I’m on a turntable at the Los Angeles Auto Show, a rash of cameras twinkling before me. But I’m not an auto show model or car executive, presenting the shiny creation next to me with a flourish of my arm. Instead, I’m inside the car, the 2017 Acura NSX, sitting next to the woman of the hour, Michelle Christensen. Christensen is the first woman to lead a design team working on a supercar, and the crowd is excited.
We're excited too. Until now, high-end, high performance supercars have only been built and marketed toward wealthy, adrenaline-seeking men. The look and feel of the NSX, however, was not only managed by a woman — it's made for a woman to enjoy driving, too.
The person responsible for that is reserved and humble — not quite what you'd expect of the designer of one of the year's most anticipated releases. The 35-year-old designer grew up restoring old cars with her dad in their San Jose, CA garage. But it’s her deep appreciation for shoes, fashion, and architecture that have bestowed the NSX with its personality. Her intense study of body, structure, and the movement of surfaces, honed during her student days at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA, is evident in the gleaming white supercar that holds us.
The NSX, which goes on sale this spring, is a clear departure from your typical gas-guzzling muscle car. To start, it’s a hybrid, running on a three-motor, gas-electric all-wheel-drive power train. And unlike its European brethren (the Ferrari 458 Italia and Porsche 911 Turbo) the NSX looks more comfortable and approachable. Christensen explains of the car's exterior, “if you sliced it and put a fan in front of it, it would look just like the movement of Marilyn Monroe’s white dress." How very apropos of the first supercar to be made in the U.S.
Christensen’s journey from Pasadena’s famed art school to Acura’s household project is much like the $156,000 twin-turbocharged V-6 itself: quick but intense. She joined Acura in 2005, working on less glamorous projects (the RLX sedan and the brand’s now-defunct ZDX crossover) before catching her big break on the NSX.
Long accustomed to being the only woman in the design studio, Christensen says the question she fields most often in interviews — What is it like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry? — is difficult to answer. “I never know what to say,” she says. “I’m just focusing on designing the best car.”
Women hold roughly a quarter of jobs in the automotive industry — fewer if you exclude clerical and office positions. The numbers grow even slimmer when you look at who's designing cars. The few female designers in the industry are typically relegated to perfecting cars' interiors.
"I can’t think of any [women] who are the lead designers on exteriors," automotive journalist Tara Weingarten told The New York Times in 2013. "All the upper management in the industry is a men’s club." The BMW Z4 is perhaps one of the only other notable cars ever designed by a female-led group.
Leading an eight-person team, Christensen worked for three years to ensure that each element of the NSX, from the steering wheel to the sheet metal, is designed to fade into the background. Her favorite feature is the pattern of the car’s prominent air vents, engineered to increase aerodynamics. “You can literally follow one line from the front, inside, outside and back around.”
It's a detail you might not notice outwardly, but you definitely feel.
“When you’re driving, the idea is that the car disappears so that it’s just you and the road,” Christensen says. “It’s like the whole car is hugging you. If you feel secure and confident, you’re going to have a blast driving.”
Christensen's influence over the car is evident, and while she can't talk specifics, that influence is going to spread to future Acura creations. I can't lie — it's pretty damn cool that a woman is leading that charge.