San Diego – From the outside, you could be forgiven for thinking Nissan Design America is a repurposed military bunker. It’s a plain grey concrete structure, livened only by a few tropical plants atop the slab that identifies it from the street.

But within this bland box, designers are sketching, engineering, and moulding curvaceous Nissan and Infiniti models destined both for the auto show reveals and for the showroom floors.

(Disclaimer: Travel, accommodation and meals were provided to the writer by the automaker.)

It’s one of four major design studios that Infiniti maintains worldwide and it’s an important one. The U.S. is the world’s largest car market, and its location here gives designers insight into what the company needs to take a slice of it. The automaker’s luxury brand was officially integrated into the Nissan studio earlier this year.

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“We started here in 1979,” says Taro Ueda, vice-president of Nissan Design America. “We needed to understand the American perspective, so we opened the studio. It was also the same time that Honda and Toyota were opening (their U.S. studios). Our designs are simpler in Japan, but here in the U.S., cars need to be larger.”

Nissan first sold cars in the U.S. in 1958 under the Datsun nameplate, but Japanese vehicles didn’t really gain a foothold in the country until the oil crisis of 1973. When the U.S. sided with Israel during a Middle East conflict known as the Yom Kippur War, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) retaliated by cutting off America’s oil supply. Suddenly everyone wanted smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, and the Japanese automakers were primed to meet the demand.

The San Diego facility was a natural, given California’s car culture and the fact that the company’s Japanese-built models were imported through the West Coast. “We started mainly with American (employees),” Ueda says. “Some of the leadership is from Japan, but we hired locally because we needed more American input.”

Sixty people work at the facility, about 30 per cent of them on the creative side. On average, about five projects are underway in the studios at any one time. While the centre originally focused primarily on the North American market, the company has taken more of a global outlook, and some of the vehicles created here will be sold in other countries.

One of the great myths of design is that a single person sketches a car—preferably on a cocktail napkin—and that’s what makes it to the showroom. In reality, it takes scores of designers, working on individual aspects but ultimately harmonizing everything into a unified design.

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The Infiniti J30, introduced in 1993, was designed at the California studio

Even then, having that design make it to production isn’t a sure thing. In addition to San Diego, Nissan has design centres in Japan, England, and China. When it’s time to bring a new vehicle to market, all of them work on ideas. Each then creates a series of posters and a full-size model of the design, and it’s up to the company’s top executives to determine the winner. It’s a common practice with most automakers.

Nissan Design America works on both concept and production vehicles. Once a concept design is approved, it goes to a local company to be built. Designers generally love concepts because these vehicles are unfettered by the practical demands of the assembly line. Production vehicle designs are created in collaboration with engineers in Michigan, who are responsible for seeing that the car can move from studio to factory.

San Diego is a full-function studio, and designers use pencil sketches, 3D computer simulations, scanning, milling, and clay models to create each vehicle’s exterior and interior design. The studio also determines the materials and colours that will be used in the final product. An outside turntable lets designers examine models in all types of natural light, and there’s an added benefit in being so close to San Diego’s naval base. The studio is within the military’s overall no-fly zone, so there’s no fear of spy shots being taken from overhead.

I got a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of the facility, including three vehicles that I saw but am forbidden to describe, since their public unveiling is still months away. But I can tell you they’re a fascinating look at how the design process actually works. The full-size models were introduced to us by Alfonso Albaisa, executive design director for Infiniti.

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Infiniti executive design director Alfonso Albaisa

Albaisa may be designing for the masses, but he’s an artist at heart. One of his jobs is to maintain signature cues across all of Infiniti’s vehicles while still maintaining their separate identities. “The dealership is our museum,” he says. “I want our cars to tell a story, just like a curator makes an exhibit and all the paintings have a message, or each sculpture is different but together they have a story. As a designer, nothing is better than if people come into our dealership and feel this narrative.”

The first model shown is a refresh of an existing model, and so it’s a real vehicle with the changes grafted on.

The second is strictly a styling exercise. From a distance it looks real, but getting closer, I see that the windows are just painted on, the metal accents are only shiny paint, and the door openings are imposters carved into the sides. “It’s built of hard foam,” Albaisa says. “It’s a surfboard. There’s a plywood box inside, and then there’s foam on top and it’s milled.” These full-size foam models, and their clay cousins, are still essential tools even in this computerized era, giving designers a perspective that even the most sophisticated software can’t reproduce.

The third vehicle is called a “see-through.” It’s also made of foam but has windows. Its interior has been excavated to just below the beltline, with the tops of the seats and steering wheel peeking up through a flat foam surface.

This one is used for data confirmation, and after our visit it would be shipped to Japan for engineers to measure its proportions and create identical prototypes. “It’s completely machine-made and then very carefully sanded,” Albaisa says. “Nothing can be altered, because it is the basis of the real car and the measurements must be accurate. The designers can make a change on the styling model, but not on this.”

Based on the work that has gone into it, Albaisa values the model at an estimated $200,000 to $300,000. And it’s just the beginning. Once built, the prototypes will undergo thousands of tests as engineers determine everything from how the vehicle drives, to how well the glovebox door opens and closes. And while all that happens, the designers back in San Diego will be sketching fenders and selecting colours, all working on the next big thing to hit the showroom floor.