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Dear 001,

Here's an article I found...can't remember where, about Nissan's retiring design chief.

Retiring Nissan Design Chief Talks About a New Kind of Romance

In the mid-1990s, Nissan Motor Co. was mismanaged, fielding a lackluster lineup of cars and close to bankruptcy. Today, the company is the fastest-growing major brand in the U.S. auto market, and Nissan is expected to post a record profit in fiscal 2004 of $4.8 billion.

Credit for Nissan's turnaround usually goes to the 1998 appointment of Carlos Ghosn as its chief executive. Ghosn preached that the car business was product-driven and depended on well-designed cars and trucks. In the U.S., Nissan's secret weapon has been its design center, an office tucked away behind a screen of eucalyptus trees in La Jolla.

Thomas Semple, 59, is the president of Nissan's U.S. design center, with 65 employees in La Jolla, plus 35 in a satellite office near Detroit. He most recently oversaw the creative work on Nissan's 350Z roadster, the full-size Titan pickup, the redesigned Quest minivan and the Armada SUV, all of which have helped jump-start the company's comeback.

Semple is retiring Thursday after 24 years at Nissan. He recently discussed his career and the state of automotive design.

Question: You started your career at General Motors in 1967, hired right out of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. What are the biggest changes you've seen?

Answer: The shift away from the purely decorative. The days of tail fins and chrome trim were days of pure romanticism in car design. We still have the romance, but it is much more about the whole experience of driving the car, of the materials in the car, of the fit and finish.

Q: Excluding Nissan, which companies have strong designs today?

A: I think Chrysler, with the new 300 [sedan], and GM with the Pontiac Solstice…. Both are showing good design. GM is giving up on all the focus groups and going its own way. BMW is certainly going through a major upheaval. You can criticize [BMW's direction], but they are doing something different, and people are picking up on it. The new BMW 5-Series is a pretty cool looking car.

Q: What about the powerful Dodge Magnum station wagon?

A: It's outrageous, but it's cool. If I was to get a wagon, I'd seriously think about buying one. People want to have cars that let them take a chance and drive something that's exciting.

Q: You haven't mentioned Ford —

A: Well, I like a lot of what [Ford Motor Co. design chief] J Mays does. But the concepts just don't carry through into production. At least the cars that get produced at Ford just aren't very good design. The trucks, though, are. The F150 [pickup] is an example of very good design.

Q: What happened at Nissan to dry up sales in the early 1990s?

A: We had good, exciting cars then; we just didn't have enough of them. Now, we have more because we have a system that brings design up to a level of importance it never had before.

Q: When you leave, your position is to be taken over by Shiro Nakamura, Nissan's global design chief. He'll be working from Japan. Is that going to hurt the influence of U.S. designers?

A: Not at all. Mr. Nakamura will be president and provide the large overall picture. But Bruce Campbell [a veteran Nissan designer in the U.S.] is going to have essentially what my position is, as vice president of design with control of day-to-day operations.

Q: How have things changed under Carlos Ghosn?

A: A lot more of our designs go into production now…. If we had the chance back in 1980 to build the cars we were designing in this studio, the landscape would look a lot different, worldwide. That's an awfully arrogant thing to say, but it's true.

Q: What about some of the vehicles your team designed that influenced the auto industry?

A: We did the original sport utility truck, introduced [as a concept car] at the 1999 Detroit Auto Show. We coined the idea and the name SUT. One of our designers couldn't fit a palm tree into the back of his Pathfinder [SUV] and wished it had a little short pickup bed on the back end for stuff like that. So he drew one. But Nissan chose not to put it into production. It was a good idea that slipped away from us. Now the SUT name is being used by Hummer.

Q: The 350Z helped Nissan come back. What role did your designers play?

A: We also introduced our early concept for the 350Z at that [1999 Detroit] show. Despite all that's been written about it, the revival of the Z concept didn't start [in Japan]. It happened here. We decided to do it. It was in '98, a big year for us in design.

Q: What was the first Nissan designed in the U.S. that actually went into production?

A: The Nissan Hardbody pickup, in 1986.

Q: And of all the vehicles you've worked on, which are you proudest of?

A: The Hardbody and the first Quest. Both of those had surfaces on them that you hadn't seen in those types of cars before. The Hardbody truck had [flowing,] almost sports-car fenders. I heard that Nissan had to reprogram its computers to make [the metal stamping dies for] those surfaces. And before the Quest, vans were square. In fact, the Quest didn't test well at first; people would say they thought it looked like a school bus, or that they didn't understand that rounded front end. But a few days later most of them had changed their minds [and] said that maybe the lines on the Quest were kind of pleasant.

Q: What makes a good car designer?

A: Talent, curiosity and passion. They don't need to be gear heads, though. I had hot rods when I was a kid, but I was interested in the look. I didn't really know that much about making them.




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