COSTA MESA, CA – Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the security doors of an automaker's research and development laboratories?
I got a rare glimpse behind those doors recently when I spent a day at Mazda’s North American R&D center, here in California. And it provided me with an insight into what makes Mazda’s products stand out – people.
This little company with funds that could be an accounting error in some of the majors, is able to do more with less because of the indomitable spirit of a core group of individuals with engine oil in their veins.
A few months ago, over dinner following the launch of the CX-5 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, I was impressed with the passion for product displayed by a couple of R&D employees at our table.
As it always does at these events, the conversation centered around cars. But this time, it quickly drifted toward racing and technical topics instead of the usual market share, upcoming trends, industry gossip and production issues.
These guys were weekend racers who absolutely glowed when talking about their pet projects. But here again the discussion took a different track than has been my experience over the years.
Sure there was the usual talk about various series from Formula One to NASCAR that crops up when car nuts gather. But that quickly faded into the background when these guys got to talking about their own race cars: old Mazdas worth a few thousand dollars – Proteges, Miatas and RX-7s run on a very limited budget.
No big buck sponsors, crews and haulers here. These young men all have families and the accompanying pressures, commitments and responsibilities. But they are able to follow their passion, their hobby and race because their employer not only lets them, it encourages them.
They keep regular office hours, but the talk around the water cooler is more about where they can find an old transmission or set of wheels than about office politics. Innovation is encouraged and the facilities made available after hours and on weekends.
We were even more impressed with the spirit and enthusiasm of these young designers and engineers when they started teasing each other about the clutter in their office, since most of it was parts from their race cars. A casual remark to our hosts "I’d like to see that," resulted in an invitation to visit the R&D Center and see first hand where Zoom Zoom is nurtured.
First in North America
Mazda was the first Asian car manufacturer to establish R&D and design facilities in North America in 1987. Virtually all others followed within a decade and more recently Hyundai and Kia have done the same.
The Mazda centre contains a design studio capable of everything from sketches and clay models to full-size show cars. There is a metal fabrication shop, a paint shop and all the other necessities to take an idea to fruition, crate it and send it to Japan for comparison to similar projects from studios in Germany and Japan. Or to develop a one-off futuristic show car. \
The main floor houses the usual display and reception areas, but behind that is a full 15-20 bay working garage where technicians are tweaking various current and not-yet-produced vehicles, including heavily disguised versions of the next generation Mazda6 and CX-9.
The basement houses dozens of cars in various states of repair. Production cars from an early Cosmo rotary to cobbled-together test mules of current products used for evaluation. Scattered among them are numerous full-race cars used in various series around the world.
We noticed some empty spaces and learned that the R&D employees had recently completed a full restoration of some of the most significant Mazda racers. The fabrication shop had turned out new suspension and other pieces and the paint shop finished the cars in their original colours while the men and women in the design department on the third floor had produced exact duplicates of the sponsor logos and other finishing touches.
The cars were off to be on display at the annual Pebble Beach classic car show.
And as promised, almost every one of the working spaces in the R&D and design offices had used parts scattered throughout – a steering rack on a table, a turbocharger on a desk, models, awards, trophies and pictures of pet projects everywhere.
In addition to the hardware, the pictures told the story – young people in race suits with a big smile on their face standing in front of a very battered and well-worn old race car.
Who would you rather have involved in the design and development of your next new car, someone like this or a suit with a business or marketing degree? Zoom Zoom indeed