“Mistaking far-outness for extreme creativity is one of the biggest mistakes (a car designer or a car company can make),” said Jerry Hirshberg, a brilliant car designer whose death, at age 80, was reported a few days ago.
The quote above was from an interview I did with Hirshberg for the book Concept Cars: From the 1930s to the Present. But his words still ring true, and especially after the recent unveiling of the Tesla Cybertruck.
“The worst thing you can do to creative people is to say you want them to be creative and ‘we don’t care how you do it’,” Hirshberg told me. “Creativity begins when you have an obstacle or a challenge or new technology. It begins with narrowing your focus.
“What happens too often (with concept vehicles) is what I call automotive pornography. It’s shockingly uncreative and largely unimaginative. When you take all the real-world limitations away from designers and creative people, you fall back on simply massaging exotic and exaggerated forms, and it’s remarkable how similar they are over the years.”
If you are not familiar with Hirshberg by name, you likely know his work. At General Motors, he did the styling of the first Pontiac GTO and Firebird and the boat-tail Buick Riviera. He was recruited, while head of design at Buick, to become the founding director of Nissan’s new design studio near San Diego, where he was responsible for several Nissan and Infiniti vehicles, including and especially the reborn 350Z.
But automotive design was only one of his skills. An accomplished musician, he played clarinet with symphony orchestras, as well as rock guitar – with his brother, he formed Jerry Paul & the Plebes and opened for the likes of Fabian and Frankie Avalon.
He was on the swimming and fencing teams at Ohio State, and studied painting and design at the Cleveland Institute of Art. In addition to cars, he designed yachts, furniture, golf clubs and laptop computers, and his paintings were featured at the Danese Gallery in New York.
My favorite design by Jerry Hirshberg was the Nissan Gobi, which one national magazine called “the finest unbuilt vehicle in the world.”
The Gobi was Hirshberg’s first concept vehicle for Nissan, and was done more in spite than on behalf of the corporation.
The new head of Nissan’s American design studio had been called to Los Angeles for a meeting with engineers, product planners, sales executives and marketing specialists from Japan and North America. One point made at the meeting was that basic, entry-level vehicles (and their buyers) deserved only basic, generic design.
To Hirshberg, such an edict was a threat to his believe that, “every product has its own inherent truth, some soul to be expressed.”
As he was driving back toward San Diego after the meeting, Hirshberg remembers seeing a grasshopper, a helicopter and a humble pickup truck.
“All at once,” he told me, “the three images coalesced, and a vision of a truck unlike any I’d ever seen assembled itself (in his mind). It was as if a sports car had been rear-ended by a careening, loose truck bed, the two gracelessly jammed together and looking for all the world like some kind of helicopter on wheels.”
Hirshberg pulled off the 405 freeway at the next exit, pulled out a pad of paper and start sketching.
Asked at the end of my career if there was one vehicle I regretted never quite made it to the road, without question it was the Gobi.”
When he finished, he had sketches for an inexpensive, entry-level compact pickup truck with stunning design, a vehicle that might have rekindled interest in such vehicles not only in North America but that could have shown the rest of the world why Americans were so in love with their trucks.
Back at the studio, he shared his anger — and his sketches — with his team. Two months later, they presented Hirshberg with a quarter-scale model of a compact pickup truck they called the Gobi.
Hirshberg carried the model with him to another meeting in Los Angeles. This time Nissan president Yukata Kume was present and he liked the idea of bold design and approved a full-scale version of the car (and the $1 million or more that it costs to create such vehicles) to be produced and to be unveiled at the 1999 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
“All this from a project that had not been assigned,” Hirshberg told me.
Gobi spent a few years on the auto show circuit, but Nissan was struggling financially at the time (and soon would merge with Renault) and Gobi was never approved for production.
“Asked at the end of my career if there was one vehicle I regretted never quite made it to the road, without question it was the Gobi,” Hirshberg said.
But there was some consolation.
“It had a profound impact on the way Nissan (and other automakers) thought about trucks, entry-level vehicles, design and the market.”