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Design: Cross-bred in Britain: The new Ford is a Nissan designed in the UK for Europe

BILLBOARDS all over the country are pushing a pair of new four-wheel-drive vehicles: Nissan's Terrano II and Ford's Maverick. They are unusual in two ways.

First, they are the same car: a Nissan. Second, this is the first Japanese car model for which design responsibility has lain outside Japan. Although the vehicle is built in Spain, the Terrano II/Maverick was born in Britain - the brainchild of the Nissan European Technology Centre in Cranfield, Bedfordshire. It is also the first Japanese vehicle designed exclusively for Europe. 'There was a belief that it is difficult to make a four-by-four that satisfies the global market,' said Don Irvine, the project leader.

But its significance goes far beyond this. Nissan hopes the Terrano will finally give the lie to claims - not least those by Ian McAllister, chairman of Ford UK - that Japanese transplant factories are no more than screwdriver plants and that they are gradually eroding Europe's engineering and development skills.

Japanese manufacturers are sensitive to such claims and, when Nissan set up the Cranfield centre in 1988, it knew it would do itself no harm politically. But the main motor was commercial. The decision to give the design to Cranfield was a continuation of its plans to make the cars sold in Europe steadily more European.

'Historically, Japanese cars built in Japan have had significant quality and reliability advantages over the Europeans,' Mr Irvine said. 'Those days are largely past. Now you need better market information.'

Ian Milburn, NETC's deputy managing director, said that it was increasingly important to build cars that suit the European market. Each car coming out of Nissan's Sunderland plant, which started production in 1986, has been less Japanese than the last.

The first, the Bluebird, was a basic model that was at first screwed together from imported parts. Then the number of European (mainly British) parts increased, and local suppliers were encouraged to produce their own designs.

The Bluebird's successor, the Primera, was also largely designed in Japan, though the NETC did have a role in making it feel more European. The suspension was hardened to satisfy European demands for taughter handling, for example. Cranfield was also given full reponsibility for the hatchback version.

The next stage was the new Micra, the small car Sunderland introduced a year ago. The basic shape was decided in Japan, but by involving NETC immediately, the most cost-effective European components could be designed in. 'It made the job of development smoother and more cost-effective,' Mr Milburn said.

The Terrano II took the process to its logical conclusion. The initial concept work was Japanese, then the project was handed over to NETC. It, in turn, brought in engineers from the Barcelona factory and asked Idea in Italy to do the styling.

Ford was involved from the beginning, making suggestions and monitoring the design process, though it never become involved in the detail. The two companies have divided the market between them, with Ford selling the top and bottom of the range and Nissan taking the middle ground.

Despite the original intention, 10,000 of the 60,000 Terranos produced will now be sold in Japan after sales people there saw the vehicle while it was over for testing.

NETC employs 360 people - 60 of them at the Sunderland factory. Seventy are Japanese, though this number is expected to fall, and Mr Milburn hopes to attract staff from Europe. NETC is dwarfed, however, by the technical centre in Japan which employs 10,000 - partly because NETC is not involved in engine or gearbox design.

Nissan concedes that NETC is unlikely ever to become as autonomous as Ford's research and development operation at Dunton, in Essex. An open satellite link allows Cranfield, Japan and another centre in the US to share tasks. Inevitably, they will remain interdependent and Japan will keep its senior role for years to come.

Mr Milburn defended this arrangement. 'I'm determined we will not start saying we are going to use British people because it satifies our egos,' he said. 'The Japanese don't produce airliners. Does that mean Japan is not an engineering nation?'

(Photograph omitted)