Calty Design Research: The Story of Toyota's Groundbreaking Car Design Studio

The West Coast Car Design Studio Broke The Mold In More Ways Than One

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Think of the most iconic cars to come out of Toyota in recent years. The Toyota FT-1, FJ Cruiser, and Lexus LC500 might come to mind. These cars, as well as many others, were the handiwork of a single studio. Calty Design Research is Toyota’s design center in Newport Beach, California, and it’s been spearheading the look of the company since its inception in 1973.


Calty’s origins actually start in the 1960s. Toyota was in the middle of a push into the American market. They sold the Land Cruiser and recently introduced the Tiara, but they weren’t able to make any real headway there. The reason for this, they figured, was that their cars were designed in Japan, for Japan, and therefore had limited appeal elsewhere.

Toyota made an effort to familiarize itself with the market. They sent their own designers out to Art Center College of Design for training and, In 1964, brought Strother MacMinn out to Japan to provide hands-on training. He was an instructor at the school, and they hoped that with his guidance, their future products would be more suited toward American tastes. MacMinn thought differently.

Strother MacMinn

Strother MacMinn

He felt that the only way for them to know what people there wanted and needed was for their employees to experience day-to-day life there on their own. Toyota took his advice and established Calty in 1973.

Why Calty? Why not “Toyota Advanced Design Center” or something? The studio was established at a time when Japanese cars weren’t as widely accepted as they are now. They feared that there could be some resistance if they stamped TOYOTA out on the front of the building, so they went with Calty, a mashup of Toyota and California.

What went on there wasn't known to anyone outside of the company. The employees couldn't tell anyone what they did and they weren't even allowed to have business cards. The locals had no idea what was going on in there. Some thought it was a t-shirt factory. Others thought something more nefarious was going on. If you were actually curious enough to go inside, then you'd be greeted by a receptionist whose sole job was to frustrate you until you left.

If you asked what went on there, they'd say they made Calty's. If you asked what the heck a Calty was, they'd say "you know, the Calty. Haven't you seen them around?" And that's pretty much where the dialog tree ended. They'd repeat that line if you kept asking until you gave up and left.

Their first workspace was a far cry from the sprawling 85,000 square foot campus they call home today. They set up shop in a warehouse in El Segundo near the Los Angeles Airport. The studio only employed 6 designers and 25 people in total. This paled in comparison to the armies that other manufacturers put out. Ford, for example, had 100 designers and an additional 300 modelers.

Calty Design Research in the Early Days

Calty Design Research in the Early Days

Despite their small operations, they were already blazing a trail that other automakers would soon follow. Southern California is an automotive design haven. Art Center in Pasadena is one of the world's premier styling institutions and no fewer than a dozen studios helmed by major OEMs litter the landscape. It wasn't so long ago that there weren't any design centers in this part of the country.

Graduates from Art Center had to take their talents to Detroit, Europe, or Japan if they were set on working for a manufacturer or join the local hot riding scene if they wanted to stay close to home. It was the perfect location for them. It was relatively close to Japan, they were right in the middle of their largest market, and the favorable weather gave them an upper hand on other companies when recruiting talent.

Their first project to see the light of day was the CAL-1 concept, which was shown at the 1977 Tokyo Motor Show and the 1978 Frankfurt Motor Show. The coastal setting definitely rubbed off on them. The wood-paneled section around the boot could be removed entirely to reveal a cargo area. More interestingly, The upper portion hides a pair of seats. The back window can be lifted up to serve as a wind deflector for passengers back here. The CAL-1 never saw production, but the front end previewed the look of the Celica Supra. A year later, they worked on the CX-80, the city car of the future. Its lightweight construction and compact dimensions aided fuel economy while the front-wheel-drive setup helped it maximize the usable interior space.

1977 Toyota CAL-1 Concept

1977 Toyota CAL-1 Concept

1979 Toyota CX-80 Concept

1979 Toyota CX-80 Concept

After dipping their toes into the water with a few concept cars, Toyota assigned design work of the second-generation Celica to the studio. The outgoing model was originally released in 1970 and was a strong seller out of the gate. Consumer tastes had taken a shift due in large part to the 1974 oil crisis. Toyota kept updating the car to keep it fresh, but it was clear that it had to be replaced with something designed in the new automotive landscape. The car was designed by David Stollery. If you're a hardcore Disney buff, then that name might sound familiar. That's because he starred on Spin and Marty, a segment on the long-running mickey mouse club television series.

He began acting at the age of 6 and was 14 when he took on the role of Marty on the show in 1955. The program was extremely popular, but Stollery retired from acting to pursue his true passion; automotive design. He enrolled at Art Center and went to work for General Motors after graduating in 1964. In 1974, he was hired by Toyota to help set up the Calty studio. He became a manager afterward, and one of the first projects he oversaw was the Celica. The car won over critics. It was Motor Trend's 1978 Import Car of the Year. It beat out the Audi 5000, Ford Fiesta, and Volkswagen Rabbit for the honor. It was also a hit in dealerships. 167,000 were purchased in its first year on sale, and over 400,000 of them found homes by 1982.

1978 Toyota Celica

1978 Toyota Celica

here to stay

It was clear; Calty was here to stay. Now that the program had proven itself to be more than an experiment, the designers needed something more permanent than their El Segundo warehouse. In 1978, they relocated to a larger facility in Newport Beach. It was around this time that other companies took notice of Calty. Honda actually wasn't too far behind when they established their r&d center in Torrance in 1975. In a 1982 interview with the New York Times, Calty designer James Sherburne went through the pros and cons of working at the Southern California satellite studio. Sherburne worked at Ford for 15 years before coming to Toyota, and one of the main advantages of Calty was how much creative freedom designers had. He said ‘'In Detroit, you have to answer to innumerable layers of management. You can't make a pure design statement.''

In California people are free; it is more acceptable to do different things. It is a white canvas. Detroit is a painted canvas.

Mamoru Yaegashi, Studio Chief

Then General Motors vice president of design Irvin Rybicki said he had trouble hiring young designers that would rather live in California. The big three eventually wised up and opened facilities of their own in the region. General Motors and Chrysler both set up shop there in 1983, and ford followed them in 1984. Design veterans went to Southland to escape the brutal Detroit weather. We’ve already talked about David Stollery. David Hackett worked for Ford for 15 years before going to Calty in 1978. Dennis Campbell left Chrysler in 1980 and spent 25 years at the firm.

Being so far removed from the main company loosened their proverbial chains, but it also had its downsides. Studios established by foreign companies back then were mostly responsible for concept development and market research and were not as well equipped to handle production car development. The lack of oversight also made keeping in touch with HQ more challenging. Executives only made a few trips across the pacific a year to touch base, and the studio had to go through the hassle of transporting proposals from California to Japan. There was also, at times, a disconnect between the two cultures. In the interview, Sherburne went on to say "Americans design for a strong graphic image, because this is a country with big spaces. It's very tight in Japan and more urban, so they pay more attention to design details. A design that looks fine here can seem out of proportion in Japan.”

1985 Toyota FX-5 Concept

1985 Toyota FX-5 Concept

1985 Toyota FX-5 Concept

1985 Toyota FX-5 Concept

Nevertheless, The firm continued to work on both concepts and production cars in the ensuing years. At the 1985 Tokyo Motor Show, the company unveiled the FXV concept. They called it the performance sedan for the 90s. This is especially reflected in its styling. It’s got the wedge profile that many other cars back then had, but the rounded surfacing shows that it had an eye toward the new decade. The car had the bleeding edge tech of the day, including four-wheel steering and a mid-mounted engine that was both supercharged AND turbocharged.

Kevin Hunter, President of Calty Design Research

Kevin Hunter, President of Calty Design Research

This is the first project that Kevin Hunter worked on. It seemed inevitable that he’d work for one of the Big Three. He’s a Detroit native and even graduated from the city’s esteemed College of Creative Studies. Instead, he made the trip down to Southern California to work for Calty in 1982. He began as a designer but climbed the ranks until being named the first American president of the studio in 2007.

Toyota previa (1991)

Chrysler was king in the minivan market. In 1990, the company controlled more than 95 percent of the domestic minivan market. Other companies tried for a piece of the pie, but entries into the segment such as the Ford Aerostar and GM’s trio of door stoppers couldn’t pry so much as a finger from Chrysler’s firm grip on the segment.

Instead of falling in line, the 1991 Toyota Previa broke the mold. Its rounded styling and one box architecture set it apart from the competition. It actually began as an interior layout study by a Calty designer. Engineers in Japan were curious enough to bring the study closer to reality. To preserve the spacious interior, they put the engine in between the front and rear wheels and tilted it 75 degrees so it fit under the driver’s seat. Those that weren’t aware of its mid-engine setup wouldn’t know any better. The interior floor is completely flat with no protrusion to speak of. The midship layout also helped give it car-like handling. It distributed weight more evenly and lowered the overall center of gravity. This meant sharper cornering and smooth, predictable braking.

The streamlined Calty-designed exterior had a coefficient of drag of just .33. For comparison’s sake, the first-generation Dodge Caravan had a CD of .42? And the second generation model that came out in 1991 had a CD of .39. Toyota’s own Camry had a CD of .33. The massive greenhouse gave the driver spectacular visibility all around. The car garnered its fair share of accolades and even took home the Good Design Award. The New York Times even declared that it was at the head of its class upon its release. The Previa was going to change everything...

1991 Toyota Previa

1991 Toyota Previa

But it didn’t. The Previa’s ingenious engineering turned out to be its undoing. The layout improved driving dynamics, but it was always down on power because a larger engine couldn’t fit in the car. The four-cylinder made 138 horsepower in its vanilla iteration. Toyota did rectify this in 1994 when they offered a turbocharged variant that bumped the number up to 158. They couldn’t address the styling, however. Buyers in this segment would rather blend in than stand out, and the monospace capsule did nothing to divert curious glances.

The final nail in the coffin was its price. In 1991, the Previa came in at a competitive $16,000. This ballooned to nearly $25,000 in 1997. The price increase can be attributed in large part to Japan’s floundering economy. Its competitors were built in the United States and therefore never had this issue. Toyota blinked. In 1997, it was replaced by the Sienna, a front-engine, front-wheel drive, Kentucky-built MPV that truly was the antithesis to the Previa. Over the years, it's garnered a bit of a cult following because of its unique powertrain, unusual styling, and countless quirks and features.

Lexus SC400 (1992)

The Toyota Soarer was a personal luxury coupe introduced in 1981. The first two iterations were only available in Japan, but the company decided to make the third-generation model available for sale in the United States. Not as a Toyota, but as a Lexus. They could’ve made a two-door version of the Lexus LS400, though there was fear that such a conservatively styled car wouldn’t have made much of an impression in that segment. They also considered simply selling a version of the current Soarer, but in the end, they decided to create something from the ground up.

They handed the project off to Calty in 1987 and they even shipped a Soarer out to the studio for them to look at. When the designers drove the cars around, no one gave them a second look. Well, almost no one. A few people asked why the setting wheel was on the wrong side. A disheartening experience to be sure, but they did pull one very important lesson from it. If they wanted to win the American market over, then, conceptually, the new Soarer needed to be a clean break from the previous two models.

Calty was a bit detached from Toyota’s corporate structure, so they were able to experiment more with the development process. Katsushi Nosho, executive vice president of the studio, set up a secret splinter studio in Laguna Beach in 1985. Here, a few employees learned about sculpture and fine art. The car was designed entirely in three dimensions.

Lexus SC400 Design Study

Lexus SC400 Design Study

Designers wrapped plaster-filled balloons around their arms to create these sweeping organic forms. These were photographed and put on a projector, where the images were stretched and contorted until they found a shape that they wanted to move forward with. They jumped from here straight to scale modeling. Development was strictly a hands-on ordeal.

Throughout all of this, Calty was competing with Toyota’s other studios for the winning proposal. There were two in Japan and another in Europe. They also had to show their car to chief engineer Toshihiro Okada. He came out to California several months earlier to see how their car was coming along. He didn’t like the proposal they showed him nor was he a fan of their unorthodox design methods. The team only leaned into their theme even more since then, and there was a real possibility that the higher-ups would pick something more restrained.

Executives in Japan felt it was too much of a departure from the previous model, but ones from the US felt it was exactly what Lexus needed to solidify themselves in the American market. Engineer Seihachi Takahashi took a liking to it. He wanted to see the car reach production with as few changes as possible. In the end, they went with Calty’s car, though this was only half the battle.

The rounded shape of the car presented a bevy of technical issues. Core components at the corners of normally boxy hoods needed to be moved around to preserve the curved one on the car. The headlights in particular were a major sticking point. The ones on the original model integrated the low beams and high beams into a single unit. Engineers couldn’t fit all of the mechanicals into that surface. To preserve the hood, they ripped the high beams out of the main headlights and moved them inward. Designer Erwin Lui said it went from a two-eyed beauty to a four-eyed monster. It grew on him over time and became one of the car’s defining features.

Before becoming a car designer, Erwin Lui earned $1.65 an hour working as a valet. He saw the 1978 Celica during his shift. He didn’t really take Japanese cars seriously, but he took a liking to it upon closer inspection. He later attended Art Center. Strother MacMinn was his instructor, and his class went over the Celica’s design process for a term. He was hired after graduating and has been with the company ever since.

The car didn’t reach production entirely intact. The original car had a smaller set of suicide doors to ease entry to the back seats. These never made it past the concept for a few reasons. They would have added a significant amount of weight to the car, compromised its structural integrity, and added even more time to development. Someone even told Erwin that coupes didn’t have four doors. How quaint…

The first proposal also had clear taillights with a slight greenish tint. Erwin felt it was an upscale touch inspired by the kind of glass used on New York's skyscrapers. The head engineer wondered why there was a green cover over red lights. He asked, "doesn't red mean stop and green mean go?" These were nixed here, but clear-ish lights would soon become one of the prevailing styling trends of the late 90s and early 2000s. Toyota themselves would have a few iconic cars that sported them.

2000s projects

Calty is also responsible for one of the more memorable products born from the retrofuture craze of the early and mid-2000s. The FJ Cruiser originally debuted as a concept car at the 2003 North American International Auto Show. It was yet another attempt to get younger buyers into showrooms.  It drew heavily from the FJ40 Land Cruiser. The car was received so well at the show that it was greenlit shortly after the show.

Toyota FJ Cruiser Concept (2003)

Toyota FJ Cruiser Concept (2003)

It entered production in early 2006 mostly intact, though the design was tweaked a bit to get it production-ready. The rearview mirrors on the show car were mounted directly on the A-pillar, but the production car had them on the door. The concept also had chiseled, muscular wheel arches. They show up here as well, though they aren’t as defined. It also ditched the concept’s door handles. You’d put your hand into the groove and pull up on the handle to open the door. It rolled out of the factory with more conventional ones shared with the Tundra of the day.

The spirit of the car was still there despite the changes. It was a hit right out of the gates. Toyota moved over 50,000 cars in both 2006 and 2007. Sales took a hit in 2008, but they still managed to sell between 10-15,000 of them before it was discontinued in North America in 2014. You can still buy a new one if you live in The Philippines or the Middle East.

2007 saw the unveiling of the FT-HS concept. It was the result of a joint venture between Calty and Toyota’s California-based advanced product strategy group. The name is short for Future Toyota Hybrid Sports. The design brief for the car was “what is a suitable sports car for the 21st century?” The FT-HS is powered by a 3.5L V6 which, when combined with its hybrid system, puts out 400 HP. This is enough to propel the car from 0 to 60 in just over 4 seconds. It rides on 21-inch carbon fiber wheels. 

The roof is one of its most intriguing design elements. It hovers over the rear glass to provide passengers with extra headroom. It dips inward at the center for aerodynamics. It’s made from lightweight Kevlar and retracts into the rear seat space to provide an open-air experience. When asked to put a price on the car if produced, Kevin Hunter said It would start at around 50,000. It was set to become the next Supra, but these plans were scrapped because of the recession. The basic design did eventually give way to the GT-86 in 2012.

Lexus LF-LC Concept (2012)

The LF-LC concept came about when Lexus challenged the studio to create a 2+2 luxury sports coupe that would further develop the brand’s design language. The team didn’t start sketching right away. Instead, they began with abstract shape research. Designers looked for sweeping organic forms that appeared in nature. They eventually settled on a large leaf to base their study on. The leaf was scanned into their computers and digitized. Then they began the process of blending this organic form with strong mechanical shapes. With the data gathered from the leaf, they were able to make a mold where other objects were pulled into it via a vacuum forming process. This was a great jumping-off point. Sketching commenced after a theme was established for the project: Fluid Precision Design, Which emphasized the melding of nature and technology.

Lexus had experimented with the spindle grille on the GS sports sedan and CT hatchback, but the LF-LC was the first of their cars to really commit to it. Everything either flows into or out of the front. The running lights, for example, are broken off from the main units and push into the narrowest part of the grille. This tightens this area, giving it a more sporting look while simultaneously making the top and bottom look more imposing by comparison. The window ducks under the windshield pretty aggressively. This lowers the greenhouse and improves visibility a bit. Coming around back, we can see one of the car’s more controversial touches: the floating pillar, or cantilevered pillar as they call it.

That term comes from the architecture world. It describes a structure that is only supported on one side. The thinking here is that the roof appears to be held up by the A-pillar, allowing the C-pillar to “float” above the rest of the car. The lighting elements in the rear lamps seem to go on and on. It’s akin to the infinite realities that come about from setting two mirrors across from each other. Everything is tied together by another spindle form in the rear.

Fluid precision continues into the interior. Wood and leather are used in conjunction with metal and high-tech interfaces to create an interesting contrast of shape and materials. The infotainment system is of particular note. Calty intended for the driver to control everything with the touchpad nestled in the center console. They don’t even need to touch it. By simply hovering their hand over the pad, they’ll get feedback that’ll help them navigate the menus. If they have to type a name or address in, then all they need to do is press the pad down. It’ll tilt up toward the driver and turn into a touchscreen keyboard.

It knocked showgoers and the motoring press dead at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show. It edged out the Chevrolet Tru 140S and Lincoln MKZ concepts to take home that year’s Eyes on Design Award. There were doubters in the industry that didn’t think it would ever see production. It was envisioned to occupy a space under the $375,000 LFA. Even if it did see the light of day, it would either miss the mark and encroach on the aforementioned halo car or get watered down. It was a case similar to the FJ Cruiser. Some of the magic was lost in the development process, though most of its defining elements made it through. The lines don’t twist as heavily and the grille doesn’t stand out as much, but the detached DRLs, ducked window, cantilevered C-pillar, and spindle motifs at the front and rear all make an appearance. The spirit of the concept is still there.

Toyota ft-1 concept (2014)

The final car we’ll be taking a look at is the Toyota FT-1 Concept. It got off the ground when Kevin Hunter showed a few sketches to his boss Tokuo Fukuichi. These were then presented to everyone’s boss, Akio Toyoda, who greenlit a proposal. This wouldn’t be a production car and more than likely wouldn’t even grace the auto show floor as a concept car. He just wanted them to further develop the ideas shown in the drawings. The team still took it just as seriously as earlier projects. The LF-LC concept had recently been given the production nod, and they felt a lower-cost Toyota version could be built upon the same architecture.

The Supra name kept cropping up during these initial talks, and it’s not hard to see why. It was their halo car from its introduction in 1978 to its demise in 2002. It had all of the traditional sports car hallmarks; A long hood, a driver-focused interior, and performance to match. The initial brief was “what if it were made today?” Higher-ups ultimately decided against using the name on the car. They thought that it would hamper the creative process of designers and instead chose FT-1. FT is short for Future Toyota and 1 means ultimate.

The team went to las Vegas Motor Speedway to have a look at their theoretical competition. They weren't trying to base their car on the others there. They were just trying to see how other companies approached sports car design. There were plenty of drivetrain layouts, but they went with the tried end true front mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive configuration.

After the trip, designers worked to develop their own idea of what the ultimate Toyota sports car would look like. Kevin Hunter let his team have free reign for the most part, though he did have at least one rule. He wanted the car to be distinctly Toyota. In an interview with Autoweek, Hunter said “Even though we were designing the car in America, there was some exoticness to being true to Japan's culture and who we are as a company," Everyone has their own identity. It's hard to wedge a new car into a place where people don't say, 'Ooh, it looks like a Corvette,' or whatever. We didn't want to go off in a direction where we missed our target. We didn't want to rely on fashion.”

Six scale models were created, but the team couldn't come to a consensus. A larger model that combined touches of all of them was made as a compromise. This basic design was tightened up and frozen.

The time had come to show Akio Toyoda what they had. They loaded up a container with two items; the model they'd spent months working on, and a high-tech gaming rig running Gran Turismo. Akio took the FT-1 on a virtual lap around Fuji Speedway. His lap time in the simulation was faster than one he had in an actual race car in the real world. The experience pushed the balance in Calty's favor. He signed off on a show car that would debut in Detroit in January of 2014. Toyota collaborated with fabrication shop Five Axis to construct a running prototype. Prior to this, Five Axis built the final Scion FRS show car.

A show car was finished by November of 2013. The design of the ft1 was chosen as the basis for a sports car jointly developed by Toyota and BMW, and wouldn’t you know it, they called it the Supra. It’s hard to imagine where Toyota would be without Calty. Production models like the 1978 Celica and 1991 Lexus SC400 helped firmly establish their respective brands in the United States while the FT-1 and LF-LC are influencing the look of the cars as we speak. They put a flag on the west coast and inspired a new, more expressive wave of automotive design. And it all began from a seed.

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