CRANFIELD, UK - Andy Palmer's first experience of automotive engineering took place at a very early age. When he was about five years old and living in his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon in the English Midlands, he helped his father install rear seat belts in a Morris Traveller.
'That was my first move into the area of safety design,' says Palmer. He laughs as he remembers the experience. 'Those were the days when you couldn't even get seat belts in the front of a car.'
Palmer, 35, has come a long way since then. He is now general manager of vehicle design and testing at the Nissan European Technology Center, based in the beautiful Bedfordshire countryside, north of London.
At Cranfield, Palmer's job is to design Nissan vehicles for Europe. He is directly responsible for the evolution of the Micra, Almera, Primera, Terrano sport-utility and other vehicles.
Palmer has grown up with NETC in Cranfield. He started to work there a month after the center opened in 1991. He came to Nissan from the Rover Group, where his last job was chief engineer/manual transmissions.
Since his days as an apprentice at Automotive Products, a supplier based in Royal Leamington Spa outside Birmingham, Palmer had specialized in transmissions. Indeed, he was named apprentice of the year at the company. At the ripe old age of 20, Palmer became an automatic transmission specialist at Automotive Products.
But he is a restless type, and wasn't content to spend his career working in transmissions. After moving from Automotive Products to Rover in 1986, he became interested in the business side of running an engineering operation. In 1987 he was promoted to principal engineer/powertrain facilities, in charge of budget and resources for Rover. In that job, he had to balance the books and set budgets.
By 1991, Palmer had developed a broad base of experience in both the hands-on engineering and business sides of vehicle development. 'I did very well at Rover,' he said. 'Rover really launched my career.'
But Palmer still wasn't content. He wanted to widen his experience outside British industry and gain a more global perspective.
Nissan provided him with that chance. When he came to Cranfield, Palmer was able to further exercise his talent for balancing books and managing people. But his path at Nissan would soon take him back to his first love - the hands-on job of designing and engineering vehicles. After a stint as deputy general manager in charge of electrical design and testing, Palmer became general manager of vehicle design in 1995 - a title he holds today. He took on the additional responsibility for vehicle testing in 1996.
There has been more than enough work at Cranfield to satisfy an inquisitive and energetic man like Palmer. The center has evolved from its original role of altering Japanese vehicles to make them suitable for Europe. It now designs fully-fledged European vehicles with only basic platforms common with Japan.
'Nissan is a company that doesn't insist you stay within your functional lines, so you can have a hearing on almost anything about which you have an opinion,' Palmer says. 'As a special task, you can find yourself in charge of something outside your line of responsibility.'
For Palmer, that 'something' was cost-cutting and the reduction of lead times. As a result, Nissan has trimmed costs by 30 percent and brought development times down from 40 to 20 months.
In the midst of all his career moves, Palmer has started a family. He and his wife Alice have three children: Zoe (4), Zara (2) and Zack (six weeks.)
What does the future hold for an ambitious man like Andy Palmer?
'When I was 21 years old, my ambition was to become a director at 35 and a managing director at 45,' he says. 'I've got 10 years to hit the next couple of levels. The question is, can Nissan satisfy that? I think it can.'