Nissan, DeltaWing, and the Legal Tangle That Is the BladeGlider

Nissan BladeGlider
Source: Nissan

Earlier this week, we covered the Nissan BladeGlider‘s regrettable removal from Nissan’s production plans. According to Nissan, the Bladeglider, “is still on the table, but at the end of the day it has to make sense to the company. We have the concept car, and it has the ability to surprise, but it is not big in our plans now.” It sounded strange that Nissan would spend so much time and money on the BladeGlider, and then decide not to build it. Was it because of leadership changes at the company? Were there crash test and safety concerns? Those reasons could definitely be factors, but an excellent piece by Automobile hints that part of the pullback might be related to a lawsuit over the Nissan ZEOD RC race car that inspired the BladeGlider’s radical design.

The ZEOD RC was developed for Nissan by an engineer and designer named Ben Bowlby. Before he worked for Nissan, however, Bowlby worked with Don Panoz, the owner a small company that’s most famous for the Esperante, a low-volume sports car that it builds out of its headquarters in Braselton, Ga. Together, they developed a strange, triangle-shaped race car called the DeltaWing, partly with the help of Nissan. In the lawsuit, Panoz alleges that after it developed the DeltaWing, Nissan poached Bowlby and used Panoz’s intellectual property for the ZEOD RC, which later inspired the BladeGlider.

If you look at the two cars, the DeltaWing and the ZEOD RC definitely bear more than a passing resemblance. While they don’t look exactly the same, the ZEOD RC could easily pass as the second generation DeltaWing. Considering the same man developed both, that’s not immediately suspicious. But when you dig into into the details and the timeline, it starts to look a lot more dubious. It’s a very technical case that the court could easily rule on either way, but the deeper you dig, the more intriguing it becomes.

The DeltaWing never started its life as a Panoz project. It’s Bowlby’s brainchild, imagined as a next-generation IndyCar concept. In 2010, he brought a lifesize model of the DeltaWing to the Chicago Auto Show and attracted a lot of attention. At that point, the DeltaWing was more of an idea than anything else. It didn’t become the next IndyCar, but it did catch the attention of Panoz, who thought that his team could develop it into the real race car.

Source: DeltaWing Racing

Intent on entering the DeltaWing into the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, Panoz and Bowlby got to work. The car began construction, and Michelin signed on to supply the tires, but they still needed an engine supplier. Most major companies weren’t interested, but Nissan was eventually willing to cautiously dip its toe in the water. It denied all involvement through the first test, but it at least supplied the engine. To nearly everyone’s surprise, the Bowlby-designed, Panoz-developed, and Nissan-powered race car actually worked.

Following its successful test run, Nissan saw an opportunity to get in on a good thing, and at the DeltaWing’s first Le Mans race in 2012, it ran with Nissan logos and plenty of support. Again, much to everyone’s surprise, the DeltaWing actually did pretty well. No, it didn’t win, but it made an honest effort and was put out of the race by another car, not mechanical malfunctions. After that first race, it looked like the DeltaWing could actually turn out to be a pretty good race car. It’s also after that first race that things started to get a little more interesting and a lot less clear.

According to Panoz, Bowlby began working for Nissan before the end of 2012. Not much was heard from Bowlby until June 21, 2013. Carrying the title of “Director of Motorsport Innovation,” Bowlby began discussing the Nissan ZEOD RC and its intended entry into the 2014 24 Hours of Le Mans race. While the DeltaWing was not Panoz’s idea, he had been the one writing the checks and his team had been putting in the work to develop Bowlby’s idea from a model into a driveable, competitive race car. The way Panoz saw things, Nissan let him do all the work to get the DeltaWing concept off the proverbial ground, then paid Bowlby to bring all of that development work in-house.

Panoz held back on taking legal action until Nissan announced the BladeGlider. Developing the DeltaWing had been incredibly expensive, and Panoz had been hoping to release a road-going version to help recover that cost. The unique layout of the DeltaWing would be a lot less unique if there were two versions for sale, though, and the BladeGlider threatened his ability to sell cars. He still intends to build DeltaWing road cars, and the day after Nissan announced the BladeGlider, Panoz filed his suit.

Nissan has been mostly quiet about the lawsuit, probably at the request of its lawyers, but digging into the details of the case, you can see why it would want to let things play out in court. Panoz does not just claim that the ZEOD RC and BladeGlider violates his own patents and that Bowlby can only lay claim to the original idea for the DeltaWing. He alleges that Nissan also never paid him several million dollars that it agreed to pay in order to cover development and racing expenses.

For a while, it looked like the case was going to come down to a lot of technicalities and the opinion of a judge over who owned what ideas and whether the ZEOD RC and BladeGlider violated any of Panoz’s patents. While it still hinges on technical interpretations of contract and intellectual property law, a motion to dismiss the case filed by Nissan gave the court access to a number of private records. Some of those records have been released, and at the very least, they make Nissan look a bit scummy.

Nissan ZEOD RD
Source: Nissan

Cary Ichter, an attorney appointed by the court to review Nissan’s motion, released a report that, among other things, references an internal memo, which stated Nissan would not spend the money to enter into an official partnership because such a partnership would not involve access to the patents and intellectual property to build its own version of the DeltaWing. The memo then went on to state that the only way to do so would be to “poach” Bowlby. In his report, Ichter summarized his review of Bowlby’s move to Nissan with this statement:

So, while Mr. Bowlby was in Georgia preparing the vehicle that bore the Nissan and NISMO trademarks — declared by Nissan to be the Nissan DeltaWing — running on an engine paid for by NML [Nissan Motor Company, Ltd.] for the purpose of enhancing the Nissan brand and Nissan’s reputation for innovation, Nissan was recruiting (or ‘poaching,’ to use Nissan’s word) Mr. Bowlby, allegedly for the purpose of acquiring information that it did otherwise not have access to and that would ‘fast track’ its progress.

Even the development of the BladeGlider looks sketchy now, as revealed by an internal email that says, “Contractual relationship with Deltawing partners (owners of the car) is very delicate. THEY MUST NOT FIND OUT WE ARE CONSIDERING A ROAD CAR. There would be serious implications.” That doesn’t look good for Nissan. Really, none of this looks good for Nissan.

How things look at the beginning of a trial aren’t always indicative of how the trial is going to go, and while there may be enough for Panoz’s case against Nissan to go to court, more information could very easily come out in favor of Nissan. People move between companies all the time, and there’s no way to know what Bowlby thought he owned, led Nissan to believe he owned, or what the court will rule Panoz actually owns.

You don’t see many cars on the road that are true departures from convention, and it would be a shame for a road car inspired by the DeltaWing to never see the light of day. Hopefully it will happen eventually, whether it comes from Nissan in the form of the BladeGlider or ends up being built by Panoz in Georgia. As this lawsuit plays out, we may get a few more clues as to the BladeGlider’s future and find out whether it’s truly dead in the water or simply delayed. If both companies build a road car, though, that would certainly make for an interesting comparison test. Either way, hopefully both companies can work out their differences without dragging this out for too many years and can continue building awesome cars in the future.

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