In an economic downturn like the one we've been in, people postulate how Nissan could, and did, drop two new sports cars. Some might say it was important for distinguishing the brand amongst a sea of soulless OEs, others, that it was a part of a larger global plan, while most will fault it to poor timing. I have my own theory. Nissan doesn't give a flying fart. They make fast cars, 'cause, well, they're cool, and they've become quite adept at building them.
The oil crisis of the '70s, when prices for crude quadrupled, effectively nuked the sports car market. Fuel-gulping Detroit steel atrophied in favor of more efficient means of transportation, giving rise to the dominance of Japanese manufacturers as we know it. Nissan was at the forefront, introducing paradigm-shifting cars like the Z and GT-R, cementing the Land of the Rising Sun as a global contender. And while it would be easy to assume Nissan made the transition overnight, one need not venture further than the Nissan Heritage Car Collection to see that theirs is a lengthy and storied past.
Established in 1965, Nissan's Zama Operations Center in Kanagawa, Japan, is a massive complex of industrial buildings that once served as their assembly plant. The Zama assembly line built early pickup trucks and introduced the Sunny, and in its glory days during the '90s, was the first Nissan production facility to hit the 10-million-unit mark. Now, serving as its Global Production Engineering Center, it is a vast sea of nondescript warehouses and roll-up doors . . . except for one. Painted in red and adorned with white Chinese Kanji characters and English font, lies a gate that simply reads: Nissan DNA Garage Since 1933. Inside this red portal houses a collection of Nissans spanning back to its early years, ranging from stock and obscure to downright famous and iconic.
A cross between an automotive museum, Barrett Car Show, Antiques Roadshow, and history lesson, my experience inside the Nissan Heritage Car Collection was both profound and spiritual . . . in the most exclusive way. The thing with Zama (as it's often referred to) is that it's not open to the public. While the cars are all pristinely showroom maintained (and supposedly all in running condition), it's not as simple as paying an admission fee and waiting in line to get in. You need access. And thanks to some gracious friends in Nissan North America, that's exactly what we got-a half day in Zama all to ourselves, where I could've easily spent a week. Rows upon rows, each Nissan had its own tale which ultimately qualified it for Zama status and in learning so, the glorious story unravels of how a small venture to build cars worthy of being exported abroad survived a World War, entered and reigned in motorsports, and built a brand that has the gall to drop two sports cars-when other OEs have pulled out-in an economy not seen since the Great Depression.
While volumes can, and should, be written on all of the cars, until then, here's a small cross section of some of the more notable Nissans:
Datsun: Son Of Dat?
Founded in 1911, Kwaishinsha Jidosha Kojo was Masujiro Hashimoto's-an American-trained engineer-commercial vision of manufacturing cars for Japan that would also appeal to export markets. In 1914, Hashimoto-san's dream came to fruition when work was completed on the DAT motor vehicle. Several mergers and military vehicles later, production began on commercial vehicles that represented the core of Hashimoto's ideals, and the "son of DAT" was born. But because "son" was the Japanese word for "loss" or "ruin", the decision was made to swap vowels and go with the brighter "sun", hence Datsun. What about DAT? Where dat come from? Corny puns aside, DAT was the initials of the surnames of Hashimoto-san's three original business partners who helped fund his automotive dream: Den, Aoyama, and Takeuchi. Nissan, on the other hand, is the portmanteau of Yoshisuke Aikawa's holding company's name, Nippon Sangyo.
'33 Datsun Type 12 Phaeton
This water-cooled, 748cc four-cylinder was the first car manufactured under the new Datsun moniker (read Datsun sidebar). For 1,350 Yen, you had a whopping 12 ps (11.84 hp) fully capable of 35mph runs. To put that in context, an average horse (or Civic VX going uphill, loaded with 3 buddies) runs at about 30 mph.
'47 Tama Electric Car
Due to global instability and lack of supply, gas prices start to soar and the government is forced to subsidize alternative fuel technology. Sound familiar? This was the case in Japan, post WWII; oil was scarce, but electricity from alternatively fuel power plants, plentiful. Thanks to the JDM government promoting electrical vehicles, Tachikawa Aircraft-former fighter plane manufacturer (including the infamous Mitsubishi Zero) turned peacetime Tokyo Electric Cars Co. (which changed to Tama Electric Cars Co., then Tama Cars Co., and eventually to Prince Motor Co.)-released the Tama Electrical Vehicle in 1947, some 60 years before the Tesla Roadster. Powered by lead-acid batteries, the Tama had a cruising range up to 96.3 km and a top speed of 35.2 kph-perfect for taxi duties, which was its most common usage.
Datsun Sports DC-3
While the original 12ps, 748cc four-cylinder Datsun broke no motorsports records to speak of, set no technological benchmarks, nor was a commercial success (only 50 were built and not all of them were sold), the 750kg Datsun Sports DC-3 roadster goes down in Nissan history as its first sports car, setting in motion the legacy of the brand. In fact, Yutaka "Mr. K" Katayama-first Nissan Motor Corporation USA president and father of the Z-was involved with the project.
'58 Datsun 210 "Sakura"
A pair of 34ps, 988cc four-cylinder Datsun 210s were the first Nissans to ever compete in an international rally-the 1958 Around Australia Mobilgas Trial, which, at 16,000 kilometers, was the world's longest rally at the time. Starting on August 20, 1958 and lasting until September 7, 1958, the 18-day rally took a clockwise route around the perimeter of Australia, and was so grueling, it was never held again. Competing in Class A (sub-1,000cc), the beige "Sakura" 210 (pictured) finished Fourth. Its sister, a red 210 named "Fuji" (not pictured), finished First in class-25th overall.
'60 Skyway ALVG-2
Skyline GT-R van? Not quite. After Fuji Precision Machinery (predecessor to Prince Motor Co.) launched the ALSID Skyline in April 1957, the Skyway-a van version of the Skyline-became available shortly after. In 1959, a Type 2 model (pictured) was introduced, equipped with a 1,484cc four-cylinder engine that bumped up output by 10 ps, bringing output to 70 ps, total.
'61 Bluebird 1200 Deluxe P311
Continuing the legacy of the Datsun 210s that won the first rally, the next-generation 310 was introduced under the Bluebird name. Equipped with a 55ps 1,189cc four-cylinder, the 900kg Bluebird was capable of 120 km/h speeds, making it one of the fastest compact cars of the era.
The #39 Super 6 Gloria, with H. Oishi at the wheel, finished First at the second Japan Grand Prix (T-VI Race) in 1964, thanks to the domestically produced OHC six-cylinder engine, a first for the brand. A second Super 6 Gloria secured Second. Both Type G7 engines put down 142 ps at 6,800 rpm.
Due to intra-OE political reasons at the first Japan Grand Prix resulting in a dismal outcome for Prince, the manufacturer geared up for its second annual GP in 1964 by developing the Skyline 2000GT. Stuffed with a 165ps, 1,988cc six-cylinder Weber-triple-carbureted G7 engine based off the Gloria, 100 of the longer-nosed 2000GTs were manufactured around the clock to make it to market on May 1-two days before the race-to meet homologation rules. While it didn't win the '64 GP, 2000GTs swept Second through Sixth, igniting the Skyline legend.
Held from 1963 to 1969, the Japan Grand Prix was Japan's first modern automotive race, helping make it the largest and most popular series of the day. An annual event (with the exception of 1965, when it was cancelled), the first GP was held at the then brand-new Suzuka Circuit on May 3, 1963, which established May 3 as the date for all subsequent races. With rivalry from Porsche and Toyota, Nissan would win three years (1966, 1968, 1969), garnering half of the six titles and igniting its motorsports program.
This first-generation Silvia was based on the Fairlady 1600's engine and chassis. Priced at 1.2 million Yen, the CSP311 wasn't for the masses, but with its 165km/h top speed, thanks to the 90ps four-cylinder Type R motor (yes, you read that right), it made for an ideal highway patrol car for the Kanagawa Prefectural Police after the opening of the new, high-speed Daisan Keihin Road in December of '65. The speed limit of the road? Less than half of what the Silvia was capable of: 80 km/h.
Building on the success of the 310 Bluebird, the Datsun 410-or "second Bluebird"-launched in September, 1963. The following March saw an SU-carbureted, 62ps 1200SS (Sports Sedan) with dual exhausts, which evolved in the 1300SS in May, 1965, with 80 ps. This 1300SS conquered the 14th East African Safari Rally of 1966, winning the sub-1,300cc class, making it the first Japanese car to do so.
The R380-I, this car's predecessor, originally set speed records in 1965 (as well as defeated Porsche at the third Japan Grand Prix), but because the Yatabe high-speed circuit had yet to obtain FIA approval, the times were never recognized internationally. Two years later and post Nissan-Prince merger, the R380-II would return to the Yatabe track, now with FIA certs-and T. Yokoyama behind the wheel-and would shatter seven world records (50 km, 50 miles, 100 km, 200 km, 200 miles, one hour), thanks to its aerodynamic design and mid-mounted, 220ps, six-cylinder GR8 engine with triple Weber carbs. Despite its epic accolades, the R380-II did not win the Japanese Grand Prix, instead settling for Second, Third, Fourth, and Sixth.
The successor to the R380-II, the #20 R381, known as the "Monster Bird" (thanks to its yellow rear spoiler with hydraulically actuated left and right sections, capable of moving independently of each other), would go on to win the 1968 Japanese Grand Prix with H. Kitano in the pilot's seat. When a Prince-built V-12 wasn't completed in time, Nissan resorted to using a 450ps, 5.5L Chevrolet V-8.
With the more powerful 600ps Prince V-12 GRX-3 engine (originally intended for the R381) complete, development on an entirely new chassis began. What resulted was the yellow R382, now devoid of its newly banned FIA-banned adjustable rear wing, which would go on to dominate the 1969 Japan Grand Prix with a First/Second finish. H. Kitano, the victorious R381 driver would finish Second, and his teammate, M. Kurosawa, First.
A silver and blue replica (not pictured) of the R383 was to run in the 1970 Japan Grand Prix. Because the Japanese Automobile Federation cancelled the annual GP, the 700ps version (with a turbocharged CAN-AM spec, putting down closer to 900 ps), would never make its highly anticipated debut.
If these '80s era Nissans look Boso, it's because they are as gangster as it gets. A part of the Fuji Grand Championship Series from 1979 to 1983 (based on FIA Group 5 regulations), there were few restrictions to the type of modifications performed on Super Silhouette machines. The engine block had to be a production unit, the chassis had to have the "silhouette" of the original . . . and that was about it. Thanks to the lax rules, the cars had engineering on par with Formula builds. In fact, famously, many Super Silhouette cars made more power than F1 cars of the era, helping the series garner a huge fanbase and making awkward-looking aero forever cool.
Weighing in at 1,000 kg, the KS910 Bluebird put down 570 ps (more power than F1 cars) by way of an Air Research turbo bolted to a built DOHC 2,082cc LZ20B four-cylinder engine. Equipped with a Doug Nash five-speed transmission and hefty 16x11-inch rims up front and 19x15-inchers in the rear (290-series front tires; 350 rear), H. Yanagida drove the widebody Bluebird to two championship titles (1980 and 1982), winning three of the four 1983 Fuji GC series rounds and the Tsukuba event.
Sporting the same 570ps L20ZB setup found in the Bluebird, famed Nissan driver K. Hoshino piloted this Super Silhouette Silvia. Despite a chassis shorter and less width, the Silvia weighed in at 50 kg more than the Bluebird that dominated the series (1050 kg total).
Arguably the most famous of the Super Silhouettes, this Skyline also featured the 570ps LZ20B and hardcore engineering as the Bluebird and Silvia. Piloted by M. Hasemi, the Skyline made its debut in May of 1982, winning two races that year and five in 1983. It weighed in at 1,005 kg-five kg more than the Bluebird and 45 less than the Silvia.
Look for the next excursion into the Zama museum, where we go into Nissan's exploits in JGTC/Super GT, the history of the Skyline, and the mid-engine car-to-be that was pivotal in the development of ATESSA, the AWD system that put GT-Rs on the map.