Shiro Nakamura Design director at Nissan Motor Co. Ten years ago, Shiro Nakamura's rise to the top of Nissan Motor's design operation would have been unthinkable - which just goes to prove that desperate times call for desperate measures.

And the situation at Nissan is desperate. Worldwide sales fell in fiscal 1999 to a 20-year low of 2.4 million units while the company's share in the domestic market dropped to an all-time low of 19%. Not surprisingly, losses continue to mount.

Mr. Nakamura, who made his mark as design chief at rival Isuzu Motors, was lured away by none other than Carlos Ghosn, Nissan's aggressive chief operating officer.

"We met once (in August 1999) and he hired me," says Mr. Nakamura, who joined Nissan in October. And he insists that he wasn't dissatisfied with Isuzu. "It was simply an opportunity I couldn't refuse - to help rebuild Nissan and in the process try to make Japan's automotive culture more open."

And just how far has Nissan styling fallen? "The main problem is inconsistency," says the 49-year-old executive. "I don't think we need to recreate everything. Remember, Nissan has a lot of heritage and many noteworthy cars. One of my jobs is to evaluate our lineup, then refocus our efforts if and when there's a need. But clearly we must sharpen our message, make it easy to understand and clear, and we've got to be more aggressive."

Without mentioning names, Mr. Nakamura is certainly targeting such market busts as the AD-Van, Wingroad and revamped Primera. At present, he has more than 20 projects under way including several concept cars for the 2001 Tokyo Motor Show, reportedly a make-or-break showcase by Carlos Ghosn of the 'new Nissan.'

While at Isuzu, Mr. Nakamura was chief designer for the Gemini, 4200R, Como and VehiCross, the last three concept cars at the 1989, 1991 and 1993 Tokyo shows.

Soft-spoken, he nevertheless takes a hard line on the need to set up a management structure with clear lines of responsibility.

"Management must assume responsibility for product development," he declares.

"Yes, we need information from sales and other divisions, but the final decision must come straight from the top."

For Mr. Nakamura, who heads a global design organization of 600 from his office at Nissan Technical Center, the buck stops with Nissan executive vice president Patrick Pelata, his immediate superior who is in charge of corporate planning and design.

To achieve his goals, he wants to bring more foreign designers into Japan.

Eventually, he says, as many as 10% of Nissan designers should be foreign. He also wants to bring more young designers into the process. Even today, an estimated one-fourth of Nissan designers are in their 20s.

"It is hard for us to understand how young people think," says the stylish Mr. Nakamura, who listens to jazz and plays the cello on weekends to relax.

"Their concept of a car, their concept of beauty, is different than ours.

Most middle-aged people, for instance, cannot understand the new Will-I by Toyota. The generational and cultural gap (between us and them) is enormous.

But we must still try to get as close as possible."

Failure to do so has potentially serious consequences. "If we don't bring younger people into the design process, we have little chance of cultivating a new, younger generation of car buyers. And I'm talking about entry-level customers," he declares, "individuals in their early 20s. The impressions they form of a particular company or of a particular style often last through a lifetime."

At least that's the way it was for Mr. Nakamura, who grew up in Osaka and decided on a career as car designer the first time he paged through an issue of Car Graphic magazine. The issue in question ran a feature on Carrozzeria and Bertone. "It was like being struck by lightning," he recalls. "I knew at that moment what I wanted to be."

Not surprisingly, Mr. Nakamura's favorite cars, mostly concept cars of a bygone era, include the Alfa Romeo Canguro and Medusa by Giugiaro. Of production models, he fancies the 911 Porsche, Rover Mini, '65 Ford Mustang, Corvette 'Sting Ray' and Toyota S800 - and of course Nissan's first Fairlady Z. "I suspect I still like these models because I was a teenager when they were popular," he says.

Mr. Nakamura, who earned degrees from Musashino Art University in Tokyo and Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, has spent more than a decade living outside Japan in the U.S. and Europe. It is this overseas experience that he credits with influencing his design philosophy most.

His goals are modest - but essential. "To create cars that have appeal."