In Memoriam: Jerry Hirshberg, Who Established Nissan’s First Design Studio Outside Japan

A true renaissance man known to enthusiasts for the Nissan Hardbody, ’71 Buick Riviera.

One of Jerry Hirshberg's many awards came from the San Diego Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America in 1985. It was the Diogenes Award, handed to the man who established Nissan Design International in La Jolla, California. Hirshberg also was chairman of the art committee for the San Diego Unified Port District, a panel at the time of mostly retired U.S. Navy admirals who controlled the insanely valuable public waterfront land in San Diego County.

Hirshberg's committee had recommended designs for a sculpture to be installed in Embarcadero Park by the minimalist Ellsworth Kelly, which didn't go over well with the retired admirals, who would have preferred a traditional statue or a sculpture of a warplane or ship.

The PR Society gave Hirshberg its award for the way he handled pressure "from those who found the sculpture offensive and those who simply wanted a San Diego artist chosen for the job," according to a contemporary article in the Los Angeles Times.

A dozen years after his Diogenes Award, I was on the staff of AutoWeek when publisher Leon Mandel asked Hirshberg about the Infiniti J30 (above), a Jaguaresque sedan that had been on the market for a couple of years. "Who did you design this car for?" Mandel asked.

"We designed it for assholes," Hirshberg replied.

My colleague at AutoWeek, John Cortez, ran the anecdote on the magazine's back page, and if Hirshberg got a bit of flack from his superiors at Nissan over it, he didn't take it out on Leon or John, or the magazine. Diogenes had found not only an honest but also a straight-talking man.

I caught up with Hirshberg another year or two later, at the 1999 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where he presented the Nissan Z concept (pictured below) that became the 350Z a few years later. We had met the first time in the late '80s at a Port District meeting—I had moved to the West Coast in 1987 to join the staff of the San Diego Business Journal. Hirshberg continued to be exasperated working to find the rare artist who could please the retired admirals and still appeal to his own aesthetic sensibilities. I don't remember exactly what happened with that, but if memory serves, Hirshberg eventually resigned from the committee before any artwork was chosen.

After my Business Journal profile of Hirshberg, which centered on the Port District sculpture controversy, I wrangled my way into NDI in La Jolla to write a couple more stories, including one in which his staff reacted to a television commercial campaign that used actors portraying them in the grips of creative discourse. (TV critics had found improbable the notion of Americans drawing up designs for Japanese cars and trucks.)

Hirshberg retired in 2000, about the time I took a staff job at MotorTrend. We had met a few times the three years prior at auto shows, where he would unveil various Nissans and Infinitis at press conferences. And each meeting, though short, was warm and cordial, as if we were old friends. It was easy to think of Hirshberg that way from my features and interviews in San Diego a decade earlier.

Hirshberg deserved the often overused description of "renaissance man." According to the L.A. Times obituary, the University Heights, Ohio, native was a musical prodigy who studied composition and conducting at the Cleveland Institute of Music at age six. Later, he asked an uncle who had designed a Philco radio in the family home. "An industrial designer," the uncle responded, and the answer inspired Hirshberg to meld art and industry for his career path, the Times reports. But not before he led a rock 'n' roll band called Jerry Paul and the Plebes, which opened for such music artists as Fabian and Frankie Avalon.

He spoke to me about his passion for painting and music for the Business Journal profile and, despite my own personal interests, that feature reported very little about his career as a car designer. Playing music at home was his after-hours way to unwind from the stresses of running Nissan Design International and the Port District's art committee.

It seems almost superfluous to mention his auto-design credits, but here are a few: Hirshberg joined General Motors in 1964, working for John DeLorean, and is best known for the "boattail" 1971 Buick Riviera. He joined Nissan in 1979 and opened NDI and its La Jolla campus in 1980, where he led design of the Nissan D21 "Hardbody" pickup truck and the Pathfinder based on that model. Hirshberg also led design of the second-generation Nissan Pulsar NX coupe/targa/hatchback, the aforementioned Z concept, the Sport Utility Truck concept, and the 1999 New Concept Sedan, a tall four-door with crossover-like step-in height.

Hirshberg and his team also designed the Gobi concept, a small pickup truck with a cab shaped like a classic Huey helicopter bubble-shaped cockpit. He called me up about a "planned leak" of the concept in Balboa Park, and I wrote a short, below-the-fold front-page feature on it for the Business Journal. Years later, at one of the auto shows, he lamented that the Nissan Gobi was the one that got away—the automaker never produced it, even in the Figaro/S-Cargo era.

After he retired from Nissan in 2000, Hirshberg continued to paint and play music from his home in Del Mar, California, and his artwork was exhibited in 2001 at the San Diego Museum of Art and in 2009 at the Danese/Corey Gallery in New York City. I'd bet he was as proud of those exhibits as any of his car designs, if not more so. Hirshberg died November 14 about a year after he was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. He is survived by his wife of 54 years, Linda, two children, a brother, and two grandchildren. He was 80.

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