How a little text message kick-started a pared-back, all-electric racer
Remember this? It’s the Infiniti Prototype 9 that was unveiled during Monterey Car Week on the west coast of America recently. And I don’t mind telling you that we were intrigued. After all, WTF?
When did Infiniti have a pre-war history? How on earth does this relate to new products? What were they thinking? Well, we thought you’d like to know, so we sat down with the man most responsible for its existence, Infiniti’s design director Alfonso Albaisa.
OK, so where on earth did this project come from?
It started about a year ago and it wasn’t a concept car to start with, it was kind of an internal thing. It actually started with a text message which said something like, “Hey Alfonso would you be interested in doing a barn-find kind of project”. I think they’d been brain-storming in America and wanted to run it past me as an idea, but the timing wasn’t great as I was just taking over in my new role and I thought a barn-find sounded like more of a Nissan thing as they’ve been around since 1914 so have the history.
So what changed your mind?
I read about it being the 80th anniversary of the first Japanese Grand Prix [1936 saw the opening of the 1.2km Tamagawa Speedway] and this really caught my imagination. I imagined what it would have been like if the German racing teams [Mercedes and Auto Union] would have come over for it, and then Japanese engineers maybe from other industries such as aerospace going to the track in curiosity and being awed by the size and thunder of the W154 Mercedes – which is one of my favourites.
So then I had a story: let’s imagine we were inspired by these machines and we wanted to make a car. So we started on our own time, playing with shapes and starting to draw. Then our Advanced Engineering and Manufacturing guys came to the design centre on another subject, but they’d heard about us messing around with this idea and said ‘we want in’ – basically we want to make this a real car.
So what happened next?
Oppama, which is our oldest factory, said ‘we will make this car’. It stayed invisible because it was a volunteer project, but [as people got to know about it] the response within the company was so strong, endorsing it. It was a bit of a miracle, the momentum kept building and we couldn’t stop it and people were saying “how far are you going to go?” Normally if it’s a project you know how far you’re going, but one that people are doing out of their hearts, you just hold on and see where you get to.
And now you have a real car...
I know! Between design, engineering and manufacturing probably 100 people have been involved and we made it to the rules [of pre-war grand prix cars], as if it was going to compete, so it has the wheelbase, it has the tread and it has all the dimensions, the steel frame is very close, the suspension design is similar with a trailing arm at the front and leading arm at the back, the steel body is hand-beaten – as it was many decades ago. The rear cone was made at Oppama itself, in a factory that’s making 500,000 cars a year and on the side you see these guys – bang, bang, bang – making this handmade open-wheel GP car!
And then you put in the electric running gear from a Leaf…
Ah, not quite. We’ve adapted a Q70 hybrid battery and the motors are from the next generation Leaf which is much faster. What this car does is massive torque, real head back. It’s restricted at the moment because the engineers are worried because it has so much power. It only weighs 1,500lbs [680kg). It’s a blast to drive!
Hang on – you’ve already driven it?
Yeah a few times, at a drag strip south of Sacramento. It’s restricted to 105mph (169kph) at the moment, but it should do 225-233kph.
And what’s it like?
It’s good. The tyres are real and rated to 233kph, we dropped the driver down and back to improve the driving position – the W154 driver was higher and more forward. We were thinking aero engines, and they were obsessed with aerodynamics, so we wanted to get the driver out the way a little.
We put the instruments in the middle of the steering wheel, but the switches all work, the gearlever too.
What life will it have?
I don’t know. I know a lot of people want one. My personal dream is to make a few of these. The reaction has been so shocking because for me it’s still a little text that I was sent, so to see it as a real car is, well, so exciting.