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Behind the Scenes: at Mazda's California Design Studio

Trend-setting studio surrounded by California car culture influences final designs

Published: August 30, 2012, 1:00 AM
Updated: April 29, 2018, 12:29 PM

Mazda Design Studio - head of design Derek Jenkins works clay model

IRVINE, CA – The MX-5 sports car, originally known (and loved) by so many enthusiasts as the iconic Miata, owes much of its final form to some gearhead designers in a research and design centre tucked away in an industrial area in this hotbed of American car culture.

Mazda North America Operations, in a trend-setting move at the time, created the centre in 1986 and it served as a template for other manufacturers who subsequently recognized the value of such a facility and opened similar operations.

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For Mazda, the work conducted here is only part of its complete vehicle design process. There is input from a studio in Frankfurt, Germany, which is obviously attuned to the European market, as well as the main design team in Japan.

Still, the concepts and styling created here play an integral role in the finished product. The final design of the MX-5, for example, took a dramatic shift, based on input from the California team.

Miata established the way

"The first MX-5 was really influenced by what we saw running around here," said Ken Saward, design manager for Mazda’s North American operations, during a recent tour of his facility.

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Management back in the homeland wanted the Miata to be a front-wheel-drive sports car, but the U.S. team didn’t agree. "They were inspired by all the sporty roadsters they saw running around here and in Santa Barbara and Newport Beach."

Saward said the California-based team was able to make a convincing case the new Mazda roadster should embrace the look and layout of the small, sporty cars so popular in their area.

The Japanese bosses bought the pitch and the Miata was born, complete with rear-wheel-drive. The car’s success propelled the Mazda brand to new heights in North America.

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Saward says his team continues to play a significant role in the final design of Mazda products destined for our shores. This team of about 15 to 18 staff designers plus a few contracted clay modelers has made important contributions to such products as the second and third generations of the RX-7, the new CX-5 compact crossover and the soon-to-be-released all new Mazda6 sedan.

CX-9 under way

During our visit, design work was underway on the next-generation CX-9 sport ute, which is still several years from introduction.

While Saward and his staff were careful to keep design details from the prying eyes of the three visiting journalists, we were able to get a clear look at the process that’s involved in the development of a product.

In one studio, a series of tack boards lined the room. The boards were divided into sections, each segment designated for one of the CX-9’s competitive manufacturers.

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 Within each section, there were pictures of retail brands one would associate with that automaker, items such as soft drinks, shoes, clothing and accessories that would represent the lifestyle and target market associated with each vehicle nameplate.

It was amazing how quickly the layouts crystallized the "image" the automaker intended to be associated with its product.

Mazda, too, had a picture board and the intention was to see how well the company was doing with the image it wanted associated with the CX-9.

Nearby, there were more boards, filled with samples of all sorts of fabric and materials the designers had collected at stores in the region. The purpose was to recognize emerging trends in fabric and material design that could be incorporated into the interiors of Mazda products.

Even examples of new stitching designs and various contrasting thread colours were posted for evaluation. You can expect to see implementation of such features in upcoming Mazda interiors.

Sketches and clay

The next step in the process was creating sketches of vehicle designs, both exterior and interior, that could eventually lead to the final product. The drawings were used to guide the building of clay models, which is truly an art itself.

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At various stages, the clay models are covered in a foil wrap that resembles silver paint, making character lines and other features more visible.

To truly evaluate the shaping, the model is moved to an outdoor courtyard – completely sealed from public view – where the design team can evaluate the contours and character lines of the model in natural light. Late afternoon is best, says Saward.

When the clay models have been completed and approved by the U.S. team, they are carefully packed in special crates built on the premises and shipped to Japan for further evaluation.

The attention to security is so detailed, the crates are made in such a way customs inspectors can only get a glimpse of a small portion of the model – just enough to confirm the crate’s contents.

Full-scale models

The next step after approvals have been granted on the clay models is to build a full-scale version. The basic shape is created from wood, then layers of dense Styrofoam are added to bring more realism to the mock-up.

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It’s then covered in a layer of modeling clay, which is carved and shaped to create the detailed exterior. Similarly, mock-ups of the interior are built on wooden bucks so the decision-makers can evaluate the vehicle inside and out. The entire process is handled in-house.

The Irvine studio is also of capable of making fiberglass components and complete body shells. It’s a process typically used in the building of a concept car.

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During our tour, a previously introduced concept car, the futuristic Taiki with is sweeping lines and radical styling, was in the studio, having just been returned from movie duty in Hollywood.

The Taiki had been used in some scenes of a new Bruce Willis flick, Looper, although we later learned the car will only be seen in the Chinese version of the film. What a pity. North American movie-goers will see a Mazda Miata on screen, however.

Saward says Hollywood producers are no strangers to the design studio, often looking for futuristic concept cars they might make interesting editions to their films. He’s also familiar with the possibility those scenes with his concept cars can end up on the cutting room floor.

Concept cars

Making props for movies, however, is far from the purpose of creating a concept car. Saward says such projects give designers a rare but valuable opportunity to let their creativity flow freely without the constraints involved with designing production models.

Typically, such projects only involve a couple of designers, perhaps one handling the exterior styling and the other doing interior work, but for those fortunate enough to get the assignment, "it’s an opportunity to let their imagination run wild."

The payoff is when the cover comes off the project at a car show and their creation draws the applause of the crowds.