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CCotW: Mazda Furai (2008)

18 May 2018 | by Karl Smith

It had been teased in the press for weeks – the latest car in the Mazda Nagare series promised to be a very strong entry. But no one could guess what drama awaited them when the cover was pulled from Mazda’s new concept at the 2008 NAIAS.

Before the amazed crowd was a car that was more than a supercar, but maybe just a bit less than a full Le Mans prototype. Its dramatic, windswept shape seemed the perfect embodiment of all the Nagare design drama that Mazda had been offering at car shows around the globe for the previous two years...

...And in just eight months it would be gone, disappearing mysteriously as quickly as it had arrived. This week, we take a look at the Mazda Furai, and the design language – Nagare – that brought this remarkable car into being.

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The Language of Flow

Nagare, a Japanese term that translates into English as ‘flow’, was a language that governed the design of a remarkable series of cars from Mazda. In rapid succession, from 2006 to 2008, six concept cars of various formats were presented at principal auto shows around the world.

Their language reflected a desire to capture the aesthetics of natural flows of air and water and their effect on living and geological forms. It was a highly sculptural language and the designs also often blurred the line between formats like coupé, sedan and crossover.

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The Mazda Nagare – the car that first expressed the Nagare (Flow) design language

For a further explanation of the Nagare ideals, it’s worth quoting from the Mazda press release of the time. Though the quote is lengthy, it is very interesting to compare and contrast with Daimler’s ‘Sensual Purity’ and other design language ideas of today:

“We turned to nature for inspiration, focusing on images of motion created by forces like wind and water,” explained Laurens van den Acker. “Such natural flow lines all lend an intuitive sense of motion. We wanted to create cars that had a ‘snapshot feeling’ of this natural motion.”

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The Mazda Ryuga – a dramatic four-seater breadvan/coupé crossover

“We realised that the automotive industry is one of the few industries that hadn’t yet captured these amazing natural textures from the landscape,” continued Laurens. “Architecture, fashion and product design have all looked at these landscape elements. There was a great opportunity for us to interpret this for Mazda design.” 

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The Mazda Ryuga – a coupé, a crossover, a sedan? It keeps you guessing

“Our new surface language is car-centric,” added Franz von Holzhausen. “After studying the architectural approach, which tends to be strictly rigid, and the organic approach, which is highly fluid, we created Nagare to straddle those two disciplines. It is fluid, graceful, and dynamic, but the message it registers on the beholder is ‘flow-motion’.”

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The Mazda Taiki – a big step towards the Furai design

From here, Mazda’s designers began to explore the possibility of textured surfacing on cars – as if the cars’ surfaces had been naturally sculptured by air or water. Mazda’s design team began by developing a surface language to visually describe their Flow philosophy. Like the natural elements that had inspired them, the team wanted to communicate the sheer raw power of Mazda motion even when their cars were still, as van den Acker explained:

“It was in making the transition from observing motion in nature as an expression of energy, to applying it to a manmade object such as a car, that we discovered what a thoroughly exciting and logical creative approach the design concept represented. This revelation allowed us to proceed to create one dramatic and unique design after another.”

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“We are adding lines... if we do it well, it adds beauty” The Mazda Hakaze

Conventional automotive design dictates that the panels of car bodies are comprised of smooth, clean and clear surfaces. Yet, Flow is like a ripple or a wave effect across the surface of the metal.

“The surface language of Nagare goes against conventional design thinking of clean, uncomplicated surfaces,” explained Franz. “This is what we are all taught at college so it goes against the grain.”

“We are breaking the golden rule of design – which is to simplify,” explained Laurens van den Acker. “Everybody will tell you to remove lines until you have no more left to remove. We are adding lines, which is kind of counter-intuitive, but if we do it well it looks natural and creates beauty.”’

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The Sound of Wind

The Mazda Furai was to be the climax of the Nagare design language. Furai means ‘sound of the wind’ and that was certainly appropriate. It was meant to bridge the gap between a street-legal supercar and a track–only Le Mans prototype. There were two seats instead of one, but the cockpit was definitely built for racing.

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The Furai’s packed engine bay, just behind the cockpit

The Furai was built on a  LMP2 chassis and was powered by a heavily modified 450 hp R20B three-rotor Wankel engine that burned E100 ethanol. The engine was mounted amidships with a six speed X-trac semi-automatic transmission delivering power to the rear wheels.

The Furai exterior was a beautiful, sinuous work of sculpture, with many of the Nagare concepts present in its organic, flowing form. At the front mask, the now-familiar ‘bamboo leaf’ lights were complemented by flowing ribbons of carbon fibre with LED lights along their edges.

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Depending on your point of view, the flowing lights resembled bamboo leaves, calligraphy, or, most ominously, blue flames

 The light strips, along with the headlights themselves, had an eerie, somewhat sinister look about them. The ribbons of fibre acted as vanes to produce downforce along the front of the car, as well as channel the wind across the brakes and toward the rear end.

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The flowing lines are soft and rounded at the front wheel arch and grow more energetic as they travel along the car

Indeed, our colleague Sam Livingstone noted at the time: “As Teresa Spafford, lead designer of colour and materials, said: ‘We wanted it to look progressively like a storm towards the rear of the car, hence the use of more emphatic forms and more red.’

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Rear wheel detail – the LEDs lead the eye deep into the well behind the wheel

The illuminated strips shown at the front of the car could also be seen in front of the rear wheel, drawing the eye across the car and deep into the main air intake.

The net effect was a channeling of the air (and one’s eye) across and through the carbon fibre body, plus cooling the engine, brakes and other vital systems. Unlike the previous concepts, all of which built up to this moment, the Furai was an actual running car, a screaming racer, and proof that the Nagare design language could find its expression in a supercar format.

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The wildest tail lights of all time?

The interior, accessed through the dramatic scissor doors, was pure racing car. Two thin-shelled bucket seats awaited occupants. The driver’s seat, placed on the right, faced the racing instruments on the IP, and a steering wheel that was half wheel, half game controller.

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The LMP2 chassis forced a... ‘cosy’ cockpit

There were virtually no creature comforts in the prototype. It was a raw interior for raw performance. You either drove or held on for dear life in the passenger seat. There was no time to argue about the air conditioning levels or the radio volume.

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The Mazda Furai debuted at NAIAS in Detroit in January 2008

The reception at its introduction, at the 2008 NAIAS in Detroit, was overwhelmingly positive. It was not just a fantasy – the car ran and showed itself raceworthy at tracks including Laguna Seca and Buttonwillow in California. But it was at Bentwaters Parks, an ex-Royal Air Force fighter base in Suffolk, England, that the Furai would meet a tragic end.

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A Flash of Flame

The tragic demise of the Furai is  so we won’t repeat the whole story here. But, in summary, the Furai was brought to Bentwaters Parks for a Top Gear drive story and photoshoot. On the last drive of the day, the engine caught fire and driver Mark Ticehurst was barely able to escape with his life.

By the time emergency crews arrived on the scene, the car was engulfed in flames.

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The Furai before and after the fire (© Top Gear magazine)

In a tragic irony, wind, the basis of the car’s design language, fanned the flames and blew them forwards across the cockpit and front of the car, ensuring the fiery damage would be beyond repair. The wing at the rear, behind the flames, was barely scorched.

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The Furai fire begins. Note how the fire is blowing forward – the rear wing emerged almost unscathed

The charred hulk of the Furai was flown back to Irvine, California and held there for a time, but its ultimate fate is unknown.

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Top Gear’s 20th Anniversary issue – and Furai confessional

At Mazda’s request, Top Gear had kept the demise of the Furai quiet. The truth was not revealed until the magazine’s 20th anniversary issue, when the bitter tale was described to readers. There was quite an outcry, but Mazda had already grieved and moved on.

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The 2010 Mazda 5 MPV. Nagare, at last, goes into production

There was one more Nagare design concept, the Kiyora of autumn 2008. Others were planned, but the financial crisis intervened. The Nagare language finally saw an application in Mazda production car, the Mazda 5 MPV, possibly an unfortunate choice for such a flowing design language. Still, it was an interesting surface treatment, and the Mazda 5 was a well-designed MPV.

Then, Laurens van den Acker left for Renault, and Franz von Holzhausen left for Tesla. Ikuo Maeda would become Mazda’s design chief and cancel the Nagare design program. Mazda would later make a dramatic comeback with the Kodo design language, introduced in the Shinari concept of 2011.

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Mazda RT24-P race car at the 2016 Los Angeles Auto Show

Will there be a Kodo language concept racer/supercar? Probably not, but there is the Mazda RT24-P racecar competing in IMSA, and, in the gaming world, Mazda has a virtual car as part of the program in the LM55. Perhaps the Furai could be reborn there, too, in an even wilder ‘2020’ version, free of some of its real-world restraints, giving the Nagare design language a new expression in a virtual world.

What might the name of that car be?

Perhaps Mazda would reach back into mythology and name it for the magical bird that rose from the ashes – The Phoenix.

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