How the Supra Chief Designer Shaped Toyota’s New Sports Car

An inside look at the process, working with BMW, what’s up with the closed-off vents, and more.

Toyota project chief designer Nobuo Nakamura was at the 2014 Detroit auto show when the Toyota FT-1 concept was unveiled to the world. Though it was designed by Toyota’s U.S.-based Calty design team in California, Nakamura saw firsthand how the concept wowed the crowd, and felt how important a car like this could be for Toyota. At the time, he and his team in Japan had already been working with BMW on creating what was simply called “sports-car project,” but in the FT-1 Nakamura and his team found their ultimate inspiration what would become the 2020 Toyota Supra. Nakamura was incredibly proud to be on the Supra team, and after more than five years of work, felt a great sense of pride to be able to return to Detroit five years later to show it off. We spoke with Nakamura at the 2019 Detroit show, and the interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

Automobile Magazine: Take us through the process of how your involvement with the Supra project began and how it unfolded.

Nobua Nakamura: Sure, I joined this project in June or July of 2013, when I was assigned as the chief designer, and I started the design development. At that moment, it was kind of a sports-car project but not the Supra. After that, I heard we will develop a sports car with BMW, and at that moment the FT-1 was in process but it’s not directly connected to our project. The FT-1 project is almost finished and they were making the concept car.

AM: So your project started before the FT-1 was done?

NN: Yeah, so I remember they showed the FT-1 concept in 2014 [at the Detroit auto show]. It got a big reaction, especially from Supra fans. But at that moment, that project’s proportions, dimensions, and package is not fixed and not clear. I did not decide we will use the FT-1 or that kind of direction or not. We tried to find another direction first, and we made many sketches and also some study models, and finally, we chose a direction based on the spirit of FT-1, but as you know, dimension-wise, the FT-1 and this vehicle are so different.

AM: How different is it?

NN: I’m not sure the specific number, but maybe four or five inches shorter. It’s a big difference. And, as I mentioned, I didn’t decide the direction but I knew the Supra fans loved the FT-1 concept, but the actual dimension is really smaller than the FT-1, so it’s difficult to make FT-1 concept with that package. It’s impossible, I thought.

AM: Right, because I would imagine at that point you probably already knew what you were working with in terms of hard points on the joint-development project.

NN: Yeah. But I wanted to keep that FT-1 spirit, the feeling and the impact, so I made the theme of design concept what we called “condensed extreme.” I wanted to keep the extreme feeling of FT-1. So we shaved the material or volume as much as possible. After that, we can make space for the shape, I thought. That’s why, at the very beginning I made a condensed extreme concept for this project. Taking those elements of the FT-1 and then putting it in within those limits, these constraining limits, while keeping the flares and the raw impact.

AM: There’s been a lot of talk about how you employed elements of previous Supra and the 2000 GT in the design. Can you tell me what those are?

NN: For example, the front and side window graphics are intended to remind you of the 2000 GT. And the roof, we have the double-bubble type of shape. The 2000 GT had that kind of shape. We also tried to make the lights positioned inward as much as possible from the front or rear view, and show the fender volume from the front or rear. That’s 2000 GT or the A80 Supra. The previous Supra also used the same kind of techniques for its styling. If this was a bigger car with a bigger cabin and proportions, and we put the headlamps inside, it’s a kind of funny face. But this time, the cabin is very tight so we can express some condensed feeling, so it’s a kind of heritage of 2000 GT or previous Supra.

AM: The FT-1 and the MkIV Supra have bigger, wing-type rear spoilers, what was the decision to not do that and go with the integrated spoiler instead?

NN: In this project, we had a process we called proportion study when we made some models for deciding the basic packaging or dimensions. At that moment, we experimented with some rear spoiler shapes, basically not for aerodynamics but design. We made one model and had a test of aerodynamics. At that moment, we found that rear spoiler position we have now has good lift properties.

AM: So, you found the integrated spoiler was better than a wing?

NN: Yeah, yeah. So that point was best position for the spoiler. We knew that, so we keep that position from the start to end. So for this product, as a production model, we don’t need a big spoiler, so we decided not to use a big spoiler for the launch model.

AM: Where does the front license plate go?

NN: Under the nose for the North American car.

AM: And that won’t have any impact on airflow?

NN: No, that was included in the calculation.

AM: What happened to the outside mirrors of the FT-1? They looked really great.

NN: Yeah, I liked those. It was difficult for some technical [reason] or some regulation. It was impossible.

AM: Can you explain your thought process around the nonfunctional grille areas and add-on door-seal panel? Were those strictly for design or is it something that you thought maybe could be used later?

NN: On the technical side, we did some tests with them open and without. Many things. But for the production model, it turned out that closed is better, but it’s been incorporated in so that later on, let’s say if you wanted to add cooling ducts or for racing purposes, that option is available and it’s already incorporated into the design.

AM: What is an element or two of the car that you’re most proud of, that made you say, “Wow, I’m so glad we were able to do this”?

NN: From the designer point of view, of course the outside and interior, the whole thing—so I want to say everything. But the one specific area is the rear fender area. I tried to make, of course, a new modern sports-car feeling but also a kind of romantic feeling of old sports cars. And I knew that shape is not easy to produce. Manufacturing-wise, it’s difficult. A very deep press. So, of course, it takes a long time to find the nice shape in that area and also on the engineering side, they love that shape, but they also need to make it for production. And finally, we could achieve that shape, so I like that area.

AM: How much were you able to influence the interior design? Because there’s obviously some joint-venture stuff with BMW in there—how hard was that to put your stamp on it?

NN: Actually, we share only the small switches. So the layout or finished shapes, I didn’t get any limitation from the BMW side, so we were very free to make our style.

AM: How was it working with BMW? How much interaction did you personally have with them?

NN: Deciding the basic package and dimensions for the exterior and the interior, I discussed with BMW’s chief designer the proportions, dimensions, hard points. But after that, I didn’t see their model at all. And they also didn’t see our model.

AM: I know this car is very close to chairman Akio Toyoda’s heart. How often did you interface with him while the project was going on? Did he have anything to say to you?

NN: We showed our models and talked with Mr. Akio Toyoda several times to decide the direction. After that, at some important times, I showed the model to Mr. Akio. But he loved our models for this project from the starting point. He said, “All the models look nice, and especially I like this one.” That kind of conversation. And when I showed the starting model for the final design, he said, “I like this one.” I was very happy.

AM: Do you think you’re going to do some more expressive interiors with different color schemes, etc.? Is that coming?

NN: Actually, that’s kind of market-side strategy that depends on the market. But you should look at the red interior when you get a chance. It’s very nice.

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