The history of the brand, how it formed and the connection with Austin is complicated and often documented incorrectly, to a point where even Nissan brochures would give a very broad definition of the brand. The first DAT cars were designed just before the first World War but the first car to be recognised as a Datson (changed to Datsun later, as ‘son’ means loss in Japan) arrived in 1931. The car called a Type 11 resembled an Austin 7 and to satisfy that it didn’t infringe any design copyrights, Austin engineers imported a Datson into the UK in the early 30’s. It is thought they may have brought in the wrong car, and may have confused the car they imported (a Type 14) with the earlier model. It is also believed that the car brought into the UK, is actually an Australian built car.
That actual car which was imported by Herbert Austin’s engineers, still survives and is part of the collection at National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, Hampshire.
As well as the Austin connection (which would become even more evident after the war) the company also had close ties with American manufacturing companies, noticeably the car manufacturer Graham Paige. The resultant car six cylindered car, named as the Nissan 70 was built under license in Japan. It was a bigger, more prestigious car than the Seven based designs and were often used by the military and the engine in this car was to become another important building block in Datsuns eventual engineering capabilities. After World war 2, Datsun did slowly pick up car manufacturing again, using much of the pre war technology but displayed some sign of engineering and design improvement. Several updated pre-war designs, such as the Standard DA were produced prior to the re-introduction of foreign manufacturing developments, but it was clear to see that the narrow tracked vehicles were never going to be successful as exports.
While the American relationship had been severed, Australian and British communications did pick up and Austin became instrumental again in helping Datsun. They collaborated together with Japanese assembly of the Austin A40 and A50 with just under 21,000 of these cars were produced in Japan between 1953 and 1959. One of the designs that Datsun released during this period, clearly used styling traits from the Austin models, but the 1953 Datsun A110 could be easily considered as Datsuns first modern car. Further development of the A110 eventually paved the way for the long running Bluebird models. The Austin arrangement also meant that Nissan were allowed to use Austin patents for their engines, which they continued to develop in subsequent years. There is also a fairly common misconception that the Datsun A series engines were copies of the BMC A Series engines, again there is no real basis for this other than the link that existed between the 2 companies and the similar appearance of the 2 engines, perhaps the confusion arises from the Nissan J series engines (as used in the 620 pick up) which can be linked from the Austin-Nissan collaboration. This form of knowledge sharing had been instrumental in helping the Japanese produce cars, prior to the Austin tie up, American companies were relied on by their machining and casting facilities.
In the UK and much of the rest of the world, the Datsun name was used to market to the cars. This was a naming policy that the parent company Nissan, used to sell the brand until 1983/84. There is still public confusion regarding the origins of the branding of cars with the Datsun badge, with a fairly widespread belief that Datsun had been taken over by Nissan, declared bankrupt or failed as a manufacturer – there are no truth in these facts at all. The cars that were sold in the UK were simply Nissans that were badged Datsun. The swap over to brand all cars with the Nissan company name started in the late 70’s, with all cars and new models having completed the badge change by 1983. The original reason to use Datsun as an export brand may stem from Nissans miltary involvement during World War II, where trucks and aero engines where assembled with the Nissan branding. Nissan may have realised that there was still a level of sensitivity over their brand when it came to exports and chose to use a brand name, not the company name. The same instance can be applied to Mitsubishi (linked with WWII fighter jets) reluctance to use their company name on their exports, until the early 80’s.
The Japanese government had suggested ways for Japanese companies to remain in Japanese hands to help protect the possibility of ‘foreign’ take overs, the majority of Japanese companies took the advice seriously as at the time GM and Ford had manufacturing plants in Japan, which would have ironically helped Japans Motor car infrastructure for exports to Asia. Nissan subsequently merged with the Prince Motor Company (PMC) in 1966, upon the advice of the government but allowed the company to remain as a going concern in all but name. Several PMC designed cars were renamed Nissans and the name disappeared from the cars, but the parent company realised the potential in the PMC brand it’s work force know-how.
The Prince Motor company was one of several manufacturers involved in sporting competitions, at the time of the acquisitions PMC had launched several competitive formula racing race cars, as well as establishing a reputation for reliability and durability with their latest Skyline (S63) model on various race tracks. PMC were also developing a new front wheel drive car, which given Nissans relative RWD engineering conservatism and the need for a small entry level car, development was allowed to continue – the car eventually became the 100A Cherry. The expertise and skill set within the company was allowed to continue to develop after Nissan took over, with the prestigious Skyline and Laurel models to be assimilated into the Nissan range, but also allowed their models to be developed and designed by the ex-PMC team. Their presence within the modern day Nissan brand is still evident, particularly in Japan.
Another company Nissan took over, the Aichi Machine Company, were not quite as lucky in retaining their direct design and manufacturing privileges. The company were actually a genuine novelty in Japan, as they concentrated on small FWD cars but their production output was negligible and no Aichi designs were carried forward, although there would have been some communication and possible development with PMC’s development for their FWD car. Aichi still exist today as manufacturers as suppliers for Nissan components and vehicles.
The pivotal part of the Japanese car success story can be demonstrated by looking at the cars built by the Japanese in the 50’s. While the visual design of the 50’s car, the equipment and styling was not that different to a car made at Longbridge or Detroit but the approach to producing a passenger car was something not inherently clear to the Japanese manufacturers. Privately owned cars were still a relative rarity, with most cars would have been sold as commercial passenger cars – taxis and hire cars. Commercial passengers cars would have to be designed for durability and therefore would have used relatively unrefined technology and by association privately owned cars were considered a variation of the commercial passenger car. One example of this was the Toyopet (Toyota) Master, using a ladder chassis and leaf springs all round, not unlike a truck. At the same time Toyota produced the Crown model which was marketed as a full passenger car, which had coil springs and engineered in a more ‘car like’ fashion but it lacked the rugged attributes and durability of the Toyopet Master, as soon discovered when it was taken to the States for evaluation. The emphasis on producing commercial cars for public consumption prevailed in most Japanese cars of the era, huge rear seats, transmissions geared to low speeds and running gear aimed at durability rather than comfort. Good motorway networks were still in their infancy, so the need to travel at cruising speed not a priority. During the 50’s when the Japanese infrastructure for the car was still relatively primitive, domestic resources were still limited and as the nations economy was still weak. Fuel economy was considered very important (as seen in the tiny 360cc Kei cars) so in built durability was not a priority. It was around this time that the collaborative efforts of foreign licensing agreements to assemble Renaults (Hino), Hillmans (Isuzu) and Austins (Nissan) which went beyond just stamping out panels and assembly but understanding how the western cars designs coped with the roads and offered the driver, not the passenger priority.
There had been some issues with strike conflicts in the early 50’s but was resolved without any major disruption, which continues to this day. This can be attributed to the average Japanese car factory worker who is far more respected and on an equal balance to middle management. This had beneficial aspects in their quality of lives, with many attractive packages. Workers remained loyal, happy and more to the point better paid than their Western counterparts.
Japan needed to export their goods, as the country held very little in terms of natural resources and raw materials but had a loyal work force. The workers realised the importance of a consumer society. This was a unified society with a willingness to study foreign products and improve on them. By the increasingly confident technological workforce, fast pace of living standards and the ability to build state of the art factories in less than two decades had given the Japanese a great deal of confidence in their products. The Japanese used protective measures to help the emerging companies, imports were largely banned despite allowing Western car manufacturers to allow licensing agreements.
The first testing waters into exports from Japan was started to the countries neighbours, with surrounding non car producing Asian countries and Oceania/Pacific rim being the first to be subject to exports, with America and Africa following shortly afterwards. The companies learned about the demands and needs of the markets, with a tentative selection of motorcycles, trucks and passenger cars.
At the time the Japanese were developing Kei cars. They were designed to comply with various government motor taxes (excise and weight and engine size tax) and cheaper insurance. Rural areas were also exempted from the requirement to certify that adequate parking is available for the vehicle. However it became clear that the 360cc engines were not powerful and large enough to satisfy customers in export markets so a conscious decision to concentrate on larger cars with bigger engines capacities started. Japanese motoring is regulated by car dimensions and engine sizes, which explains why small cars with smaller engines were designed to appear bigger. Japanese manufacturing costs were considerably cheaper than those in the States and Europe, which allowed the cars to be sold cheaper than the price of their European and American competitors, with no compromise in build quality and use of materials.
The successful manufacturing process, able happy workers and quality product was clearly there, so the next issue was to actually sell the cars. Japan again learned from the success of Western manufacturers, with the success of the Volkswagen Beetle. This illustrated that there was a market for small cars, made more surprising by the success of the car in size obsessed America. The Japanese had monopolised their own market by offering the public exactly what they wanted, so understood the demands for each market sector. It became clear that the Japanese learned what the Americans demanded of their cars, the aim was not to necessarily technically innovate but to simply offer the target audience with a painless experience of car ownership. Until relatively recently, the Japanese exported cars for the middle ground markets, top of the range sporting and luxury cars were rare. While the low end small sized cars conveyed a message of poverty.
One turning point for the Japanese car industry arrived at the first Japanese GP in 1963. This meant that asides from Formula One races, other forms of motorsports using production cars were introduced to Japan. The Japanese were novices to motorsport, and drivers were ill equipped to deal with the primitive domestic cars. Many foreign competitors, with cars ranging from a VW Beetle to Jaguar E-types were witnessed out performing the Japanese made cars by some margin. The Japanese saw that the cars were stable at high speeds, maneuverable and had road-holding abilities. Aware that race results had tremendous publicity value, by the time the 2nd and 3rd Japanese grand Prix arrived, significant improvements were evident. This also opened up a dialogue between owners and the car producers, allowing drivers to voice improvements directly to the manufacturers who ran and funded the works cars. Further improvements, such as twin barrel and SU type carburetors would have added production costs, but offset by the growth in domestic demand for the cars. However, the use of the Grand Prix results to aid publicity were stopped, by agreement of the manufacturers but the podium places was often spoke for themselves. This association with motorsport stays in the minds of customers, and even in the mid 70’s when the Nissan Skyline GT was no longer used competitively the association with motorsport remained. Further examples of this motorsports influence can be seen in the Toyota 2000GT and Mazda Cosmo. Typically quick learners, the Japanese soon discovered that some of the attributes used in race cars would be suitable in production cars, for example 3 gear column shift gearboxes were still very common, as was overhead valve engines and bench seats. The interest and passion in motorsports allowed manufacturers to implement 4 speed floor mounted gearboxes, overhead camshaft engines and separate seats influenced by bucket seats.
The Japanese did not have a heritage of car building, even with Austins involvement with making their cars under license, barely projected the country into industrial recognition. During this period the country was not seen as a threat in terms of becoming world leading car builders but a revolution was about to change the industry forever. The first tactical plan was to establish major export distributions, and retain control over every aspect of the process from branded canteens to owning their own transportation ships to well trained sales teams in the respective countries. A high level, visible presence also helped create confidence in the product, large signage, adverts and publicity helped create branding identity. A trick which enabled the consumer to subconsciously recognise the brand after seeing it several times.
The automation of the factories also contributed to the success of the cars, the Japanese discovered than the automated mundane aspects of assembly, such as the repetitive welding and some component placing could be done by production line robots. This was partly spared the worker of the discord of having to do such a monotonous job thus increasing quality and productivity. Lower costs were also incurred with the use of sub-contractors for the continuous supply of reliable stocks in minor components. Several recognised working practices were developed in Japan and perfected by Nissan and Toyota in these formative years, like job rotation allowing workers to be skilled in several jobs to cover potential boredom and illness cover. Just in time practices, encourages the use of receiving components only as they are needed in the production process, thereby reducing inventory and storage costs. Kaizen, Japanese for “improvement”, or “change for the better” refers to philosophy or practices that focus upon continuous improvement of processes in manufacturing, engineering, and business management. Every year from 1966, with the exception of 1974 (due to the worldwide fuel crisis) had seen continuous production growth of the manufacturer of Nissan cars.
Another aspect of the success was the right timing of the launches of exports, the first exports to Europe kicked off with the display of a (pre-Nissan take over) PMC Skyline at the Paris salon in 1957, followed by Toyotas first exports to the States shortly afterwards. Secondly the Japanese companies aggressively targeted markets who had no naturalised car industry. Countries in Asia, Africa and European markets like Norway, Switzerland and Belgium took on huge number of Japanese cars and by the early 80’s Belgium Japanese imports were up to 40% of the market share. In the States and much of Europe the fuel crisis affected domestic cars sales, combined with a period of strike action, deficits and unemployment affected most car companies and their suppliers while the Japanese enjoyed substantial growth. The first real successes wasn’t until the 1960’s overseas market when the 410 series Bluebird models were exported. The factories had become more automated, which allowed the large volumes to be produced. As part of a European campaign, the UK was earmarked for deliveries in 1968. Greece and Norway were earliest European importers of Datsuns, again due to their lack of naturalised car companies and the extremes in climates which allowed for long term durability and reliability testing. The first cars in the UK were announced in mid 1968, with sales starting shortly before the 1968 Motorshow. In just 4 years, Datsun became one of the biggest importers of cars into the UK.
Globally Toyota dominated car sales, with the Corolla eventually becoming the highest volume seller of all time. In Japan during the 50’s and 60’s Nissan and Toyota would be the only manufacturers to sell cars in substantial numbers in Japan and would often compete for the best selling car in the country. The Nissan 1200 (’59-’63 310 Bluebird) and Toyota Corona (’60-’64 T20/T30) often vying for the monthly top sales. Nissan lost ground with the unpopular replacement for the 1200, the ’64-’67 410 Bluebird, which allowed Toyota with their T40/T50 ‘shovelnose’ Corona to become a favourite in Japan and eventually become their first globally successful car. Even when the 510 Bluebird was released in 1967, which is now known as one of Nissans finest cars, it was going to be difficult to get back on top. During this period, Toyota played safe with their cars, styling and engineering of cars were conservative which helped the accountants project emphasis on sales, leaving Nissan to become ‘second best’.
Nissan developed the B10 and the later B110 Sunny models, which on paper appeared to be very similar to the Corolla but never managed to sell as much as the Toyota. One possibility for the B110 Sunnys lack of comparative success in Japan may be that the car externally looked like a scaled down economy version of the 510. The Japanese buyers liked their cars to look grand and luxurious and therefore may have not had that aesthetic motivation to buy the Sunny, which appeared to be a ‘cheaper’ and therefore less desirable version of the bigger Bluebird.
Whether Nissan used that initiative to chase or were simply resigned to the fact they were always going to be in 2nd place is not truthfully known, but the volume of sales of Datsun cars in Europe, especially in the UK must have given them encouragement. There is some evidence that the gap is finally closing – Nissan produces just under 3/4 of its production in overseas factories, where Toyota is roughly half that figure.
Nissan announced a merger with Renault in the late 90’s. The P12 Primera became the first result of the global alliance mostly sharing platforms and components, however the car was not as liked as the previous Primeras, and when the car was discontinued in 2006, it was not replaced for European markets. A new European strategy for Nissan now concentrated on city cars, niche 4×4 models and performance cars and the Nissan sales started to recover helped by marketing a new range of lifestyle models, like the Qashqai,the Note and the electric vehicle Leaf, all produced in the UK. Nissan have also allowed the Skyline GTR name to flourish in the UK. While it is noticeable that Nissan image for reliability is not as strong as it once was, the brand is still very competitive in the UK.
As a footnote, Nissan announced in 2013, that the Datsun brand would be revived for Indian built Nissans for local consumption. Nissan marketing have suggested the Datsun brand will be primarily used on budget cars for first time new car buyers – it’s not thought that the brand will be released in Europe. Prior to this several pick up models were also known as the Nissan Datsun but again there were no official imports into the UK.
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