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BMW made new Toyota Supra possible: Tada

Family ties: BMW’s Z4 roadster (left) and Toyota’s Supra coupe (below) feature the same underpinnings but have completely different exterior designs.

Toyota’s Tetsuya Tada explains how A90 Supra would still be stillborn without BMW

4 Sep 2019

TOYOTA Motor Corporation (TMC) would have likely never been able to make the A90 Supra if it was not for BMW Group, according to the sportscar’s chief product specialist, Tetsuya Tada.


Speaking to journalists this week at the A90 Supra national media launch in Phillip Island, Victoria, Mr Tada recounted the story of how the reborn coupe came to be, with it ultimately sharing its underpinnings with BMW’s G29 Z4 roadster.


The core development of the A90 Supra started way back in May 2012, at which time Mr Tada was in the midst of a two-week stint in Barcelona, Spain, for the local media launch of another sportscar he was the chief product specialist for, the 86 coupe.


During the middle of that fortnight, TMC headquarters called Mr Tada with instructions to quietly go to Munich, Germany, and visit BMW Group’s own headquarters for a top-secret meeting regarding whether or not the two companies could do core development on a project together in the future.


TMC executives did not actually tell Mr Tada what kind of model he should be pushing for, be it sportscar or not, so he started to ponder what the purpose of that exercise was, which led him to thinking that maybe the time was right for the A90 Supra to come to fruition.


This thought was prompted by the fact that the 86 had just been released, but customers and dealers the world over were asking, ‘When is the next Supra coming out? How long do I have to wait?’


Mr Tada therefore saw that demand was very strong for the A90 Supra, and given that an inline six-cylinder engine is in the DNA of the famous nameplate and BMW Group was the only manufacturer making such a high-performance unit at the time, the penny dropped.


A lot of amicable discussions between the two parties then took place, with Mr Tada reporting back to TMC that core development was possible, with him then appointed as chief product specialist for the project that was still yet to be determined.


“A very simple, thoughtful response led me to a winding difficult road,” he said.


The negotiations over what type of model should be produced together then started, but after many meetings, a conclusion could not be reached.


Mr Tada later suggested that TMC and BMW Group take a look at the key sportscars produced by each other, ultimately agreeing to meet at one of the latter’s proving grounds, where an i8 prototype and the 86 and Lexus LFA production models were available to drive.


From Mr Tada’s perspective, the way in which BMW Group staff were driving the 86 and LFA suggested that they had never sampled any of TMC’s products before. Conversely, the Japanese company buys every single one of its Bavarian partner’s models to test when they are released.


This was BMW Group’s first experience with core development, with Mr Tada concerned at the time that it did not understand the significance of such a project.


His concern was manifested when BMW Group said it had no suggestions for the project and that it was up to TMC to decide what it would be, confident that it would build whatever was requested.


At this point, it had been one year since core development started and a concrete project had still yet to be locked in, with TMC headquarters questioning why progress had been so slow.


Keen to avoiding staying in hot water with his superiors, Mr Tada went back to his original idea and suggested the A90 Supra had to happen, as TMC’s model line-up needed a halo sportscar.


However, Herbert Diess, who is currently Volkswagen Group’s chairman of the board of management but was BMW Group’s member of the board of management for development at the time, did not share Mr Tada’s enthusiasm.


Mr Diess understood Mr Tada’s passion for pure sportscars, but the business cases for such models were hard to establish, with a long-term future required to be financially viable.


Several case studies ensued but an agreement could not be reached, squashing the chances of a new sportscar, be it the A90 Supra or not.


Mr Diess then suggested instead of trying to make a profit, increasing brand value could be the goal of the project. And with the plug-in hybrid i8 sportscar then nearing public release, he suggested that the two parties could work an i9 that would harness TMC’s electrification expertise.


By his own admission, Mr Tada was “a spoilt little child” and did not want to embark on such a project as he instead desired a pure sportscar, making him partly responsible for the protracted core development.


In a twist of fate, Mr Diess soon left BMW Group in 2014 to later join Volkswagen Group, with his successor, Klaus Froehlich, quickly advancing the core development following his appointment that December.


Like Mr Tada, Mr Froehlich was more passionate than practical in his approach, which led him to agreeing to partner with TMC on a pure sportscar.


So, the negotiations then moved onto what kind of sportscar should the two parties develop, with Mr Tada keen to make his vision for the A90 Supra come to life.


The most logical pairing was the A90 Supra and G29 Z4, but the former had to be a coupe to follow in the tyre tracks of its A80 predecessor, while the latter had to be a convertible like its E89 forebear. It did not matter, though, as TMC and BMW Group were now determined to make it work.


Porsche provided the benchmark for the project, with its Cayman coupe and Boxter convertible seen as logical rivals for the A90 Supra and G29 Z4 respectively.


However, the former pair used a mid-ship layout, while the latter pair were always going to be FR (front engine with rear-wheel-drive) to stay true to their respective lineages.


Mr Tada then had doubts as to whether or not the A90 Supra and G29 Z4 could genuinely compete with the Cayman and Boxter with a different layout.


More case studies ensued before it was decided that TMC and BMW Group’s existing platforms were not going to be able to meet the performance requirements, so new architecture had to be developed to do so.


Fresh underpinnings (short wheelbase, wide tracks) were then decided upon, but TMC executives were doubtful that Mr Tada would be able to pull off the project, particularly in regard to high-speed stability.


To quell any doubts, a prototype of the dimensions was made, as per TMC tradition, using a Nissan that was cut into pieces and welded back together in keeping with the plans. It was later shipped to Japan, where key executives drove it and subsequently gave their approval.


Mr Tada then went back to BMW Group and came to an agreement on the shared platform, including engines and suspension, at which point the core development was split into two, with the Japanese team working on the A90 Supra, while the German outfit took charge of the G29 Z4.


Different design studios were responsible for penning the two sportscars, while their driving characteristics were decided by separate ‘master drivers’, with TMC appointing Dutch racecar driver Herwig Daenens, who was its first foreign ‘master driver’.


Over the next three to four years, Mr Daenens was charged with leading the tuning of the A90 Supra’s engine, transmission, steering and suspension, which was specifically included in TMC’s contract with BMW Group.


“We share a lot with BMW, but the software is totally separate,” Mr Tada said.


He was concerned that BMW Group might press him to tune the A90 Supra in a certain way, but to his surprise, it said nothing of the like.


Just a few months prior to the G29 Z4’s release, Mr Tada was invited to test one of its final prototypes. As far as sportscars were concerned, he thought it was great and a genuine alternative to the Boxster for customers.


Predictably, people often ask Mr Tada if he thinks the A90 Supra is better than the G29 Z4, but he thinks that question does not make sense as their buyer types are considerably different when it comes to body style.


Mr Tada therefore believes that neither the A90 Supra nor the G29 Z4 face cannibalisation from one another, which improves the relationship between TMC and BMW Group in the sportscar segment that he admits is quite small and requires collaboration to succeed in.


Interestingly, Mr Tada noted that communication between TMC and BMW Group in the early years of their core development was done using English, which is a second language for both parties.


This proved to be a barrier to progress due to misunderstandings and cultural differences until one member of Mr Tada’s team who was Japanese but born in Germany and fluent in both languages was reposted to his former home as a moderator between TMC and BMW Group, at which point communication became much smoother.


“BMW’s team responded to my difficult requests and led to this exciting completion of two cars,” he said. “I would actually like to express my appreciation to the BMW team for this opportunity.”


While the A90 Supra almost did not get off the ground, Mr Tada’s passion to create it was driven by personal reasons that gives its development a much deeper meaning.


In 1997, he moved to TMC’s Z (product planning) division after being poached by Isao Tsuzuki, who would not only become Mr Tada’s mentor, but was the chief product specialist for the A80 Supra that was in production at the time.


Due to the timing of his move, Mr Tada assumed that he would be part of the team that would create the A90 Supra, but the project never saw the light of day as TMC stopped developing sportscars around that time due to their low profit margins.


After approaching Mr Tsuzuki to ask what his role was, Mr Tada found out that he would instead be working on small cars, which did not sit well with him. His negative reaction was not appreciated by his mentor, who scolded him.


“I was making minivans for 10 years,” Mr Tada said. “I felt like I don’t want to go to work today. It’s so boring. How long do I have to persevere?


“Akio Toyoda (eventually) became (TMC) president and said, ‘Let’s make some passionate cars’, and the 86 project started and I was in charge of it. And now I’m in charge of Supra.


“Tsuzuki-san always said, ‘I would like to see the day a new Supra is released’, but unfortunately he passed away five years ago due to an accident.


“I really want him to see it – that’s the only regret that I have.


“Tsuzuki-san actually never really praised me when he was alive, but I’m sure that when he sees this, he will be happy.”


With more experience under his belt, Mr Tada now understands that the passion for developing a small car or a Supra has to be the same, or else the end product will never be as exciting as it should be.

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