Ethos

Catching Up With: Alfonso Albaisa, Head of Nissan/Infiniti design

Imaginary Barn Finder

Alfonso Albaisa, head of Nissan/Infiniti design since spring 2017, has had a surprisingly simple and straightforward career in car design. Nissan was his first automotive employer 35 years ago, and he has been with the firm since. He’s been there through the ups and downs, including a dark period when catastrophically bad management drove it into the purchase/merger fusion with Renault that resulted in the Alliance. Carlos Ghosn, who masterminded Nissan’s revival, says it’s the only “merger of equals” that has actually worked.

Albaisa had run Nissan design outposts in La Jolla, California, and London, England, before moving to headquarters in Japan fairly recently. His succession to Shiro Nakamura, which was carefully orchestrated behind the scenes by Nakamura and Ghosn, came as a bit of a surprise to him. A lot of things in his life have been a surprise to Florida-born Albaisa, 52, whose parents fled Castro’s Cuba early in his regime. “It’s hard for me to realize that a poor Cuban kid could come so far,” he told us at Pebble Beach last summer.

Especially, one might think, for a boy whose youthful behavior might be considered a bit eccentric. “I dressed only in Napoleonic-era costumes when I was a boy,” he says. “Until I was 19, my mother made all my clothes. Then I was impressed by my brother’s grunge style, so I changed to be like him.” Eccentricities aside, Albaisa was always serious about his education and adding to his knowledge. One of his instructors at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, which he attended—he graduated from Pratt Institute in New York—eventually talked him into a more conventional presentation, which seems to have stuck. But he has managed to keep the cheerful, fun-loving attitude that has been his hallmark.

The underlying idea for the Prototype 9, the first Infiniti concept car to appear during his period in charge, is that—in the alternate universe supposed for the purpose—there were some really advanced Japanese aircraft designers who made a race car and mothballed it somewhere safe during the war years. Then, as a “barn find,” it could be refurbished and presented at Pebble Beach. How it managed to have acquired a grille shape that hadn’t existed in 1933 for a nameplate that came to market in 1989 with no grille at all is an open question. Albaisa says it made good sense to use the shape that has evolved from a quarter century of production. It certainly doesn’t look anachronistic or out of place on the Prototype 9. He also notes that there was a serious racing history at Prince Motor Company, acquired by Nissan long ago. We talked with Albaisa recently about how the concept came about, especially the most striking aspect of the design: a huge rise in the middle of the hood’s length. “It was inspired by the way the Howard Hughes’ H-1 world air-speed-record airplane looked when it was sitting on the ground, the rounded cowling standing up and everything falling away behind it,” he said.

That silvery record-holder was a huge achievement in the ’30s, exactly the period of the Infiniti 9. Albaisa said: “I wanted the shapes to look like lofted curves, between parabolic curves and some with more tension … between a tango and a Mexican wrestling match.”

Automobile Magazine: Where was the concept car made?

Alfonso Albaisa: It was actually made at our Oppama factory, the oldest one in the company. Once we got started on the project, the engineers got into it and wanted to make the “fake brake” you liked. Then the factory workers wanted in on the project. They learned to work the sheet steel by hand.

AM: The car is made of steel, not aluminum?

AA: Yes, we borrowed a bit of the steel used to stamp production parts right there in the factory. But we promised to give it back.

AM: So all of this was done by people who ordinarily don’t make prototypes?

AA: Yes, the whole thing was like a drink of water for the team. For the designers, it was a way to take us out of decoration. … The whole project, carried out in very little time, was a labor of love, done with a tongue-in-cheek attitude.”

AM: But with absolute seriousness, we’d say.

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