Inspired by pre-War race cars, powered by electricity

Once every few years, each major automaker unveils a futuristic concept car that either previews an upcoming design language or technology, or it simply showcases the brand’s ability to build amazing things. Infiniti is no stranger to this trend with the EMERG-E and Vision GT concepts, but it has taken a different approach for the 2017 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Instead of looking into the future, Infiniti took inspiration from the distant past for its latest concept car. It’s called the Prototype 9, and it’s a tribute to pre-World War II single-seater race cars.

Inspired by vehicles that dominated European motorsport in the 1930s, the Prototype 9 is also a tribute to the early days of Japanese racing and the country’s first race track, Tamagawa Speedway. And unlike its ancestors, which had large V-8, V-12, and even V-16 engines, the Prototype 9 is powered by a next-generation all-electric drivetrain. So, in essence, it combines a vintage design with modern technology, which is what a good concept car is supposed to showcase. Unfortunately, this vehicle isn’t slated to go into production, so don’t get your hopes up over being able to buy a track-ready single-seater anytime soon.

Updated 08/21/2017: We added a series of new images takes during the car’s official presentation at the 2017 Monterey Car Week.

Continue reading to learn more about the Infiniti Prototype 9.

The Background

The concept car was inspired by an "emerging era of Japanese motorsport" and the custom-built Prince R380.

At first glance, the Prototype 9 seems like a useless concept car. It doesn’t have a feasible design for the 21st century and it cannot become an FIA-compliant race car either. So, what’s the idea behind it? Well, according to senior vice president of global design, Alfonso Albaisa, the Prototype 9 came to life as a sketch of a race car that Infiniti would have built many decades ago.

"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," Albaisa said.

The concept car was also inspired by an "emerging era of Japanese motorsport" and the custom-built Prince R380, or Japan’s very own Ford GT40. In case you’re wondering what’s Price got to do with Nissan, the two firms merged in 1966, after 14 years of independence for the former.

2017 Infiniti Prototype 9 Exterior High Resolution
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More importantly, the iconic Skyline was actually introduced by Price, and not Nissan. The now infamous nameplate came to be in 1957, and the second-generation model was launched in 1963, three years before it gained a Nissan badge. Prince Motor Company is also considered to be Japan’s original builder of premium automobiles, so Nissan is now doing its best to link it to the Infiniti brand.

2017 Infiniti Prototype 9 Exterior
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2017 Infiniti Prototype 9 Exterior High Resolution
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Note: First generation Prince Skyline and second-gen Nissan Skyline pictured here

Arguably, the biggest influence here comes from a bunch of European race cars from the 1930s, the most famous examples of which are the Mercedes-Benz W25 and W125, and the Auto Union Type C and Type D. These cars had similar designs and were quite popular back in the day, not to mention fast, winning several track and hillclimb events. They were nicknamed the Silver Arrows due to their silver paint and success and some of them brought major innovations to the market. For instance, Auto Union is credited as the first manufacturer to use a mid-engined layout.

Infiniti To Unveil Retro-Style Concept Car at Pebble Beach
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Infiniti To Unveil Retro-Style Concept Car at Pebble Beach
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Note: Auto Union Type C and Mercedes-Benz W125 pictured here

Exterior

2017 Infiniti Prototype 9 Exterior High Resolution
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Just like single-seater race cars from the 1930s, the Prototype 9 has an aeronautically-inspired bodywork in bare sheet metal.

Just like single-seater race cars from the 1930s, the Prototype 9 has an aeronautically-inspired bodywork in bare sheet metal. Hammered into shape by the Takumi, the Nissan craftsman famous for building the GT-R race cars, the concept car is defined by smooth, aerodynamic surfaces, a long engine hood, short overhangs, an open wheel layout, and an exposed cockpit. It definitely looks as if it was design many decades ago, but boasts a lot of modern design features.

2017 Infiniti Prototype 9 Exterior High Resolution
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For starters, the grille has a more intricate design. While intakes of cars like the Auto Union Type C and Mercedes-Benz W25 were relatively simple, the Prototype 9 has a grille inspired by modern Infiniti design. Whereas the vertical slats are familiar, they have a curved shape that give the grille a wavy appearance. The lower section also integrates some sort of splitter for better aerodynamics.

2017 Infiniti Prototype 9 Exterior High Resolution
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The unique Infiniti badge that would be more appropriate on a luxury vehicle rather than a sports car.

Above, there’s a unique Infiniti badge that would be more appropriate on a luxury vehicle rather than a sports car. However, I must say it looks pretty good on this model. The front hood is also different than those seen on old race cars. While classic vehicles had either a split hood or a larger panel that revealed most of the engine when opened, the Prototype 9 has a modern lid. On the other hand, Infiniti equipped it with quick-release pins for an authentic motorsport look.

On each side of the hood, we can see Z-shaped chrome trim that in some way mimics the old design of side-exiting exhaust pipes. Around back, while the boat-tail design is far from new, the body work is much crisper than on vintage sports cars. More notably, the vehicle doesn’t feature exhaust pipes, which aren’t needed on a pure electric car.

But, other than this, the Prototype 9 is as vintage as it gets. The large wheels have multiple wire spokes, and central locking nuts, no fenders, and the brakes are shaped like old drum brakes. Other vintage details include the small, tilting windscreen, the tires, and the riveted body panels. Needless to say, the Prototype 9 would find its place among 1930s race cars at a classic motorsport meeting.

Exterior Dimensions

Length (Inches) 170.5
Width (Inches) 71.7
Height (Inches) 35.8
Ground clearance (Inches) 2.5
Wheelbase (Inches) 106.3
Track front/rear (Inches) 61.0/61.8

Interior

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The seat and some other surfaces are wrapped in black leather and contrasting red stitching.

Infiniti didn’t provide detailed photos of the interior, but it’s safe to assume that, given the single-seat configuration and the car’s motorsport purpose, there’s nothing much to see. The old cars barely had any room for the gear and the driver in there, so convenience features weren’t even considered and Infiniti remained true to that design. However, the firm did say that the seat and some other surfaces are wrapped in black leather and contrasting red stitching, while the headrest features subtle Japanese flags.

An interesting feature is the steering wheel, which rotates around a fixed central hub that houses the driver’s instrument gauges. The hub is finished in turned aluminum, an effect seen on aircraft in the first half of the 20th century, as well as many race cars before World War II. The cockpit includes minimal switchgear due to lack of space, but this is exactly what made 1930s race cars special. They were no-nonsense machines built for fast laps and comfort was sacrificed over performance.

Drivetrain

2017 Infiniti Prototype 9 Exterior High Resolution
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The race car uses a "next-generation EV powertrain which looks squarely to the future.

Although the single-seater race cars built by Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union had big engines under the hood, the Prototype 9 uses an electric drivetrain. It might seem like a weird choise, especially to purists, but it’s what you should expect from a modern vehicle like this. Massive V-12 and V-16 engines are no longer used in motorsport nowadays, and it’s more than fitting for a new concept to feature an EV drivetrain.

Infiniti didn’t share too much info, but did say that the race cars uses a "next-generation EV powertrain which looks squarely to the future." The firm also described it as "an excellent example of the ingenuity, craftsmanship and entrepreneurism."

2017 Infiniti Prototype 9 Exterior High Resolution
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The juice comes from a 30-kWh, high-voltage battery paired with a prototype electric motor.

Developed by Nissan Motor Corporation’s Advanced Powertrain Department it uses traditional materials and techniques applied for the Prototype 9’s manufacturing process, including panels hand-beaten by a team of Takumi. The juice comes from a 30-kWh, high-voltage battery paired with a prototype electric motor. The latter has yet to be offered in a production model, but it could find its way in Infiniti’s first-ever EV in the near future.

The unit produces 148 horsepower 236 pound-feet of torque, and it drives the rear wheels via a single-speed transmission. Granted, it’s not very powerful for a race car and lacks the AWD capability of some production electric cars, but it returns decent performance. The Prototype 9 needs 5.5 seconds to hit 62 mph from a standing start, on its way to a top speed of 105.6 mph. The maximum EV range is rated at 20 minutes of heavy track use. This unit is definitely not suited for a production model in this form, but Infiniti is probably already working higher mileage, higher performance version.

Drivetrain Specifications

Powertrain Lithium-ion battery with electric motor
Battery type Lithium-ion
Max power (motor) 148 HP
Max torque 236 LB-FT
Transmission Single-speed
Drivetrain Rear-wheel drive
Suspension and steering
Front Leading-arm rigid axle with transverse leaf spring
Rear De Dion axle with transverse leaf spring
Steering Non-power assisted
Dampers Hydraulic rotary type
Top speed, kph (mph) 170 (105.6)
Acceleration, 0-100 km/h 5.5 secs
Vehicle weight 1,962 LBS

Conclusion

2017 Infiniti Prototype 9 Exterior High Resolution
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While some concept cars are exotic in the sense that they take a deep look into the future in terms of design and technology, the Prototype 9 is unique in a very special way. And while Infiniti isn’t the only automaker that has conceived a concept car based on a vintage design, this pre-War, single-seater idea has yet to be explored until now. The fact that it comes from a Japanese automaker makes it that much more impressive. The Prototype 9 is a fresh take on classic designs and will most certainly impress race car enthusiasts that know a thing or two about the Silver Arrows of the 1930s. However, it should also serve as an example of how old design can be reinterpreted in a simple yet fresh, modern way.

  • Leave it
    • * No production model
    • * The electric motor isn’t very powerful

References

Auto Union Type C

Infiniti To Unveil Retro-Style Concept Car at Pebble Beach
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Mercedes-Benz W125

Infiniti To Unveil Retro-Style Concept Car at Pebble Beach
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Press release

Nissan Motor Corporation and premium automotive brand INFINITI have unveiled a sleek, open-wheeled electric retro roadster prototype at the 2017 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. The car, called Prototype 9, is a celebration of Nissan Motor and INFINITI’s ingenuity, artistry and craftsmanship. It represents a reimagining of a 1940s race car with time-honored production techniques employed to realize its retro design.

"Prototype 9 celebrates the tradition of ingenuity, craftsmanship and passion of our forebears at Nissan Motor Corporation, on whose shoulders we stand today. 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."
Alfonso Albaisa, Senior Vice President, Global Design

2017 Infiniti Prototype 9 Exterior High Resolution
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Prototype 9 is emblematic of INFINITI’s entrepreneurial spirit and passion for stunning design. From humble beginnings as a sketch, to the dynamic example presented at Pebble Beach, Prototype 9 has been brought to life as an after-hours endeavor by a passionate and enterprising team of employees from across the Nissan Motor Corporation.

The car is powered by a prototype electric motor and battery from Nissan Motor Corporation’s Advanced Powertrain Department. This nod to the future contrasts with the traditional materials and techniques applied for the Prototype 9’s manufacture, including panels hand-beaten by a team of Takumi – Nissan Motor’s master artisans.

"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. 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."
Roland Krueger, Chairman and Global President

2017 Infiniti Prototype 9 Exterior High Resolution
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Prototype 9 was inspired by an emerging era of Japanese motorsport. The custom-built Prince R380, which also will be shown during Monterey Car Week at The Quail, a Motorsports Gathering, broke several land speed records in 1965 before taking overall victory at the 1966 Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway. Prince Motor Company is considered to be Japan’s original builder of premium automobiles, and its legacy can be traced to INFINITI Motor Company and its current model line. The R380 shown at The Quail is the actual Japanese Grand Prix-winning car, believed to be the only surviving R380.

"We like to think that INFINITI, with its stunning design, high performance capability and forward-looking technology, shares some DNA with the Prince Motor Company, which became part of Nissan Motors. Prototype 9 is a celebration of the artistry and ingenuity inherent in our company."
Alfonso Albaisa, Senior Vice President, Global Design

Where existing and future INFINITI models adhere to the company’s "Q" and "QX" nomenclature, Prototype 9 represents something different. Echoing the company’s origins, the figure "9" is pronounced "kyuu" in Japanese – similar to the English pronunciation of the letter "Q," which is used for all of the company’s production cars.

Prototype 9: Designers imagine, "what if…?"
"We discussed the idea of ‘chancing’ upon an unrecognized race car, hidden away for decades in a barn, deep in the Japanese countryside. We wanted to explore what this looked like, what it would have been made of. 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."
Alfonso Albaisa, Senior Vice President, Global Design

2017 Infiniti Prototype 9 Exterior High Resolution Wallpaper quality
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The starting point for bringing Prototype 9 to life was a conceptual sketch: an interpretation of an INFINITI race car, inspired by roadsters and aircraft of the era yet molded in new materials and advanced technology. From this moment Prototype 9’s transformation from sketch to reality was inevitable.

Albaisa created a sketch of the vehicle, with sleek lines, and aeronautically-inspired bodywork crafted in bare sheet metal. Initially shared only with close colleagues, the idea soon spread among INFINITI’s design team members – with a number enthusiastically calling for the vehicle to be brought to life. The sketch triggered a domino effect – each person who saw it felt it deserved more attention, and soon there was a burgeoning desire within INFINITI to take it beyond the drawing board.

More designers at the INFINITI Design Studio in Atsugi, Japan, began making their own detail contributions – the shape, design and materials that could feature in the cockpit, for example. Chasing a passion for beautiful vehicle design, the team moved to bring the sketch into the physical world.

The vehicle was transformed from a daring idea into scale design studies in clay. Full-size models were soon formed. Although still a secretive "passion project" at this point, word seeped into other parts of INFINITI Motor Company and throughout its parent company, the Nissan Motor Corporation. People noticed something a little different was taking shape at the design center.

2017 Infiniti Prototype 9 Exterior High Resolution
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Japanese craftsmanship
"The creation of the real world INFINITI Prototype 9 was entirely and coincidentally organic. 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."
Alfonso Albaisa, Senior Vice President, Global Design

When INFINITI’s production team became aware of Prototype 9, they immediately offered to build it. The model was secretly moved from the INFINITI Design Studio in Atsugi to a secluded section of the Nissan Research Center, Oppama, just outside Yokohama, Japan. Here, the car could be quietly constructed. A team of Takumi – Nissan Motor Corporation’s master craftspeople – was gathered to create the motorsport- and aeronautically-inspired racer.

Finished in a bare sheet-metal skin, Prototype 9 is the result of countless hours of careful construction. The designs of the brand’s contemporary road cars are characterized by deep-stamping production methods, which enable the creation of sharply defined lines and smooth body surfaces. Far from production lines, this out-of-hours project required similarly technical yet more traditional crafting methods.

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. For Prototype 9, panel beaters incorporated INFINITI’s signature design elements, such as the double-arch grille, "shark gills" aft of the front wheels, a single-crease hood, and sharp lines that stretch from front to rear.

In every other respect, the car is unashamedly inspired by retro aeronautical designs. Prototype 9 is defined by its smooth, aerodynamic surfaces, long bonnet and short overhangs, an exposed cockpit, and open-wheeled layout. Nineteen-inch center-locking wire-spoke wheels at each corner are even wrapped in period cross-ply competition tires.

As uniquely Japanese in design and craftsmanship as the bodywork, the cockpit adheres to INFINITI’s contemporary approach to interior design. Articulating the same sense of advanced human artistry of INFINITI’s production cars and near-production concepts, Prototype 9’s cabin has been handmade by the company’s interior design teams.

The intimate and focused cockpit is the result of two Japanese approaches to craftsmanship – "mitate" (pronounced "mee-ta-teh") and "shitate" ("shee-ta-teh"). "Mitate" relates to the practice of curating and bringing together the best possible selection of materials. "Shitate" is the desire to tailor the chosen combination of materials, bringing out their best characteristics.

With this fine attention to detail and finish, the cockpit is wrapped in black leather with contrast red stitching, sewn and finished in such a way as to echo earlier single-seater racers. Subtle Japanese flags are stitched into the integrated headrests of the deep single bucket seat.

In a cabin that features no distractions from the road ahead, the steering wheel rotates around a fixed central hub that houses the driver’s instrument gauges. The hub itself is finished in turned aluminum, an effect found on aircraft throughout the first half of the 20th century. As on the machines that inspired Prototype 9’s design, the effect has been completed by hand, "turning" aluminum shavings into the fascia with the end of a cork. Inspired by the project, this was a finish that the interiors team had not previously had the opportunity to explore.

2017 Infiniti Prototype 9 Exterior High Resolution Wallpaper quality
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With a single-minded focus on driving, the cabin features minimal switchgear, with those that remain modeled on cockpit switches.

"The beautiful execution of Prototype 9 represents a combination of artistry, craftsmanship and commitment to a romantic notion of our heritage. It inspired our people to work on Prototype 9 in their own time – as they were completely invested in the project and the details and features originated with them. Prototype 9 has been a labor of love for many of us."
Alfonso Albaisa, Senior Vice President, Global Design

Prototype electric motor from Nissan’s Advanced Powertrain Department
"While the essence of the INFINITI Prototype 9 is rooted in the past, it runs on a next-generation EV powertrain which looks squarely to the future. It is an excellent example of the ingenuity, craftsmanship and entrepreneurism that characterizes the teams across our company. Prototype 9 comes to life as a dynamic, drivable prototype vehicle at Pebble Beach."
Roland Krueger, Chairman and Global President

As word of the project reached across Nissan Motor Corporation, a team of powertrain engineers brought their own proposal: to equip the car with a next-generation EV powertrain. The Prototype 9 is the first INFINITI to be powered by a new EV powertrain: a 30 kWh high-voltage battery paired with a prototype electric motor, one not yet seen on a production vehicle.

The motor produces 120 kW (148 hp) and 320 Nm (236 lb-ft) of torque, and it drives the rear wheels via single-speed transmission. Prototype 9 has a top speed of 170 kph (105.6 mph), and sprints from 0-to-100 kph (0-to-62 mph) in 5.5 seconds, with a maximum EV range of 20 minutes under heavy track use.

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