TOKYO -- It came virtually out of the woodwork at the 1993 Tokyo Motor Show. The Isuzu VehiCross concept wasn't quite a truck, not really a car. It seemed to almost cross over both segments.
Shiro Nakamura didn't pen the VehiCross himself, but as a chief designer at the Japanese 4x4 specialist, he was among the first to realize that customers wanted a truck that drove like a car.
Before the term crossover was even coined, Nakamura was pioneering new ground.
That instinct for latent demand and flair for taking creative risks helped get this urbane, talkative, jazz lover noticed. Among Carlos Ghosn's first moves after taking control of Nissan Motor Co. in 1999 was poaching Nakamura to help reboot the flailing company. Nearly 18 years later, Nakamura is now retiring, having helped make "crossover" a household word and transforming Nissan and all of Japanese design in process.
At Nissan, the car-cum-trucks kept coming -- with an early one, the Qashqai, rescuing Nissan's beleaguered European business when the production version arrived in 2006 and became an overnight sensation.
Other creations of the Crossover King: the sophisticated Murano, the everyman Rogue, the quirky Juke and the Infiniti FX, still touted by many critics as the luxury marque's landmark look.
"He made his mark with those vehicles," said John Manoogian, a professor of transportation design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and a former General Motors designer.
"Nakamura did a lot of things many people would have been afraid to try," Manoogian said. "With their crossovers and SUVs, Nissan has blazed its own trail."
Ghosn was an early believer. He singled out Nakamura's hiring away from Isuzu as a key step in his 1999 Nissan Revival Plan. A strong statement, indeed, for a designer.
It is almost fitting, then, that the two executives who entered Nissan the same year and helped steer its turnaround should be stepping down at the same time. Ghosn, 63, announced last month that he would hand the duties and title of CEO to Hiroto Saikawa on April 1.
Nakamura, 66, will retire the day before, under a personnel shuffle announced last week. Taking over as Nissan Motor Co.'s global design director will be Alfonso Albaisa, 52, corporate vice president for design and executive design director at Infiniti.
Former BMW design chief Karim Habib was hired to lead design at Infiniti.
"I have big shoes to fill," Albaisa said by email of his appointment to succeed Nakamura.