INFINITI has unveiled a sleek, open-wheeled electric retro-roadster prototype at the 2017 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
The car, called Prototype 9, is a celebration of Nissan and INFINITI’s ingenuity, artistry and craftsmanship. It represents a reimagining of a 1940s race car with time-honoured production techniques employed to realise its retro design.
“Prototype 9 celebrates the tradition of ingenuity, craftsmanship and passion of our forebears at Nissan, on whose shoulders we stand today. It started as a discussion – what if INFINITI had created a race car in the 1940s? If one were to imagine an open-wheeled INFINITI racer on the famous circuits of the era, such as Japan’s Tamagawa Speedway, what would that look like? The sketches were stunning and the idea so compelling that we had to produce a prototype. As other departments became aware of this, they volunteered their time to create a working vehicle.”
Alfonso Albaisa, Senior Vice President, Global Design
Prototype 9 is emblematic of INFINITI’s entrepreneurial spirit and passion for stunning design. From humble beginnings as a sketch, to the dynamic example presented at Pebble Beach, Prototype 9 has been brought to life as an after-hours endeavour by a passionate and enterprising team of employees from across the Nissan Motor Corporation.
The car is powered by a prototype electric motor and battery from Nissan’s Advanced Powertrain Department. This nod to the future contrasts with the traditional materials and techniques applied for the Prototype 9’s manufacture, including panels hand-beaten by a team of Takumi – Nissan Motor Corporation’s master craftspeople.
Prototype 9 was inspired by an emerging era of Japanese motorsport. The custom-built Prince R380, which also makes its public debut at the 2017 Concours d’Elegance, broke several land speed records in 1965 before taking overall victory at the 1966 Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway. Prince Motor Company is considered to be Japan’s original builder of premium automobiles, and its legacy can be traced to INFINITI Motor Company and its current model line. The R380 in Pebble Beach is the actual Japanese Grand Prix-winning car, believed to be the only surviving R380.
Where existing and future INFINITI models adhere to the company’s ‘Q’ and ‘QX’ nomenclature, Prototype 9 represents something different. Echoing the company’s origins, the figure ‘9’ is pronounced ‘kyuu’ in Japanese – similar to the anglicized pronunciation of the letter ‘Q’, which is used for all of the company’s production cars.
Prototype 9: designers imagine, ‘what if…?’
The starting point for bringing Prototype 9 to life was a conceptual sketch: an interpretation of an INFINITI race car, inspired by roadsters and aircraft of the era yet moulded in new materials and advanced technology. From this moment Prototype 9’s transformation from sketch to reality was inevitable.
Albaisa created a sketch of the vehicle, with sleek lines, and aeronautically-inspired bodywork crafted in bare sheet metal. Initially shared only with close colleagues, the idea soon spread among INFINITI’s design team members – with a number enthusiastically calling for the vehicle to be brought to life. The sketch triggered a domino effect – each person who saw it felt it deserved more attention, and soon there was a burgeoning desire within INFINITI to take it beyond the drawing board.
More designers at the INFINITI Design Studio in Atsugi, Japan, began making their own detail contributions – the shape, design and materials that could feature in the cockpit, for example. Chasing a passion for beautiful vehicle design, the team moved to bring the sketch into the physical world.
The vehicle was transformed from a daring idea into scale design studies in clay. Full-size models were soon formed. Although still a secretive ‘passion project’ at this point, word seeped into other parts of INFINITI Motor Company and throughout its parent company, the Nissan Motor Corporation. People noticed something a little different was taking shape at the design centre.
When INFINITI’s production team became aware of Prototype 9, they immediately offered to build it. The model was secretly moved from the INFINITI Design Studio in Atsugi to a secluded section of the Nissan Research Centre, Oppama, just outside Yokohama, Japan. Here, the car could be quietly constructed. A team of Takumi – Nissan Motor Corporation’s master craftspeople – was gathered to create the motorsport- and aeronautically-inspired racer.
Finished in a bare sheet-metal skin, Prototype 9 is the result of countless hours of careful construction. The designs of the brand’s contemporary road cars are characterised by deep-stamping production methods, which enable the creation of sharply defined lines and smooth body surfaces. Far from production lines, this out-of-hours project required similarly technical yet more traditional crafting methods.
The vehicle’s stunning bodywork is made from steel body panels wrapped around a steel ladder frame. The panels were hammered into shape by the Takumi. For Prototype 9, panel beaters incorporated INFINITI’s signature design elements, such as the double-arch grille, ‘shark gills’ aft of the front wheels, a single-crease hood, and sharp lines that stretch from front to rear.
In every other respect, the car is unashamedly inspired by retro aeronautical designs. Prototype 9 is defined by its smooth, aerodynamic surfaces, long bonnet and short overhangs, an exposed cockpit, and open-wheeled layout. 19-inch centre-locking wire-spoke wheels at each corner are even wrapped in period cross-ply competition tyres.
As uniquely Japanese in design and craftsmanship as the bodywork, the cockpit adheres to INFINITI’s contemporary approach to interior design. Articulating the same sense of advanced human artistry of INFINITI’s production cars and near-production concepts, Prototype 9’s cabin has been handmade by the company’s interior design teams.
The intimate and focused cockpit is the result of two Japanese approaches to craftsmanship – ‘mitate’ (pronounced “mee-ta-teh”) and ‘shitate’ (“shee-ta-teh”). ‘Mitate’ relates to the practice of curating and bringing together the best possible selection of materials. ‘Shitate’ is the desire to tailor the chosen combination of materials, bringing out their best characteristics.
With this fine attention to detail and finish, the cockpit is wrapped in black leather with contrast red stitching, sewn and finished in such a way as to echo earlier single-seater racers. Subtle Japanese flags are stitched into the integrated headrests of the deep single bucket seat.
In a cabin that features no distractions from the road ahead, the steering wheel rotates around a fixed central hub, housing the driver’s instrument gauges. The hub itself finished in turned aluminium, an effect found on aircraft throughout the first half of the 20th century. Like the machines that inspired its design, the effect has been completed by hand, ‘turning’ aluminium shavings into the fascia with the end of a cork. Inspired by the project, this was a finish that the interiors team had not previously had the opportunity to explore.
With a single-minded focus on driving, the cabin features minimal switchgear, with those that remain modelled on cockpit switches.
Prototype electric motor from Nissan’s Advanced Powertrain Department
As word of the project reached across Nissan Motor Corporation, a team of powertrain engineers brought their own proposal: to equip the car with a next-generation EV powertrain. The Prototype 9 is the first INFINITI to be powered by a new EV powertrain – a 30 kWh high-voltage battery paired with a prototype electric motor, one not yet seen on a production vehicle.
The motor produces 120 kW (148 hp) and 320 Nm (236 lb ft) of torque and driving the rear wheels, via single-speed transmission. Prototype 9 has a top speed of 170 kph (105.6 mph), and sprints from 0-to-100 kph (0-to-62 mph) in 5.5 seconds, with a maximum EV range of 20 minutes under heavy track use.