Interview with John Sahs


John Sahs, Chief Designer at SIM-Drive, a Japanese company that is "a leader in sustainable design, and aims to establish transportation infrastructure which will diminish environmental burden with our ground-breaking "in-wheel-motor" electric vehicle"Sahs is new to the job, he started in April earlier this year; timing was critical, Japan had just suffered a crippling Tsunami, SIM-Drive had just launched its prototype car SIM-Lei (“Leading Efficiency In-Wheel motor”) with a range of 333km/charge and Sahs had just started his own design consulting studio STUDIO-6Design

No rookie to the car design game though, with over 17 years of experience under his belt, around 7 years at Mercedes-Benz and 11 at Nissan, Sahs has paid his dues and was ready to move on.  One could argue that he should have stayed with Nissan given its commitment to eco-design, yet something moved him to take control of his own destiny.  It is not an uncommon affliction, becoming dissatisfied with the structure and bureaucracy that make car companies stagnate, but given the current ecological need to change the 'old ways' many designers have chosen the path less traveled.  None, however, have landed in the hands of such a unique company as Sahs did...and none in the company of SIM-Drive's environmentalist CEO Hiroshi Shimizu.  Having made his mark with the Maybach, GT-R Concept interior, Serenity Show Car exterior, and more recently the 3rd Generation Cube we wanted to know, how that decision came about, what Sahs has in store for us, and what his tips are for car designers!

John Sahs

Green Car Design : How did you become a car designer?

John Sahs : Growing up in Los Angeles, California , I had a passion for art and cars.  My father was an aerospace engineer and he loved tinkering on his car every weekend.  I used to help him a lot in the garage and I learned the basics about the car, and appreciated the experience.  Back then he would tell me stories of all the cars he had when he was in his 20’s and how he would have street races.  In my 20’s I didn’t have the kind of cars that my dad had, but my first car after high school was a '72 BMW 2002.  It had history, charm, character, it was a BMW and I loved it.  In 1988 I was attending a community college and was majoring in graphic design, my 2 years were up and I had to decide which university to go to.  My education counselor gave me an Art Center College of Design catalog.  He said to me if you are really serious about design, this is the school to be in.  I was scanning through the pages and I saw these futuristic car models and sketches.  It felt like someone hit me on the head with a sledgehammer and said “Wake up John !!! This is it!!,  This is what you want to do for the rest of your life".  The phrase  “Shape the future” kept on repeating in my head.  So that was when I decided to become a car designer.

Future of EV

Future EV Concept sketch

GCD : Where/how did your career in automotive design start?

JS : After Graduating from Art Center in 1992, Mercedes-Benz was interested in my work and asked if I would like to work in their new studio in Japan.  I said yes of course, so I had to wait about a year later to have an interview with Mr. Olivier Boulay, the General Manager who was in charge of the Japan studio.  I got the job and started my first automotive design in 1993 at the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Studio of Yokohama, where I spent 7 years working on advance and pre-production projects.   I was part of the design team that developed the Maybach Concept car that made its’ debut at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show.  I had a great mentor, Anthony Lo, whom I learned most of my skills from, and also had the opportunity to work with Mr. Michael Mauer, when he was the General Manager at the Japan studio in 1998, this period was the most fun I ever had working for the company.  As well out of the 7 years, I had worked one year at the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Studio, Germany, where I had the opportunity to work under the leadership of Mr. Bruno Sacco, the well-known and respected Design Chief of Mercedes-Benz.

GCD : Do you approach design with any core values? (ie. Is there a governing philosophy that you feel you bring to your work, a work ethic, or goal?)

JS : I basically want to create designs that people can connect with in a positive way.  I guess my 2002 BMW had a strong influence on me.  So I am always searching for “simplicity”.  Leonardo Da Vinci once said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.

Future EV "in wheel motor technology" sketch

GCD : Do you recall when you felt you wanted to shift your interest towards green car design?

JS : Well at the time, I was a senior level designer at Nissan, and I had the opportunity to be a team leader on a project for Infiniti that focused on creating a Green car for the brand.  After doing intensive research in the market and seeing the potential for a Green Luxury Brand, I felt that the car paradigm was beginning to shift towards “Green” as people were beginning to search for the alternative.  After the market crash in 2008, a lot projects were put on hold.  It was not until Mr. Ghosn had announced Nissan’s commitment to developing its’ first “zero emission” production car for 2011, that the “Leaf” program began to start.  Unfortunately I was not part of the project.  I wanted to join such programs, but my design responsibilities were used for another project.

GCD : Renault-Nissan is at forefront of eco automotive design it seems, why leave them for SIM-Drive?

JS : A very good question.  Why leave a company where you spent most of your career, had some success, and was going to be promoted to management, for a start-up company, that was only 2 years old?

A design friend of mine who was going to leave his position as Chief Designer after the launch of SIM-Lei, asked me if I was interested in meeting Professor Hiroshi Shimizu, of Keio University.  My friend explained to me that Professor Shimizu had started an EV company, and he was searching for a chief designer who could take over the responsibility of developing the second prototype.  I said sure and I met with Professor Shimizu.  I then remember seeing his story on the Discovery Channel program called "Future Cars 2030", where he discussed about his development of the “in motor technology” and showed a prototype with 8 wheels called Eliica.   I thought it was ridiculous looking and never thought about it again.  Until that evening when I met Professor Shimizu, he told me how SIM-Drive was going to revolutionize the industry with its’ “Super In Wheel Motor”.  He then showed me the Eliica and gave me a test ride.  Before he stepped on the pedal, he asked me have I ever experienced driving in an EV car.  I said yes, I test drove the Nissan Leaf.  He said that the Leaf doesn’t show you the true potential of an EV.  He then stepped on the pedal and before I can grab the door grip, a saw nothing but blurred images outside the window as we were speeding towards the end of the runway.  He then stopped the car and said to me in a very calm and assured voice, “This is EV”.

SIM-Drive Eliica

GCS : What do you think you can achieve at SIM?

JS : I felt with my 17 years experience in the automotive design working for such famous brand as Mercedes-Benz, Infiniti and Nissan, that I could help create the SIM-Drive brand through the language of design.  It is a small company with limited resources, so let see what I can do.

GCD : What do you think the impact of eco-design will be on automotive design as a whole? Where do you see green design in 5 years?

JS : I believe that eco-design for the car industry will have its most impact towards the interior of the car, which will then have a strong impact on the exterior.  When I heard that with SIM-Drive’s technology, there is no need for an engine bay, and no need for a drive shaft or transmission, I can only imagine the endless possibilities you can do with the interior layout.  I really want to optimize this benefit in SIM-Drive’s next prototype 002.

I would say that in 5 years eco-design will be the driving force that will make a strong and positive influence in the community and the world.  There is a silent revolution going on and if you don’t listen carefully, you might miss it.  The Automotive industry needs a new breakthrough in design and in innovation.  BMW “i” brand is a good example of this revolution.  Alternative vehicles and new mobility will grow every year.  Tesla’s model S and Fisker’s Karma will give EV a good boost in the premium segment.  I can also see the future in EV formula one races as well.  From what I heard the Chinese manufacturers are aggressively pursuing the EV revolution.  So it is nice to know I am part of this “revolution”.

Future Formula EV sketch

GCD : What engine type do you favour for a green future?

JS :  I favour “in wheel motor” for sure.  I always ask myself, why do current EV cars still have an typical gasoline car layout?  In order to create something new, you have to start new.

GCD : Do you have a design pet peeve?

JS :  I sometimes get into the details too quickly

GCD : What inspires you?

JS : People inspire me.  I am inspired by people who want to make a difference in this world.

GCD : Any tips for designers out there?

JS : I have 3 rules that I always followed since I had graduated from Art Center:

1.     Work Hard...they say that creativity is 90% sweat and 10% creativeness

2.     Always do good work…good work should always be a minimum, never go below that

3.     The last and most important rule of them all “NEVER GIVE  UP”!!!!!!NEVER EVER GIVE UP!!!!!!!

GCD : Thanks!

John Sahs has a fantastic personal website that tells anecdotes of his time at Art Center, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and has a wealth of images that show the evolution of his style and philosophy.  GCD is definitely looking forward to the next SIM-Drive prototype!

John Sahs with 3rd Generation Cube