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A Truck Is Born : When Nissan Set Out to Build Its First Pickup Designed Solely for North America, It Came to Its Southern California Team

March 23, 1986|GARY WITZENBURG | Gary Witzenburg is a racing driver, former automotive engineer and contributing editor to Motor Trend magazine.

It was early 1982 when NDI kicked off its first major production design program: the all-new Nissan truck. Instead of a compromise design, there would be two different trucks. NDI's would be aimed more toward American tastes, uses and anatomies and marketed primarily in North America. Nissan's own, more conventional version would serve the Japanese market and most other areas of the world.

This was a daring decision on the part of Nissan's usually conservative management, but it made sense. While what we think of as small trucks have become, to large numbers of Americans, pleasure vehicles, almost macho "sports cars," they're strictly practical nearly everywhere else. "There's no such thing as 'truckin' in Japan," Hirshberg says. "Trucks there are farm tools, equipment haulers, commercial vehicles with names of businesses, ropes, hooks and wires all over them. So their market is utterly different from ours, and it was very important for them to honor that difference."

Also important is the difference in aesthetics. American tastes have been inching toward the cleaner, more understated European look, while the average Japanese driver still prefers a lot of "surface excitement"--bumps, scoops, swirls and other embellishments on the vehicle's body.

But isn't it doubly costly to design and tool two different bodies for the same basic vehicle? "It's really not all that expensive," Hirshberg says. "For one thing, half of our U.S.-market trucks are now being built in Tennessee. And with (increasing use of) robotics for body assembly, I think Nissan is trying to exploit the inherent flexibility of a fully computerized production line. As you know, there are a lot of things a truly international company has to be able to do, such as meeting emissions and safety regulations in different countries. So I don't think it's expensive relative to what they feel they can gain in acceptability around the world."

All designs start with preliminary sketches, and some were already on the walls of NDI's small rented building when the assignment became official in February, 1982. The studio of chief designer Tom Semple, another veteran of General Motors, had been entrusted with the job.

"The Japanese emphasized how very important this project was," Semple remembers. "Nissan started the small-truck market, and they wanted this to be the next generation, a vehicle that was all new from the ground up."

Nissan had indeed introduced the Japanese pickup to America, beginning in 1959, when they exported a total of 159. Today, nine major makers sell more than 1.2 million compact trucks a year to U.S. buyers; Nissan's share in 1985 was about 20%, or 240,000 vehicles, second only to Toyota among the Japanese makers.

The first step the NDI staff took was to study all of the other small trucks. And it turned out that they were very similar. "They all had skinny little vertical cab areas with minimum vision, a long, flat hood and cramped headroom," Hirshberg says. "A truck is a three-volume concept: hood, cab and bed. Truck buyers in America insist that it's a practical vehicle, but we all know that ain't necessarily so. People use them to do all sorts of impractical things. So we started with the cab and rethought it."

Out of this analysis grew the idea that the new truck would be designed from the inside out, putting as much emphasis on the needs and comfort of the driver as on load capacity and handling.

The design team built a mock-up of the passenger compartment to test the idea that by pushing the windshield forward and extending the cab rearward, the interior space could be enlarged without increasing overall size or reducing cargo capacity. They produced more than a dozen sketches of vehicles, took them to Japan and won approval to proceed with full-size renderings and clay models.

For better aerodynamics, they "sped up" the windshield (increased its angle), shortened and sloped the hood, raised the sides and rear of the bed and wrapped the upper doors into the roof and pillars. To improve visibility, they increased the glass area all around. To give a strong, broad-shouldered look, they gave the fenders subtle, neatly integrated flares (Semple calls them "triceps") front and rear. "We tried to preserve all the things that truckers want," he says, "yet make a very smooth new statement with it."

The design was completed in January, 1983, and shipped to Japan to be translated into the full-scale fiberglass model from which the body tooling would be derived.

Three years later, the production result still looks like a truck, but even the casual observer can see that it's different. The new proportions are obvious clues. Then you notice the sloping nose, swoopier windshield and larger doors and windows. Inside, unlike most small pickups, it has enough leg and headroom for the comfort of six-foot Americans.

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