Calty Design Research has been Toyota’s design and research centre in Southern California for a generation. As the first manufacturer to set up design facilities in Southern California, Toyota has seen Calty go from a small design outpost to an influential design centre which has a strong influence on automotive design within the Toyota product ecosystem and beyond.
In 2014, Calty celebrated its 40th anniversary and wanted a special concept to mark the occasion. President of Calty, Kevin Hunter, noted that the project was “a symbol of Toyota’s design future… a spiritual pace car for a changing, evolving Toyota.”
Akio Toyoda had challenged his designers to create cars that spark people’s emotions; cars that would make them say, “I want this…I HAVE to drive this!”
The team at Calty decided that a sports car would best answer Toyoda’s challenge. The project would draw on the heritage of Toyota sports cars such as the classic 2000GT, but also Calty designs such as the 1978 Celica, Lexus SC400 and the original Supra, among others.
The project began with initial sketches in 2012. Every designer in the 65-person studio submitted sketches and soon there was an avalanche of design ideas. It took some time for Kevin Hunter and Chief Designer Alex Shen to work through the enormous pile of ideas and shortlist the best ones.
Around this time, the project got a name: FT-1 simply stands for Future Toyota, number 1, meaning the ultimate in sports car design.
It would be 2014 before the FT-1 was ready for its introduction to the world at the NAIAS in Detroit. The car made quite an impression on the turntable at the Toyota stand, especially for sports car enthusiasts who imagined the car as the Second Coming of the Supra.
Walking around the car, it was indeed easy to get that impression – classic sports car proportions, muscular flanks, a sleek fastback roof, and plenty of vents hinting at a massive engine under the bonnet.
Chief Designer Alex Shen described the exterior design this way:
“‘Function-Sculpting’ was our key term to imagine the FT-1 design. We wanted it to look as if it was beautifully sculpted by the wind while providing functional cooling to optimise aerodynamic performance… it gets your heart racing just looking at it. The deeply sculpted intakes and outlets have curvaceous surfaces and transitions. This was our approach in creating beautiful solutions to manage dirty air.”
The sculpting certainly shows along the flanks and rear of the car as vents and wheel wells are integrated into muscular arches. The doors and sides of the car had very curvy, organic surfacing, very sculptural in and of themselves.
The bonnet had a glass panel that would show off the would-be engine (which in reality was just an electric golf cart motor to assist in moving the car on and off the stand).
The bonnet swept down to a truncated prow, a prominent nose, made more evocative by the venting ‘nostrils’ flanking it on either side. Completing the face metaphor are the recessed triple round headlights. Overall it was a striking mask, and a great introduction to the design of the car.
The roof was a classic ‘double bubble’ type that resolves into a fastback which sweeps down to the rear wing. The wing itself could rise at speed or be adjusted hydraulically. The windscreen swept around the set-back A-pillars, reminiscent of the classic 2000GT.
At the interior, one finds a cockpit-like interior reminiscent of race cars or fighter jets. This is an old cliché, but Toyota design manager Bill Chergorsky took his team on a couple of field trips. The first was to race-driving school, and the second was to Miramar Naval Air station where the team spent some time in fighter jet simulators.
The result was a driver-focused cockpit with a heads-up display, a racing-inspired steering wheel (complete with dials on the upper rim) and angular bucket seats. The design of the cockpit emphasises tension in a composition the designers called a ‘slingshot’, a taut design stretched around the driver who is the imaginary projectile.
The minimalist interior design was not overwrought with surfacing trim or instrumentation, but its emphasis on performance driving got many a visitor to the stand flush with excitement.
The reaction of critics was generally good, but some thought the design a bit much. Robert Cumberford, writing for Automobile magazine expressed mixed emotions about the car:
“In many ways, this car is a mess – an intriguing and attractive mess, yes, but a mess all the same. Lines don’t flow very well, details don’t really work, there are conflicting lines and surfaces, and there’s no coherent mechanical plan behind the non-running concept car seen in Detroit…”
But Cumberford also heaped praise on the design of the interior, “the superb and imaginative cockpit”, which he called, “the best part of the car.”
Now let’s fast-forward a few years:
When the first photos of the 2020 Toyota Supra began to leak out, many saw what had been widely anticipated: an updated FT-1, toned down for the street. There was a new assessment of the design of the FT-1, which, in 2019 is basically a seven year-old design.
Robert Cumberford unearthed his original review of the FT-1 and revised his assessment: “So instead of what I described five years ago as “a three-dimensional sketch,” which is all the FT-1 was, we now have a reasonably priced GT car that’s still a mess stylistically… and still very attractive.”
Cumberford did, however, bemoan the interior design of the Supra, “I’m afraid I must say that this execution is so boringly grey and sedan-like that it should not be in a sports car at all.”
But beyond the Supra itself, the legacy of the FT-1 was the more expressive, emotional designs seen in new generations of other Toyota nameplates. These cars were long considered the automotive equivalent of sensible shoes; reliable, solid purchases, but plain vanilla in styling. But starting with the 2014 Corolla, the 2016 Prius, and then the 2018 Camry, Toyota began to infuse more aggressive, eye catching, and yes, controversial styling, into their cars – at least in North American markets.
The FT-1 was an interesting ‘pebble dropped in a pond moment’ for the history of the Supra, but also for Toyota design. It is a good lesson for all of us to learn as well.