Have you ever wondered what Formula E cars would look like if the electric single-seat open-wheel racing series had developed alongside Formula 1 back in the 1950s?
Well, Nissan is giving us a glimpse into what the cars may have looked like back then with its Infiniti Prototype 9 unveiled at the 2017 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. The idea for the car started from an artist’s sketch to represent a bare sheet-metal body inspired by aeronautic designs. The sketch was initially shared with work colleagues, but the vision soon caught the imagination of some executives and passionate designers and engineers, who practically demanded it be brought to life. And before you know it, people were volunteering to build the thing as an after-hours project.
“Prototype 9 celebrates the tradition of ingenuity, craftsmanship and passion of our forebears at Nissan Motor Corporation, on whose shoulders we stand today,” explained Alfonso Albaisa, Nissan’s Senior Vice President of Global Design, who originally sketched the retro racecar. “It started as a discussion: What if Infiniti had created a race car in the 1940s? If one were to imagine an open-wheeled Infiniti racer on the famous circuits of the era, such as Japan’s Tamagawa Speedway, what would that look like? The sketches were stunning and the idea so compelling that we had to produce a prototype. As other departments became aware of this, they volunteered their time to create a working vehicle.
“The creation of the real-world INFINITI Prototype 9 was entirely and coincidentally organic,” he continues. “As we started work on a physical model, word spread beyond the core design team, and other departments started checking in and offering assistance. Eventually, the production team became aware of the project – and brought with them the desire and skills to build it.”
But rather than just building a functional fantasy racecar, Infiniti took it a step farther by including a prototype 120-kW electric motor and 30-kWh lithium ion battery to feed it. The electric powertrain sits in stark contrast to the traditional materials, and their manufacturing, of the rest of the car (such as the hand-forged body panels).
Finished in a bare sheet-metal skin, the vehicle’s stunning bodywork is made from steel body panels wrapped around a steel ladder frame. The panels were hammered into shape by the Takumi — Nissan’s master craftspeople — who managed to throw in contemporary Infiniti signature cues, such as the double-arch grille, “shark gills” behind the front wheels, a single-crease hood, and sharp lines that stretch from front to rear.
“What started as an after-hours idea grew into a fully-fledged prototype; our designers and engineers were excited by the notion of creating a past vision, a nod to our origins. They volunteered their own time; more and more staff became involved,” said Roland Krueger, Infiniti Chairman and President. “Our teams have proven skills in manufacturing, engineering, design and advanced powertrains, yet they wanted to bring their own traditional craftsmanship to the project. They made Prototype 9 a reality, a result of their ingenuity – they recognized and realized the past, powered by a future-centric electric powertrain at its heart. Prototype 9 blends modern technology and hand-crafted details paying tribute to the forebears of Infiniti.”
The car is also a nod to the custom-built Prince R380 that broke several land speed records in 1965 before capturing the 1966 Japanese Grand Prix. Prince is regarded as Japan’s original builder of premium automobiles, and whose legacy can be followed to present day Infiniti.
“We wanted to explore what (a barn-find racecar) looked like, what it would have been made of,” said Albaisa. “Open-wheeled racers of the age were beautiful machines, elegant and powerful and with a wonderful purity of purpose. It’s an automotive fantasy, but the notion captured our imaginations enough to put pencil to paper.”
The black-leather-wrapped cockpit received the same level of attention as the exterior, with hand made elements with contrasting stitching, and minimal switchgear. The fixed steering wheel hub has been hand turned and features the instrument cluster.
And another tie-in to the past is that the figure “9” is reportedly pronounced kyuu in Japanese, which is similar to the famous Q designation of famous Infiniti models and a big part of the current line’s model designation.
Performance-wise, the Prototype 9 is capable of a top speed of 170 km/h and a zero-to-100 km/h sprint of 5.5 seconds. Maximum EV range of hard track driving (on ready made period competition tires and 19-inch wheels), is about 20 minutes, which would be about right prior to the car swap each Formula E driver is required to make before finishing off the race.