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Nissan Motor Corp. and premium brand INFINITI together have 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 Motor and INFINITI's ingenuity, artistry and craftsmanship, according to the companies. It also represents a reimagining of a 1940s race car with time-honored production techniques employed to realize its retro design.
The prototype was developed after a discussion among executives, according to Alfonso Albaisa, senior vice president of global design at INFINITI.
“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?” Albaisa wondered. “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."
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's master artisans.
"What started as an after-hours idea grew into a fully fledged prototype; our designers and engineers were excited by the notion of creating a past vision, a nod to our origins. They volunteered their own time; more and more staff became involved,” said Roland Krueger, chairman and global president of Nissan.
Prototype 9 was inspired by an emerging era of Japanese motorsport. The custom-built Prince R380, which also will be shown during Monterey Car Week at The Quail, a Motorsports Gathering, broke several land speed records in 1965 before taking overall victory at the 1966 Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway. Prince Motor Co. 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 shown at The Quail is the actual Japanese Grand Prix-winning car, believed to be the only surviving R380.
"We discussed the idea of ‘chancing' upon an unrecognized race car, hidden away for decades in a barn, deep in the Japanese countryside,” Albaisa said. “We wanted to explore what this looked like, what it would have been made of. Open-wheeled racers of the age were beautiful machines, elegant and powerful and with a wonderful purity of purpose. It's an automotive fantasy, but the notion captured our imaginations enough to put pencil to paper."
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 molded 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, according to the company.
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 characterized 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, according to the company.
The vehicle's 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. Nineteen-inch center-locking wire-spoke wheels at each corner are even wrapped in period cross-ply competition tires, according to the car companies.
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.
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 that houses the driver's instrument gauges. The hub itself is finished in turned aluminum, an effect found on aircraft throughout the first half of the 20th century. As on the machines that inspired Prototype 9's design, the effect has been completed by hand, turning aluminum 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, according to INFINITY.
With a single-minded focus on driving, the cabin features minimal switchgear, with those that remain modeled on cockpit switches.
As word of the project reached across Nissan Motor Corp., 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 148 horse and 236 lb-ft of torque, and it drives the rear wheels via single-speed transmission.
Prototype 9 has a top speed of 105.6 mph, and sprints from 0-to-62 mph in 5.5 seconds, with a maximum EV range of 20 minutes under heavy track use.