Toyota FT-1 sports car: How it happened

January 20, 2014


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A spiritual rhythm car

Editor’s note: The inward sanctum of an automaker’s design studio is as classified as a top-secret government spy shop. Even many top executives aren’t permitted inwards, much less civilians or the media. But after months of negotiations, Toyota Motor Corp. permitted Automotive News inwards its Calty design studio in Newport Beach, Calif., to track the development of the FT-1 concept car. This is the story.

Kevin Hunter knew he had a winner.

Presenting a full-sized model of Toyota’s next-generation sports car concept to a roomful of executives in Nagoya was going to be a pressure-packed spectacle. What if Toyota Motor CEO Akio Toyoda didn’t like the car? What if the Japanese design chief dreamed big switches made? Would there be enough time to make switches before the public unveiling at the Detroit auto showcase in January, less than nine months away?

But Hunter, the quiet, reserved president of Toyota’s Calty Design Research studio in Newport Beach, Calif., had an ace up his sleeve.

In addition to the in-your-face styling of the FT-1 concept he was presenting, the Calty team had brought along a video-gaming pod with a Gran Turismo simulation of the FT-1 installed.

After providing the gleaming crimson sports car an approving walk-around, Toyoda climbed into the gaming pod, tearing off virtual hot laps at Toyota’s home track, Fuji Speedway.

After a few minutes, he climbed out of the pod, beaming that the FT-1 was quicker than his real-world lap time in an actual racecar.

Hunter breathed lighter. He knew the concept was a go.

Interior design chief William Chergosky discusses the “slingshot” treatment to the driver’s seat.

Generation gap

The process of getting a sports car concept approved in the very first place had began a year earlier, and with no less uncertainty.

Ever since the recession demonstrated signs of easing, the Calty studio had desired to build an shocking high-performance concept car.

So when Hunter attended a meeting of Toyota’s top management in March two thousand twelve for a design briefing, he gently borrowed Akio Toyoda’s latest decree: No more boring cars. Toyoda had publicly voiced worry that the automaker had become saddled with a reputation for conservative vehicles that evoked as much emotion as a dishwasher.

The Toyota brand sells millions of Corollas, Camrys and compact pickups worldwide. But it had no spiritual rhythm car in its current portfolio. As he entered the management meeting room for his original pitch, Hunter thought to himself: What could be less boring than bringing back a sports car for the Toyota brand?

Hunter’s idea was for a concept car that could generate excitement at an upcoming auto demonstrate. This would not be a flight of fancy, but a halo car that would kittle show-goers with the idea that Toyota might actually produce such a vehicle.

As he gave his presentation, Hunter observed for reactions. Toyoda seemed excited, as did Mitsuhisa Kato, Toyota’s fresh executive r&d chief, as well as Hunter’s boss, global design czar Tokuo Fukuichi.

After Hunter left the room, the gathered executives eyed their CEO, the scion of Toyota’s founding family. Fukuichi asked Toyoda and Kato if they thought the concept was worthy of a green light.

Akio looked at his team, and said, “Let’s do it.”

These early renderings of the interior and exterior of the Toyota FT-1 closely resemble the final car that the automaker unveiled in Detroit last week.

The ideal one

It may seem counterintuitive, but designing a sports car is the roughest challenge a stylist can undertake. On one forearm, it’s what every designer has dreamed of since doodling during high school algebra. No one aspires to sketch a minivan.

But the pressure to create such a brand statement is unreal. Just ask the man in charge of updating the Porsche nine hundred eleven or Ford Mustang. The result must be gorgeous and awe-inspiring, of course. But it also must conform to the company’s design ethos without violating myriad governmental regulations.

One false line – perhaps the rubber hood must be raised by an inch to serve with European pedestrian-crash safety laws – and the car’s aura can be compromised.

Over a lightning-fast eighteen months, Calty’s caffeine-fueled designers, stylists, modelers and cultural ethnographers would work overtime to convert a clean-sheet idea into a prospective scene-stealer at the Detroit auto showcase.

Calty chief designer Alex Shen’s portfolio already included a duo of Toyota sporty cars, including the

FT-HS concept and Scion FR-S production coupe. But after twenty years at Calty, this was something different: a once-in-a-career chance, as Shen calls it, to make “a kick-ass sports car.”

When the 46-year-old Shen assembled his team in spring two thousand twelve to commence formulating ideas that would evolve into the concept, one car’s name kept popping up: Supra.

It’s one of the few vehicles in the Toyota lineup that actually has a sporty heritage in the United States. But the last Supra twin-turbocharged sports car was sold here in 2002.

“The perception in Japan was that the Supra was a good sports car,” Hunter said. “In Japan, Supra is just another product in a long series of good products. They were unaware of its cult status here.

“But our designers, when we’re out socially, when people ask us what we do, the very very first question they all seem to ask is, ‘When is the next Supra coming?'”

Calty’s designers asked themselves how the Supra would have evolved had Toyota kept redesigning it. By 2014, two more generations of the vehicle would have passed through customer palms and another redesign would be arriving this year. What would it look like by now?

Turns out Toyota HQ didn’t want Calty to be fully hamstrung by focusing its design on Supra-think. After several rounds of transoceanic meetings, it was determined to not fasten the Supra name to the concept. Not only did that ease the pressure of expectations, but it gave the design team more freedom of expression.

They didn’t know what to call the concept; it just wouldn’t be “Supra.” Eventually, the car would be known as FT-1, as in “Future Toyota,” with “1” indicating “the ultimate.”

“You don’t want to overthink it. It’s not superintellectual. You want to appeal to the internal 12-year-old. If you don’t feel it, throw it out.”

“The FT-1 concept pays homage to Toyota’s entire sports car heritage, including the Celica, Supra and, before that, the iconic 2000GT,” Fukuichi said in an e-mail interview. “The FT-1 is meant to be an extension of this historic lineage, but not a replacement or reinvention.”

Before putting pencil to paper, the Calty team went to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in June two thousand twelve and drove the track’s amassed collection of European exotic cars. The intent was not to pillage other companies’ collective ideas but to see how other automakers approached the idea of a modern sports car and to explore how Toyota’s styling language fit into that sphere.

“It was more than a field journey,” said William Chergosky, Calty’s interior chief designer, a smirk escaping his attempt at a poker face.

The group came back with so many opinions that every designer in the studio was permitted to sketch his or her own ideas for the concept.

“Everyone had their own vision of a Toyota sports car,” Shen said. “We went around the room to get ideas, and there were demonstrable words like ‘sexy.’ But what kind of sexy should it be? There could be nothing trite or contrived about it. It had to attract and perform.”

Through the summer of 2012, a circular wall of sketches was created in the studio, where designers smacked their various inspirations for the vehicle’s form.

“It’s something you feel and see that influences the way it looks,” Chergosky said. “But it also comes back to the demonstrable: You don’t want to overthink it. It’s not superintellectual. You want to appeal to the inward 12-year-old. If you don’t feel it, throw it out.”

At Calty, stylists generally are directed not to become locked into their very first sketches but to let fresh ideas flow – especially if they’re working on the brand’s halo car. Doodling is encouraged. Much of the best work comes from designers on their lunch hour, taking a break from other assigned projects.

For three months, Calty’s designers drew their interpretations, with Hunter’s caveat of “so long as the car looks like it came from Toyota, not from Ferrari or Chevy or Dodge.”

“Even tho’ we were designing the car in America, there was some exoticness to being true to Japan’s culture and who we are as a company,” Hunter said. “Everyone has their own identity. It’s hard to wedge a fresh car into a place where people don’t say, ‘Ooh, it looks like a Corvette,’ or whatever. We didn’t want to go off in a direction where we missed our target. We didn’t want to rely on style.” Calty President Kevin Hunter told his design team, “Persuade me that it’s cool.”

Birth of a concept

Typically, when designing a concept car, Toyota engineers give Calty a vehicle’s dimensions, along with instructions on packaging and the “hard points” where chassis and assets structure should meet. But in this case the studio did its own proportioning work for the wheelbase, width and overhangs, Shen said.

Andrew MacLachlan, the FT-1’s concept planner, noted that while Calty was given a clean slate, the team also knew that Fukuichi and Toyota’s top executives in Japan had to approve the work. Calty enlisted Toyota Racing Development engineers to ensure that the car’s aerodynamics were legit.

Added Shen: “This was to be a design-focused vehicle, not engineering-based. This was what designers’ ideal proportions of what a sports car should be.”

A key decision early on: where to place the engine?

Albeit the 2000GT of the late ’60s, the first-generation Celica and all Supras have had a front-engine/rear-wheel-drive setup, the MR-2 was mid-engined. Many Ferraris and Lamborghinis have engines located behind the driver, and the nine hundred eleven famously parked the engine behind the rear axle. When it comes to sports cars, there is no plain right reaction.

“We spent a lot of time determining on stance and proportion, whether it should be front-engine/rear-drive or a midship-mounted engine,” Shen said.

“Everyone had their own vision of what makes a Toyota sports car.”

The consensus was to have a front-mounted engine, located mostly behind the front axle.

Because designers have egos, “Every designer thought their [sketch] was the flawless one, so we had to manage that,” Shen said with a laugh.

The exterior design emerged from there. No single sketch won the contest; an amalgam of ideas was mashed into one final design sketch.

It was the fall of 2012. With little more than a year before the car would be unveiled, it was time to embark making petite clay models.

Meantime, the interior design team had embarked working on packaging. The passenger compartment was being designed “like a slingshot, where the driver is the projectile,” Chergosky said.

Albeit a concept car gives license to be dramatic, Chergosky’s team wished elements that could be passable in a production car.

The cabin headliner couldn’t look “like a big chunk of dryer lint.” The engine brace that protrudes into the cabin was designed “to take something mundane and make it amazing.” The head-up display looked pulled from a fighter jet.

“We desired to fall in love with each element,” said the 43-year-old Chergosky. “We went the extra mile.”

As the interior and exterior began taking form, Hunter took a rather laissez-faire treatment to his marching orders, distilling it down to “coax me that it’s cool.” This from a 53-year-old boss who has a Captain Picard Starlet Trek uniform dangling in the corner of his office and a Batman Pez dispenser on his desk.

Scaling up

March 2012: Calty makes pitch to Toyota top management

May 2012: Toyota gives formal go-ahead for Calty to begin work

June 2012: Calty team takes field excursion to Las Vegas Speedway

June 2012: Decision made for car to be front-engine/rear-drive layout

July-September 2012: Exterior sketch proposals

July-October 2012: Packaging drawings and renderings

September-November 2012: 15% and 40% scale clay models

December 2012-February 2013: Full-sized milled “hard” model

March 2013: Toyota top management OKs concept

May-June 2013: Calty “nip-and-tuck” of full-sized hard model

Summer 2013: Concept name determined: FT-1

July-November 2013: Fabrication of showcase car

January 2014: Unveiling of car at Detroit auto display

Calty senior creative designer Bob Mochizuki sculpts a fifteen percent scale clay model of the FT-1.

Final sign-off

From the collection of final sketches, Calty modelers took the two months before Christmas two thousand twelve to sculpt six fifteen percent scale models and mill four interior bucks. There still was no clear winner.

“We were looking at ideas for potential,” Shen said. “There was a lot of, ‘I’m not sure about this.’ There were a lot of discussions. It was kind of like therapy, with who eyed what, and what felt better. It was an emotionally driven design process.”

Rather than pick a winner, intriguing elements were taken from each clay model, and a series of forty percent scale models attempted to harmonize those elements into one final design. Shen calls the process “functional sculpting,” which is meant to be “emotional … tastey with purpose, but not frivolous.”

One problem: What looked superb at forty percent didn’t look so excellent when deepthroated up to a full-scale packaging explore. It did not feel right, Hunter said. The wheelbase was too long. The car looked “a little fluffy,” like it had too much mass.

Time was running out. The fresh year was commencing, and the time-consuming milling of a full-sized “hard” model had to begin. The sign-off meeting with top management in Japan was slightly two months away.

Within that two months, the wheelbase was shortened, the spandex hood line and the rear three-quarter view were thinned to have more snap in the center line. The harass pipes were beefed up, and the taillights were given more zip. The rear deck received more aerodynamic treatment. And a meaty rear spoiler sprouted from the trunk lid.

Still smelling of a combination of composite materials, sweat and coffee, the full-sized model was crated up and loaded into the cargo hold of a jet tied for Japan, along with the Gran Turismo gaming pod that had been specially programmed by Polyphony Digital.

After Akio Toyoda’s video-gaming exploits sealed the deal, approval was granted to build a display car – one able to propel itself onto a stage and be subject to scrutiny from the world’s automotive executives and media.

Like most design studios, Calty doesn’t have the machinery to build a self-propelling prototype from scrape. Instead, Calty called upon fabricator Five Axis, located just up Interstate 405, which had created a lengthy portfolio of Toyota, Lexus and Scion auto showcase concept vehicles.

“We just dropped off the data,” Hunter says. He’s kidding.

Converting software coding into a milled model, and then into a working, breathing machine has hundreds of ways to go wrong. Even tho’ all the numbers might show up to add up in the Alias design software, the scissor-hinged doors might not open decently when the car is shown to the world’s automotive press. Or the interior might not align fairly right with the exterior. A solenoid might not work, and the cool rear spoiler might not pop up from the trunk lid. Come auto display time, any error could be a career-shortening embarrassment.

For the next five months, a team of fifteen Calty designers, modelers and fabricators invaded Toyota’s secured space at Five Axis to build and flawless the FT-1. Toyota wouldn’t expose the price of the project, but concept cars typically cost about $1 million.

Ultimately, the concept spinned into Calty’s shop at the end of November, to receive final detailing before being shipped to Detroit for last Monday’s introduction.

Back in Orange County, as the car sat in repose in the dimmed, high-ceilinged Calty staging area, the three top designers gathered for movie interview sessions. Normally, designers get no feedback on their work until it is shown to the public, for better or worse. But this is a uncommon exception.

Turning the tables, Shen looked at a reporter and asked – his voice a swirling combination of pride and confidence, with just a hint of uncertainty: “What do you think?”

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