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Rebel with a cause: Remembering Jerry Hirshberg and the Gobi

Rebel with a cause: Remembering Jerry Hirshberg and the Gobi

Gobi was a radical design created to show a corporation that entry-level didn’t have to be generic in style

“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.

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.”

Jerry Hirshberg

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.

Nissan Gobi concept vehicle

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.” 

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6 Comments

  • Malcolm Graham
    November 25, 2019, 3:14 AM

    Maybe Gobi was built? There’s a trace of it in the roofline of Renault vans built earlier this century. These were also badged as Vauxhalls. I believe these vans were built in the General Motors Vauxhall plant in Luton, England

    REPLY
    • Hugh Robinson@Malcolm Graham
      November 25, 2019, 8:21 PM

      Well observed Malcolm! I was the designer whose theme was chosen for the GM/Renault vans. The Gobi, various helicopters and the Boeing 747 influenced me.
      The W83 was a joint GM Europe (my employer) and Renault project and both teams sketched ideas for it. (Still have those sketches – shame I can’t post pictures here).
      Much to our surprise Patrick LeQuement chose my proposals as the design theme and I spent a couple of years Paris working with the excellent Patrick LeCharpy and his team developing the production vehicle, later sold as the Opel/Vauxhall Vivaro, Renault Trafic and Nissan Primastar.
      LeQuement argued for a polarizing design, reasoning that it made sense to stand out. Neither company was established in that area of the market and paid off as it became the best seller in it’s class for a number of years. The "Jumbo" roof as I called it allowed us to push the driver and under seat fuel tank up and forward, enabling a side door wide enough to accept a "Euro pallet" – the only standard wheelbase van to be able to do this. I also minimized tumble home to avoid the narrowing of the load space towards the roof.
      I have very fond memories of this project – it stayed very "pure" to the original ideas, was influential and I got to work with a fantastic group of people.
      I also got to enjoy Paris in my ’66 427 Corvette….Good times!
      I later went to Porsche and had the good fortune to do the 981 Boxster/Cayman/GT4 exteriors and Carrera GT interior, now working independently on EVs.

      REPLY
  • Victoria Mauney
    November 26, 2019, 6:30 AM

    What a great tribute to a talented man. Thanks!

    REPLY
  • James McIntire
    November 26, 2019, 8:58 AM

    Quite an interesting design. It reminds me of the sport truck scene that became so popular about 20+ years ago in which many people were into lowering the ride stance on their 2wd pickups and chopping the roof. This design almost lends itself perfectly to that trend.

    REPLY
  • Ryan Corman
    November 26, 2019, 5:13 PM

    Hugh Robinson is now officially one of my heroes. Saw those vans all over when I lived in Amsterdam. Always been a GTO guy, sad to say goodbye to Jerry Hirshberg, ’64 GTO set the standard for the muscle car era, was always my favorite of the first gens, and holds up even now. Same same ’67 Firebird- given a Camaro, he created a car that set Pontiac far and away from the other ponycar purveyors… personally, I always felt his treatment of the nose, chrome loop & beak, said "Pontiac" clearly enough that even folks not "car people" knew. And the same look carried over to the redone ’68 GTO; can a designer get a better compliment than having his stamp put on cars that remain aspirational, 40/50+ years after their debut?
    Happy & blessed Thanksgiving to all y’all!

    REPLY
    • Malcolm Graham@Ryan Corman
      December 2, 2019, 5:46 AM

      I agree with Ryan Corman, Hugh Robinson is one of my heroes.
      Hugh, Larry Edsall is a real nice guy. I believe you can contact him direct through his profile (?) and l’m sure he’ll be delighted to post any pictures you care to provide.
      Like you l spent time in UK and Europe. I hope that like us, you took the opportunity to have a good look round round while you were there?
      If you ever get down to New Zealand, l can assure you of a warm welcome.

      REPLY