Monterey, California - Automotive engineers are just as fond of playing the ‘What if’ game as we are, although they tend to go into a lot more detail. This sleek, open-wheeled electric retro-roadster prototype, revealed at the 2017 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, is the result of just such a game.
It’s a re-imagining of a 1940s racing car with a modern heart, built just as they built them back in the day - by hand - as an after-hours ‘passion project’ that eventually involved people from right across the Nissan group.
The Infiniti Prototype 9 is actually a runner, powered by a prototype electric motor and battery from Nissan’s advanced powertrain department - in contrast to the traditional materials and techniques used to build the chassis and running gear, including steel body panels hand-beaten by a team of old-school craftsmen.
“It started as a discussion," explained global design senior vice-president Alfonso Albaisa. "What if Infiniti had built a race car in the 1940s? If you imagine an open-wheeled Infiniti race car on the famous circuits of the time, what would it look like?
“The open-wheeled racers of the time were elegant and powerful, with a wonderful purity of purpose. Yes, it’s an automotive fantasy, but the idea caught our imagination enough to put pencil to paper.”
Albaisa created a sketch of the imaginary car, with aeronautically-inspired bodywork crafted in bare sheet metal, and shared it with a few close colleagues - but the idea soon spread among the design team. Each person who saw it wanted to add their own contribution, such as the shape, design and materials for the cockpit, and many were saying it deserved to be more than just a drawing.
The clay modelers at the design studio in Atsugi built several scale design studies, and then a full-size clay model. By this stage word was getting out that there was something very special (and very unofficial!) going on at the Infiniti skunk works; people from other departments came to have a look, and volunteered their own time to help.
When the production team heard about it, they immediately offered to build a real one, so the clay model was secretly moved from Atsugi to a back room at the Nissan research centre in Oppama, just outside Yokohama.
A team of master craftsmen was assembled to build the body from hand-shaped steel body panels, wrapped around a steel ladder frame. Suspension is by leading-arm live axle with transverse leaf spring at the front and a De Dion axle at the rear, also with a single transverse leaf spring. Even the 19 inch centre-locking wire-spoke wheels are shod with period cross-ply competition tyres.
Nissan’s powertrain engineers came to the party with a next-generation electric motor and battery - reportedly the powertrain developed for the new Leaf. The motor produces 120kW and 320Nm; driving the rear wheels via a single-speed transmission, it’ll launch the Prototype 9 off the line to 100km/h in 5.5 second and on to 170km/h flat out, while the 30kWh lithium ion battery is good for 20 minutes flat out on the race track,
The handmade cockpit trim, in black leather with red stitching, is hand-sewn and finished to echo earlier single-seater racers, with Japanese flags stitched into the integrated head restraints of the deep single bucket seat. Switchgear is reduced to the barest minimum, with those few made to look aircraft cockpit switches.
The steering wheel rotates around a fixed central hub that houses the instruments, its aluminium surface finished by engine-turning the old-school way, with abrasive media on the end of a cork. This finish was popular for the instrument panels of aircraft, sports and racing cars in the first half of the 20th century - but none of the interiors team had previously had the opportunity to try it.
“Prototype 9 represents a commitment to a romantic notion of our heritage,” Abaisa said. “It’s been a labour of love; our people were completely invested in the project; they worked on it in their own time and the details and features came from them.”