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Nissan Z: Design boss Alfonso Albaisa talks about the iconic sports car

Exclusive: In his own words, Nissan's global design chief reminisces about Nissan Zs from the past and hints about its future.

Alfonso Albaisa
Nissan's head of design, Alfonso Albaisa, takes to the pages of Roadshow to talk about the iconic Nissan Z.
Nissan

Hi there -- I'm thrilled to be with you today as part of the CNET Roadshow family, especially in these crazy times. Although I'm in Japan, I feel like we're all inhabiting the same cyberspace. So, welcome, and thank you for spending a few moments with me.

As the head of design at the Nissan Motor Company, I think the biggest and most frequently asked question I get inside and outside the company is, "Where is the new Z?"

I'm sure as you're reading this that might be the first question you have for me, other than why is a Cuban-American from Miami the leader of Nissan, Infiniti and Datsun design around the world, but we can get into that in another column.

I know what you want me to say right now: that a new Z is on its way. I've read the rumors and half the time in published articles there's a quote from me or my partner in crime, Head of Global Product Planning and Programs Ivan Espinosa. It's all highly speculative and unconfirmed. (Our PR team told me that I had to say we don't comment on future product plans, but as someone who is always working three to 10-plus years in the future, it's tough!)

OK, so, let's talk about Z, and really where it all started, the original 240Z. And for that, let's go back to my childhood in Miami. What you may know from Madonna's, Versace's, Ricky Martin's, Enrique Iglesias' Miami, or even from the Miami Vice days, let's put that aside for a second.

Instead let's look at the 1960s and 1970s. Miami was changing, growing so fast, becoming more and more of an international destination, and the Albaisa family was in the middle of this boom as my father was an architect. Yes, apple, tree, got it.

So I did get my interest in design through DNA, and it wasn't just buildings that I loved, but boats -- maybe fodder for another column -- and, of course, cars. The simplicity of the Alfa Romeo Duetto Spyder, the "open my eyes, stand me up right where I sit" presence of the Jaguar E-Type, as well as my uncle's Honda 600 and other new Japanese small cars which were trickling into the US at the time. As for that Honda, I was less than 10 years old but was amazed at how these charming small cars were so roomy and fun to be in!

I still tell stories about the first Japanese television set my father bought. We stared at it with amazement and intrigue -- even when it was off -- its out-of-this-world modernism was mesmerizing and it was also bright red, which helped.

But back to cars. As a fan of small Japanese cars (and TVs), I was wondering what else was possible from this amazing, intriguing island on the other side of the world. Yes of course there was the Toyota 2000GT from the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice, but that's a very high-line car that I never saw on the street.

Nissan

Enter the Datsun 240Z in late 1969. Long hood, short deck, classic sports car proportions. Appropriate for the streets of Tokyo, the piazzas of Rome, and of course, Calle Ocho, in Miami's Little Havana.

It was 50 years ago, and although I was young, that car made a big impression on me. It was a car of the world, looking fast while standing still and built with passion, precision and a bit more passion. My eyes were open.

I always kept my eye out to catch a glimpse of a Z and the generations kept racing by as it evolved from the purity of the 240, to the larger 260 and 280 (especially 2+2), and then onto the square 300ZX of the '80s to one of my personal favorites, the 300ZX of the late '80s and '90s (Z32).

A quick note on the 300ZX: I had just joined Nissan when that car was just about to come out, I saw it when it was in the design studio in Japan and honestly, I was blown away. How did they ever create anything so beautiful, so well proportioned, so much a Z in spirit, but in form every millimeter was absolutely, no question, wait a minute, fresh and new?

As my career progressed, I was able to do a bit of work on Z, as one of my mentors, Jerry Hirschberg, who created and led Nissan's San Diego office for years, came out with a little concept that brought back the feel of the 240Z (1999). As you know, that car ended up as the 350Z and is now the 370Z.

What makes a Z? Well for me, it's that proportion. It's that instant recognition on someone's face. It's the fact that it's a car that, in one letter, sums up the passion of Nissan and our history. It's just a Z, man.

And what's the beauty of talking about Z cars? Honestly, everyone I've spoken to has a Z story. They had one, their uncle had one, their mom had one and, thankfully, all the stories are positive!

OK, satisfied? I know the answer is no. You're wondering what I'm leading up to.

The answer is, I'm honored to be the head of design for a company that has such a car in its stable. And it's daunting to think of the responsibility of having to design such an icon, not just for Nissan, but for the industry as a whole!

Let's be honest, I think we all would love to see the Z continue. I love to draw Z cars, as you might've seen from a recent video I did with my kids as part of the Nissan #drawdrawdraw program (embedded above), and I've also included here a little sketch I just did of the 240Z.

Albaisa sketched out the Z's pure proportions just for Roadshow.

Alfonso Albaisa/Nissan

The classic proportions will never go out of style.

So, stay tuned, as you may never know what you may see from Nissan in the future. There's just so much happening, I cannot wait to tell you all about it.

Thank you all for reading, please stay safe and #drawdrawdraw!

Closing note: I'll be back if a certain Nissan PR guy doesn't manage to figure out a way to tackle me through a Zoom meeting. He's working on it right now and he can be clever sometimes.


Alfonso Albaisa is a Cuban-American who takes a multicultural approach to design. He has spent his entire career at Nissan, beginning in 1998 at Nissan Design America near San Diego and is currently senior vice president for global design for Nissan Motor Co., Ltd (NML). He is responsible for developing bold and expressive designs for all brands of NML including Nissan, Infiniti and Datsun, and oversees all of Nissan's design facilities globally.