When Gerald Hirshberg picked up his phone at the General Motors Design Center late one morning in 1979, he had no idea it was his future calling.
"How would you like to help establish an international design facility, build a building anywhere you want in the country, and do design for a world-class company?" a voice asked.
Hirshberg thought one of his colleagues was putting him on. "Come on," he said. "What are you doing to me?"
"Pardon me?" said the voice.
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Hirshberg. "Is this for real?"
Just 39, Hirshberg was Buick chief designer at GM Design in Warren, Mich. And what the caller described, he recalls with a grin, "sounded so outrageously ideal that I thought somebody had to be pulling my leg. I said I'd have to be crazy not to listen, but it's going to take some convincing before I'll believe it."
The call was from a major executive search firm. The client was Nissan, Japan's second-largest auto maker. It was definitely for real.
It seemed that Nissan's president at the time, Takashi Ishihara, had decided to establish a second design center far removed from the company's main facility in Japan. A truly international center that could better address the tastes and needs of potential buyers from very different cultures--especially Western ones. And its initial production project would eventually result in an industry first: a Japanese truck designed in America, specifically for Americans.
"Way back in the mid- to late-'70s," Hirshberg explains, "Mr. Ishihara had recognized the true international nature of his business, that Nissan was selling more than 50% of its products in markets that were distanced both geographically and culturally. He also recognized that design is really a language and that he was speaking a foreign visual tongue to more than half of his customers."
In other words, he had looked into the future and realized the growing importance of designing cars that would have wider acceptance in other countries and cultures. Obviously, drivers in different areas of the world have different tastes and use their vehicles differently.
That is why--at least until recently--Italian cars have had sensuous lines and pedals that are too close to the driver and steering wheels too far away for most Americans. Why French cars have had soft suspensions and shapes like pastries. Why German cars have been stiff in ride, understated in style and solidly stable at 100-m.p.h.-plus Autobahn speeds. Why American cars have been large, soft and slow-revving, with interiors like paneled dens. Why Japanese cars have been cramped inside and overdecorated on the outside, like miniature shogun castles. Starting with the Japanese, however, most non-U.S. makers have seen that exporting their products to other major markets--especially ours--is crucial for future prosperity, even survival. But exporting in large numbers requires design that is universally appealing.
Meanwhile, the art of automobile "design," once thought of as virtually synonymous with styling, has evolved into much more than determining the way a vehicle looks. It encompasses such other crucial considerations as aerodynamics--the way it cuts through the air, which affects performance, fuel economy, stability, interior noise; ergonomics--the size, shape, labeling, location, even the feel of key controls, switches and instruments, the relationship of seat to steering wheel and pedals, the interior's overall "friendliness" to its occupants; and packaging--the complicated business of making sure the power train, suspension, fuel system and all other parts and pieces fit within the available space, interact properly and are removable for service.
The trick is to come up with designs that strike the right balance, the proper compromise. Creating a new vehicle takes three to seven years from drawing board to production line and consumes hundreds of millions of dollars. To a large company, a major mistake can be disastrous in terms of money, market share and reputation lost. To a smaller one, it can be fatal.
Ishihara had seen his archrival, No. 1 Japanese auto maker Toyota, establish a design center called Calty Research Design Inc. in Southern California in 1973. He had watched as the first car to be designed by Calty, the 1978 Toyota Celica, had been introduced. And he had taken note that, while it had been widely praised for its styling and was selling very well in the states, it had not been well received in Japan. Perhaps he was already forming the germ of an idea that would prove to be a bold innovation: marketing two different bodies for the same vehicle--one designed by and for North America, the other for his country and the rest of the world. In any case, that is what would occur when Nissan unveiled its 1986 1/2 "Hardbody" trucks.