The Japanese Jaguar: Infiniti J30

“Let`s just say that Jerry Hirshberg is a real fan of Jaguar,” said Nissan USA CEO Thomas Mignanelli in 1992.

The Infiniti J30 that Mignanelli was being interviewed about hailed from the opposite side of the world from any Jaguar and purists probably wouldn’t have agreed, but an infusion of California style and a punchy V6 turned the J30 into a Japanese successor to old-school S-types.

Such press was a coup for Infiniti, which had stumbled badly out of the gate in 1990, and a compliment to the car – which bore more than a passing resemblance to the much cheaper Nissan Altima. Unsurprisingly, both cars came from the same studio – Nissan Design International (NDI, known today as Nissan Design America). And that studio was headed by Gerald P. Hirshberg (1940-2019).

The Phone Call

Hirshberg had been a GM designer for the first 15 years of his career, which notably included work on 1960s Pontiacs, the final design for the “Boattail” Buick Riviera, and loads of other Buicks and Pontiacs in the 1970s. In 1980, he’d gotten a call from Nissan’s Japanese CEO, Takashi Ishihara, asking him if he wanted to head a U.S. studio in California.

The first time Ishihara called, Hirshberg hung up, thinking it was a prank call. But Ishihara told Hirshberg, “I want to change the flavor of our soup, and I will stay out of your kitchen.”

Both parties were happy – Ishihara wanted a studio free from Nissan’s stifling internal politics and one which was more in touch with American consumers. Hirshberg liked GM but found the bureaucracy equally stifling. Sometimes working at a big company offers you loads of prestige but you only get to design a taillight or you’re adapting a committee design. In Nissan’s plan, Hirshberg would have far more direct input.

Fellow GM staffer Allan Flowers, another veteran of many Buicks including the popular mid-70s Regals, went with him to La Jolla. NDI was not the first Japanese studio in California – Toyota had already formed Calty and Calty designs were already in production, but it would have a huge impact on Nissan’s designs in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

As Hirshberg later described in a Chicago Tribune interview, Ishihara (who would be gone by the time NDI’s designs reached the market) told him: “You are being created to rock the boat, to shift [Nissan’s] design course, and you will not be loved by all.” Hirshberg proved a tireless advocate for passionate design.

Altima and J30

By the end of 1986, the first NDI production designs were on sale (Hardbody, Pathfinder, NX Pulsar – all popular in their day). In the late 1980s the studio began working on what became the J30 (primary stylist Doug Wilson) and Altima (primary stylist Allan Flowers).

Both were studies in soft, organic forms – the bread and butter of the “Jellybean” era of Car Design but both attractive and contemporary. The Altima had a much larger market impact – properly reviving sales of the medium-compact Nissan for the first time since the 1970s – but the J30 got all the press.

Car and Driver’s William Jeanes remarked that among his contemporaries, the J30 was “Often described as looking more like a Jaguar than a Jaguar.”

The J30 replaced the square-rigged M30 coupe but continued its basic formula – now a “4-door coupe” (nobody called it that then). But as before, it still came with rear-drive and a 210-hp VG30DE V6, automatic only.

The M30 had been a reworked JDM Nissan Leopard (F31), and the J30 was the next generation of Leopard (Y32), now called the Leopard J Ferie in Japan (miming the French jour férié). The rear-drive platform architecture came from the Cedric/Cima/Gloria, but looked wholly different in the Wilson/Hirshberg suit.

When not calling it a “Japanese Jag,” some described it as a luxurious 4-door 300ZX, with which it shared an engine. It was fairly quick, but not in 300ZX territory.

An optional J30t package gave it BBS wheels, a spoiler, beefed up suspension settings, and HICAS four-wheel steering, but the package was rarely ordered. In Japan only, the VH41DE 4.1L V8, as seen in the Q45, was optional – but that engine wasn’t offered in the J30.

Finite Infiniti

This was an era when Infiniti was only offered in North America, and the J30 was designed to slot between the lower-end G20 (aka the Nissan Primera) and the flagship Q45.

The interior, designed with help from Italian furniture house Poltrona Frau, was beautifully appointed for the era if small for the car’s overall size. The sloping roof and fall-away rear made for a tight back seat and tiny trunk for a car as large as a an Audi 100.

It got rave reviews – especially from fellow designers – but never seemed to be a big seller. It was, however, about 40% of Infiniti’s volume in 1994/95.

This particular J30 sports a rare 90s accessory – gold badges, very popular then. There was also a rare J30t “Gold Package” with even more gold accents, but this is a regular J30.

Gold badges seemed to typically be applied at the dealer, and probably peaked from 1993-97. They were almost uniformly seen on Japanese cars – rarely on U.S. Domestics.

The J30 had a very successful marketing campaign featuring actor Jonathan Price (probably best known to Old Motors readers from Ronin), but it still seemed to suffer from the brand’s overall lack of identity with American consumers.

Sales peaked at around 22,000 units in 1994/5, which was too bad – because the car offered Jaguar-like style and refinement at a good price and with solid reliability. Like many “style cars,” it got lots of attention when it was new, but seemed to fade away in the mid-90s despite the fact that it was still in production until the summer of 1997.

By that time, NDI was in a design drought as Japanese Management wasn’t using many of the suggestions of the studio. That changed late in the decade with the advent of the Xterra and a concept for a revived Z car.

Hirshberg retired in the summer of 2000. Sadly, he passed away last month after a battle with cancer. But we still have his excellent work and that of his former designers.

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