In October 1999, the refining of the 350Z concept cars began as Nissan Design America produced one-quarter-scale models for the car's production phase. Ajay Panchal's exterior design was selected by Shiro Nakamura, senior vice president, design, Nissan Motor Company. By December 1999, the time had come to build a full-scale version.
But what platform should it be tailored for? The existing Silvia platform wouldn't accommodate a V-6 engine, and building a specific platform for the Z would be prohibitively expensive.
The answer, of course, was the brand-new front mid-ship platform already under development for the high-performance Nissan Skyline and other products. Diane Allen, who directed the design process, recalled the thinking then. "The stage was set for kind of a package-check. What do we really have to work with here? Early on, it seemed that the front mid-ship platform was just too big. It was too tall, and we didn't have enough dash-to-axle ratio to celebrate the front-engine/rear-drive layout. It looked like a little midsize sedan lopped off. And so there was a lot of discussion about how to carve away some of this meat in order for this to look like an agile performer."
Tom Semple, then president of Nissan Design America, remembers, "We had to carry over certain front mid-ship parts, such as the front bulkhead, wheel inners, and that made it difficult to get just the right stance. They worked and reworked it, over and over again, in conjunction with the engineers.
"The chief engineer, Kazutoshi Mizuno, did a great job. He's a real car guy and racing-car nut. He wanted this to be the fastest, best in the world, and design wanted it to be the highest performance car in its class, but we also needed it to be at a certain price point. We wanted all the interior amenities. If we had a certain material, it had to be real. We didn't want anything phony about it.
"The dilemma was having all this stuff; the great performance, great quality both perceived and natural, and priced under $30,000," Semple continued. "We wanted to take the German cars head on with the best of Japanese engineering and quality. We'd also give them performance for the price."
"The price was important," Semple said, "We were arguing this is our 'halo' car, so why can't we get this money from here or there, and why would it matter if we go a little bit over budget? Mr. Ghosn said, 'Absolutely not; every car we do must make a profit, including this one.'"
More than two years before the start of production, the finished full-size clay was sent from NDA to Nissan Design Center in Atsugi, Japan, for final production-phase work under the direction of product chief designer Mamoru Aoki.
Semple asserted, "The process of working with the engineers is a key one. Specification changes from suppliers come in all the time, especially on the interior. It's an unsung part of what designers do. It's their job to balance the engineering requests with the design intention.
"For example, I think that the roof upper was changed for a better fit over the driver's head. Working with the engineers to get the stance just right, to have those fender shapes work into the body sides just so, is a difficult process. The designers have in the corner the original model sitting there all shiny and that is their touchstone. They have this other clay beast in front of them that they have to make some adjustments or compromises to make everything fit, but still keep the original intent.
"I think the Japanese designers did a tremendous job holding onto the original design and, in many ways, improving it. During this production-design phase, I think the designers made the Z more voluptuous and a bit less angular. They took some stiffness out, though it still has a machine ethic to it."