they’re converting Q70 Infiniti hybrid battery packs, which are a little bit quicker, and they’re doing all this under the radar.
“So, now I’ve got a project, but I don’t know when I escalate. It was going to be a drawing, and now there’s guys hammering in the factory. We’re a company that makes six million cars a year. They’re busy and they’re building this one car.
“The president doesn’t know. In our organization, we have a Chief Planning Officer and I know he’s going to be the guy. He’s a sincere man and an approachable man. But he has his share of cynicism. A planning officer probably gets told more lies in a day than anyone else on the face of the Earth. Everybody has a proposal for a new car that makes all the money in the world and is easy to make and has the customer nailed and is the next big thing, and most of them aren’t like that.
“So, I sent him a power point and he responded in three minutes, and I was scared because the only time you get a reply that fast is when you’re in trouble, and he says, ‘Alfonso, this is Japanese DNA. I’m going to the factory. Let’s go.’ He’s the busiest guy in the world and he wants to go. When he says Japanese DNA, this is what he means: Japanese is a spirit more than a physical thing — it’s dedication and discipline.
“And he immediately saw the panels and the jigs and all the things that they were using to make this unnecessary thing. He saw it in the raw metal: the tail was done and there were three failed hoods.
“We have an electric motor in it, because in 1947, we had an electric car, so it’s in our DNA to be the first. Plus, we are about to jump big-time in EVs; EVs are going to be a big deal for us.
“It’s the future — not just EVs but intelligent mobility. Our Italian director of marketing is our EV guru. He has many plans. Once he found out it was an EV, he said: ‘It’s a little unusual what you’re doing, but if you had asked me, I would have said, ‘Yes, I’m in.’ ”
This, to date, has been the highlight of Albaisa’s career, which started — really — when he was a child.
“In 1968, my father started his own firm. I loved my father, and I wanted to be an architect, like him, and I also wanted to be a boat designer. It was early Miami, and my father had a model of the city in the lobby of his building with the expressways and the roads and all the buildings that existed and there were these little cars. I used to play with the cars and I made little boats out of wood, little trailers, and I’d put them behind the cars, and my dad would say, ‘Would you please stop.’ ”
And then, one day, this kid heard a sound, the sound of an engine, and it changed his life.
“It was an E-Type Jag. A convertible. A black one. Miami in 1970, it’s not like it is today; you didn’t see these kinds of cars. I had never seen this kind, and I was 6 or 7 or 8, and I saw this car, and I stopped making boats and started drawing beautiful E-type Jaguars.
“To see a car for the first time, it’s magical. A beautiful car that you see for the first time, it moves you. The curiosity is consuming. So, for me, seeing that Jag, that was it.”
Although he wanted to follow the father (he has a brother who did; he designed his first building when he was 13), it was his mother who sensed his love of cars and art that led to a career in design. She was the parent who pushed him to follow his dreams, first to New York, then to Detroit and back to New York again.
He was studying at the Pratt Institute when fate — in the form of Nissan — came calling.
“The school said, ‘Hey, Alfonso, talk to these people about art and our program and you’re an industrial designer but in fine art.’ I get a call two weeks later, and they said, ‘Come to California; we want you in our studio.’ And I said, ‘I didn’t know I was interviewing,’ and he says, ‘You weren’t actually, but maybe that was good because we like you, and you’re not a car guy but you are, somehow.’ And so I started 30 years ago, and it was supposed to be temporary but I never left.
“Now I’m head of design worldwide, so its bizarre. Bizarre.”
I asked him if there were any rules when it came to designing automobiles.
“There is only one rule,” he said. “The rule for design is if you don’t try it, it will never happen. This project is a reminder of this. There would have been a million reasons to stop and it would have been correct and nobody would have blamed anyone. Some people actually said that.
“But you need to find a way. The journey to find beauty rewards the struggle to get there, tenfold.”
One more thing. Did someone ever tell the president what was going on?
‘He knew,” Albaisa said. “We had a conversation a few months ago, and he told me then that he knew. Presidents of companies say they don’t know, but they always know, don’t they?”