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It’s hard to imagine any job more thrustingly phallic or back-slappingly blokey than designing super cars.
If you had to picture the process it would be a room full of men with beards and expensive pencils making “grrr” and “yeah” sounds in caveman voices, which is why it’s such a revelation to discover that the newest super car on the block, Honda’s reimagined NSX, was largely the work of a woman whose first design job was sketching prom dresses.
Michelle Christensen the exterior design project leader for the fast and futuristic-looking NSX, looks like someone who you’d believe has a passion for fashion and shoes, but to assume that would be to judge a book by its cover while wearing a Donald Trump mask.
Christensen is, of course, used to people being surprised at what she does for work, and specifically the work she’s done in this case.
“The fact that I’m a woman who designed a supercar has certainly been a conversation piece, but the strength of its design tends to take over the conversation,” the 35-year-old says, with all the brash confidence of her Californian upbringing.
“I think good design, really no matter the subject, is asexual. There are a number of industries where design is dominated by one gender or another, but I have yet to come across any industry where there’s not some crossover. Often, there’s more crossover than people realise.”
I grew-up going to hot rod events with my Dad. He was big into rodding. He’d work on his car in our garage, and I’d hang out with him there – sometimes sketching, sometimes grabbing him a tool.
While she won’t accept that her sex makes her any different than the rest of her largely male team - “they like talking about shoes, too” - her background most certainly does.
Her love of design first expressed itself in a desire to sketch dresses, but her love of cars always drove along in parallel, thanks to a father who was hugely into the hot-rodding scene and took his daughter along for the ride.
The collision of the two courses was an unexpected, light-bulb moment that changed her life.
“I was always sketching fashion designs, and I did design a prom dress for a friend that was actually made - that was the earliest time something I designed really came to life,” she recalls.
“And yeah, I grew-up going to hot rod events with my Dad. He was big into rodding. He’d work on his car in our garage, and I’d hang out with him there – sometimes sketching, sometimes grabbing him a tool.
“We’d go to rodding events together, and I used to love that atmosphere—the cars, the smell, the people. Those events were so fun for me. That’s how I learned that automotive design was a profession.
“My magic moment was at a show in Northern California. My Dad pointed out Chip Foose, a car designer. I was totally taken aback. I had no idea that was a career I could even pursue.”
Suddenly and instantly convinced that this was her future, Christensen, just out of high school, applied for an automotive design program at the highly respected ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, but when asked to send in a portfolio of car sketches she realised she didn’t have any.
Her application, which must have been quite unique, featured some of her fashion work instead and, as she says, “the evaluators must have seen something there”.
By the time she graduated, that “something” - an innate talent for design meshed with a passion for cars learned at her father’s side - was so obvious that it was spotted by Volvo and then Acura (which is to Honda what Lexus is to Toyota) in the US, and her career has been on such a fast track since that the NSX - arguably the most important car to come out of the company’s North American offices, ever - was her first attempt at being a design project leader.
That’s a hell of a lot of faith that’s been put on the shoulders of a California girl, and it’s difficult to imagine the same thing happening in Japan, although that’s not a question Christensen will touch.
Working with head office, and the Japanese approach, was very much part of her mission on the NSX, of course, which was based on an original concept-car shown at the Detroit Show in 2013, and penned originally by her colleague “Goto-san”.
We really try not to let ego drive design; often two proposals are made, and it allows us to simply pick the best one.
“It was a global effort, where we found harmony in different perspectives,” is the politically perfect answer Christensen gives about what the US/Japan relationship was like, but it’s widely accepted that the NSX was a project demanded, and very much driven, by Acura in North America.
Christensen will go as far as admitting there was “friendly competition” between the different design teams in different locations, but she doesn’t accept that the final result looks any more American than Japanese.
“We really try not to let ego drive design; often two proposals are made, and it allows us to simply pick the best one,” she explains.
“Beyond that, by the time we finish a show car or a production design, there have usually been a number of counterproposals that follow the initial selection.
“We even create ‘A/B’ clay models or mockups, where it’s one design on one side of the car, and another on the other – split right down the middle.
“It’s about creating the best possible design – something that reflects the development intent that we believe customers will love.”
Christensen admits there were “tonnes of changes” to the original concept for the NSX, largely driven by the demands of wind-tunnel work and the engineering involved in fitting in the various power sources - an electric motor in each front wheel, another at the rear, plus a screaming twin-turbocharged V6.
“We couldn’t make any sacrifices with NSX,” she explains. “If a design element didn’t support function – we deleted it. The machine and its form really co-developed.
“By the end of it, we actually got to make it more aggressive, even more ‘supercar’ – but all along, my job was to allow the form to evolve by following the function.”
While the prom dresses Michelle Christensen once designed are now probably stored away in plastic bags and fading memories, the second-generation Honda NSX, a project of which she is immeasurably and justifiably proud, will live on in motoring history forever.