By Design: Infiniti Prototype 9 Concept

I admit, my initial intellectual reaction to the Infiniti Prototype 9 race car concept was, “That’s a really stupid idea. Why would Infiniti, a Japanese brand that didn’t exist in the era of Tojo’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, want to emulate the Nazi propaganda race cars of Hitler’s war machine?” But there it sat in front of The Lodge at Pebble Beach, an extraordinarily well-realized physical embodiment of an imaginary object of absolutely no actual relevance. But my first emotional reaction to the Prototype 9 was, “Wonderful!”

This fantasy car is fun, it’s beautifully realized in every detail, and the horrible historical political aspects of its visual legacy are some 80 years behind us. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to create a suppositional “barn find” coulda-woulda-shoulda race car like this. But then, it did seem perfectly reasonable to me 60-odd years ago to build a road car that resembled the best of those from some 20 years earlier. And when the opportunity to do an imitation 1930s sports car arose at the end of the ’70s, I seized it. On a personal level, it is easy to understand the motivation of a designer wanting to recapitulate something he greatly admired but was born too late to work on when it first existed.

The back story on this Infiniti concept is that it is supposed to represent a barn find, a car that would have existed had a group of Japanese aeronautical engineers gotten together on an after-hours race-car project. It seems there really was some serious racing going on in the Tokyo area in the ’30s, with many people—including one Soichiro Honda—building track racers and competing. That some of them might have made something comparable to Auto Union or Mercedes-Benz grand prix cars is a pure fantasy but a fine, workable, understandable fantasy.

There are no dramatic exhaust pipes—it’s electric—and no louvers, but there is plenty of consideration of aerodynamics, and as Nissan’s new chief designer Alfonso Albaisa says it’s all “eyeball aero, no wind tunnel.” Obviously no consideration was made for downforce, although in Germany in the ’30s both Opel rocket cars and Mercedes-Benz’s untested land-speed record vehicle had downforce wings.

Ultimately this concept car (we used to call them dream cars, an arguably better term for minimally functional showpieces) is directly comparable in its impressive unreality to General Motors’ 1953 XP-21 Firebird 1 gas turbine car. Like Infiniti’s 9, it corresponded to a racing formula that didn’t exist when it was created, aimed at a nonexistent temporal world and built to the highest standards imaginable. If Firebird 1 looked forward to present times and Prototype 9 to 80 years back, both are superb objets d’art dealing with nonmainstream motive forces. I still tend to think this Infiniti Axis Powers concept car is a stupid idea intellectually, but isn’t it magnificent?

1. A free-standing hood ornament would not be on a race car in the late ’30s, but it was necessary on the Prototype 9. Otherwise the driver would have no visual reference as to where the front extremity of the car is.

2. The high point of the hood, which falls away in all directions, is the key stylistic element of the whole car, something at once completely new yet a real possibility in the referenced time period.

3. There is a carefully crafted peak line in the hood sides, turning inward below to meet the hood-side cutline. The negative surface below conveys air flowing back from the grille along the body, preventing it from spilling into the cockpit.

4. The driver’s headrest is not high enough to contain a modern rollover structure, and its width is typical of the wide cockpits of prewar race cars in Europe and the U.S.

5. The fairings over suspension parts front and rear are not much like what we saw on the German cars of the reference period, though there were versions on some Alfa Romeo cars of the time, and aircraft engineers might well have imagined them in period.

6. The at-wheel electric motor/brake assemblies were cleverly designed to look like big ’30s-era drum brakes, complete with handsome cooling fins, appropriately dimensioned to look period correct.

7. The grille is a tour de force of craftsmanship, each bar different from the one next to it, all artfully curved to produce a transverse highlight line at the top.

8. These big wheels were carefully handmade by Nissan factory craftsmen to emulate those used by the Auto Unions and Silver Arrows.

9. The bright flash carried just above the break point in the transverse body cross section carries a break between upper and lower reflective surfaces, emphasizing the wedge line running upward from the “bumper” toward the rear wheel hub height.

10. The tires were patterned on Dunlop racing rubber of a long-ago period when the tires were skinny and drivers—some of them, anyway—were fat.

1. This line of apparent rivets along the cockpit sides pushes the sense of aircraft techniques.

2. You get a fine sense of the artfulness of the detail design in this view. The outer body skin acquires a bright trailing edge, and the outermost grille bar, most curved in front view, turns down and merges with that panel at their mutual base in side view.

3. Rear lamps, now part of all formula race cars, were not used or required 80 years ago. No problem, there’s plenty of electricity available.

4. These riveted-on sconce-shaped sections appended to the lower body are quite typical of aircraft practice long ago. Aerodynamic cleanliness was less important in areas of high turbulence.

5. The tunnels on each side of the body allowing air to escape from the grille are quite deep, allowing the concave to convex sculpting of the body sides.

Looks like a fin-cooled brake drum from yesteryear. It isn’t. But Infiniti’s enthusiastic team conjured up a little electrickery that stops the eye. And the car.

1. It’s not really a bumper, but the airfoil-shaped rib traversing the grille at one-third its height nonetheless is the point that would touch a wall if the car were pushed up to it.

2. This bright slash at the trailing edge of the air outlet behind the huge grille is actually an extension of the outermost vertical grille bars that translates into a tapered streak up the body side, with a sharp change from bottom to top of the body form.

3. The most intriguing part of the complex shape is the hood that drops in height as it reaches the cockpit. I’ve only ever seen this before on some Figoni et Falaschi teardrop coupes and to a much slighter degree. It’s the most likable feature on the body.

4. The upswept crease line is, at the very earliest, a late 20th century conceit. But it’s really cool.

5. This upswept curve is definitely not a ’30s feature line, but is quite modern, yet the postulated ’30s airplane inspiration fully justifies its presence.

6. Not quite readable, like a lot of stenciled nomenclature on military airplanes and vehicles.

1. The delicacy and elegance of the windscreen supports say a lot about the depth of attention exercised in building the very real running show car. Everything’s perfect.

2. The speedometer (in a race car?) only reads 100 mph maximum with the redline at just 70, but it’s realistic for the actual expected performance of the car.

3. The tight radius on the outside of the cockpit coaming band is indicative of the superb metalwork on the car.

4. The handsome tuck-and-roll upholstery looks for all the world like a ’30s Indianapolis race car. The Europeans used cloth on seats to save weight and add a bit of lateral grip.

5. Another anachronism is the inset center hub for the steering wheel, a clear indication of modernity even if there is no airbag. But the absence of seat belts is very ’30s.

6. Barely perceived notches hold the “traction direction” lever in place. You can’t call it a shift lever in an electric, can you?

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