It's a rare thing to see a car penned by someone who's a die-hard fan. More often than not, designers are assigned to vehicles they have little or no emotional attachment to, and as such, the car buying public is regularly supplied with a slurry of bland appliances that do little to acknowledge a car's model history and next to nothing to advance the vehicle aesthetically.
Thankfully, that's not the case with the Nissan 370Z. Randy Rodriguez, the guy behind the original design of the 370Z, had owned 10 different Z cars before he sat down to sketch out the latest iteration of Nissan's low-buck sports machine. Autoblog had the chance to catch up with Rodriguez at the Z's 40th birthday bash last weekend in Franklin, TN. Hit the jump to read a few excerpts from the conversation, including talk about alternatively powered future Zs and how he drew inspiration for the car's look from the Discovery Channel.
Photos by Zach Bowman / Copyright ©2010 AOL
AB: We hear you're a pretty big fan of the 2011 Ford Mustang. Is that true?
RR: The Mustang? Actually the Camaro. I don't mind it so much. A friend of mine did that one.
AB: What do you like about it?
RR: The aggressive styling and the fact that it harkens back to the original, kind of like the Z does. And the fact that it's in Transformers. I'm a Transformers nut.
AB: Do you like the original series? Or...
RR: Yeah, from like the '80s. I wanted to give my kid Optimus as his middle name, but my wife wouldn't have it.
AB: Aw, c'mon. You should have fought for that one. You know, you're right. In a lot of ways, the Camaro is pretty similar to the Z in that both have a pretty significant legacy behind them. When you were approaching the Z, was that something that you felt confined by at all?
RR: No, actually. My very first car was a Datsun Z. My dad had a gas station and got this Z somehow. My older brother begged him for it and got it from him when I was 11. We worked on that when we were kids and then I wanted one badly. I was 14 when I got my car.
AB: Same car as your brother's or a different one?
RR: A different one.
AB: What year?
RR: My very first one was an '80, but my older brother blew the engine before I got my license. He felt bad, so he got me a '77 to make up for it. It worked out. The '77 was a much better car. Since then, I've had about 10 Z cars in my life.
RR: That's why I decided to work with Nissan: because I have such a strong connection with the Z, and I think that car kind of made me want to be a designer. It's the first car that I fell in love with, and I think that gave me an advantage when it came to designing the 370 because I knew so much about the car's history.
AB: You obviously had a lot to draw from, and it seems like the design of the 370 pulls mainly from the 240 and 280 era. Where else did you pull inspiration from for the car?
RR: I think that the 350Z is a combination of the 240 and the 300, and then the 370Z is more a 350 and a 240 together, but with more 240 into it. I love the lines of the original car. It's always been the greatest car, and I wanted to bring more of that into the 370.
AB: Are there any other cars from outside of the Nissan stable that you drew from?
RR: As a designer, you admire all sports cars and wide bodies and all of that, but I drew a lot of inspiration from other things. Actually, the Discovery Channel had Shark Week going on while I was working on the 370, and I took a lot of inspiration from that.
AB: You can see a lot of that in the front fascia.
RR: Yeah, and the body sides are kind of like the belly of the shark. The fish's profile is kind of like the beltline of the 370.
AB: Anything else?
RR: I looked a lot at sprinters and their muscles. I wanted this car to look like it's leaned-up, not bulky.
AB: The 370Z is a lot smaller than its predecessor. Is that something that sort of grew out of the design process or was that a parameter that you guys had from the get go?
RR: Both. Engineering wanted to push it that way just to make it a lighter car and to bring it back to being a true sports car. You see cars today compared to those from the seventies and they just get bigger and bigger with every model. We wanted to make this one more for the purists. Get the car smaller, faster, lighter, lower. Everything. Nissan is a performance company, and they listen to their customers.
AB: Do you think that the Z is going to continue to get smaller and lighter in the future?
RR: It's a challenge with government regulations and pedestrian crash standards, but yeah, hopefully with new technology and lighter materials we can get the cars down smaller while still being safer. It's a struggle to do that, but it's something we should always push for.
AB: Now that the 370Z is done and on the road, is there anything you wish you would have tweaked about it?
RR: I worked on the project in the advanced phase until the theme was selected, and then I got pulled off of the project to work on other things. The production phase was finished in Japan. There are a few things that are different on it but they did a great job of retaining the design. I'm happy with the fact that the car is there and that the lines are there that I did. You always want to change something. You may feel differently about some aspect of the car now versus a year down the road. That's just the way it is.
AB: Do you own a 370Z?
RR: I just returned my lease a little bit ago. We just bought a house and had a son so I got a lease Cube and I'm dying right now. I'm going to buy a 370 pretty soon. I was trying to be responsible and got the Cube so the kids could fit in there, but after about a month I was dying. I've got to get my car back.
AB: Since you have such a big history with the older Z cars, how would you say that your iteration stacks up to that lineage?
RR: I think it's good because it tries to get closer back to what the original car was. It was just a really small, pure, sports-oriented car that was high performance and a great value. It was a great design. I think [the 370Z] fits into the lineage well. I'm proud to stand by it.
AB: You mentioned safety earlier. We know that's something that factors pretty heavily into what you can and cannot do design-wise. What are some of the other challenges of designing a sports car today?
RR: Other challenges? [Laughs]
AB: Or are there no challenges?
RR: Well, it's always the fun project you want to work on. When a Z or GT-R project comes up, that's the one that everyone is going to stay after work. They'll work 24/7 to try to get some cool design out. There are challenges when it comes to trying to keep the history in there and still make it feel like a Nissan or whatever brand you're designing for. You don't want to screw up a good thing. The 350 was a great car, and you don't want to do something worse than that. You want to do something better. That's always a little tricky.
AB: Getting away from the 370 a little bit, if you had to choose a car, other than a Nissan, to live with for the rest of your life, what would it be?
RR: Um, maybe like a McLaren F1 or something like that. Except my wife wouldn't be able to ride in there. It'd just be me and our two kids. But that's a car that I've always wanted to at least get a ride in or something.
AB: Was it intimidating at all having to pen a car like the Z with so much history behind it? There are legions of fans out there, and we suppose that you can count yourself among them. Were you worried about alienating them at all?
RR: People are opinionated, especially when it comes to a car that they love. It's difficult, but I just had to trust my gut. I'm a Z fan, and this is what I would want. It's what I had to keep in mind.
AB: That's kind of the perfect job, right? You get to design the next generation of the car that you grew up with.
RR: Yeah, in that regard. You know, there are always 240 guys that may not understand the 300, and 300 guys that may not like the 240. Even 350 guys [that] hate the 370. It takes awhile for people to warm up to different designs. They say they hate the car, then a few years from now they're driving it. It's a challenge, but working on the Z car has been a dream.
AB: Working on anything fun now?
RR: Yeah, I'm working on the LA Design Challenge on some pretty futuristic stuff. Working on some Infiniti concept car things. Yeah, we're just crazy busy right now. The industry is picking up a little bit, so there are a lot of projects. There are a lot of cool things coming from Nissan and Infiniti.
AB: What would you like to see out of the next generation Z?
RR: I'd like to see them maybe go a little smaller, faster, lighter, more power. More aggressive. But still keep it sexy.
AB: A mantra to live by. So, we're at the 40th anniversary celebration of the Z right now. Where do you see the car in another 40 years? There's a big push in some of the high-end sports cars for hybrid electric or even full electric. Is that something you think that the Z will adopt?
RR: Well, Nissan is coming out with the Leaf, so we're really going to try to push EV technology as part of a cleaner, brighter future. For the Z? I'd say at least EV, maybe beyond that. I don't know what other kinds of drivetrains will be available then, but still something with plenty of power that everyone can afford. Outstanding performance, design and value – those should always remain.