Datsun in the UK

The very first imports of the brand are thought to have arrived in mid 1968, but it wasn’t until the display of 6 cars at the 1968 Motorshow that sales start to take off. During this time, Datsun (or rather Nissan – Datsun were simply a brand name) were the 2nd biggest car producer (after Toyota) in Japan. The Japanese car industry had been expanding at a colossal rate, so it was inevitable that exports would reach Europe. An official dealer franchise, with facilities and servicing across the UK was set up aimed mostly at small family run businesses, usually in smaller towns who had existing facilities. The prospective dealers would examine and scrutinize the cars and sure enough the quality and virtues were evident to persuade dealers to invest in the brand. The newly set up Nissan-Datsun import concessionaire would vet their facilities and and seek good workshop facilities and long trusted established dealers of high reputation to ensure suitability but it would be safe to assume that the cars did not fly out of the showrooms, as there still would have been a level of skepticism of an unheard of product from Japan. However, those customers who did invest in the first batch of cars, usually living within the locality of the garage with a level of personal relationship to the garage owners would have been pleasantly surprised by the level of quality, engineering and equipment offered in the cars. Octav Botnar, previously an importer of NSU cars with no business experience, set up Nissan-Datsun to manage the importation and distribution of the cars into the UK and for a period in the late 60’s shared facilities and the Shoreham-on-sea building with NSU, essentially becoming a sub-tenant of NSU. In 1969 Volkswagen-Audi effectively took over NSU operations and subsequently decided to wind down the brand. Nissan-Datsun were heavily reliant on the Shoreham-on-sea premises so when VW/Audi chose to shift their whole operations elsewhere, the Nissan-Datsun franchise went into liquidation. Botnar simply set up a new concessionaire in late 1970, re-named it Datsun UK Ltd and started a planned controlled expansion of the brand in the UK. Despite Toyotas global positioning as the largest producers of Japanese cars, Datsun sold far more cars in the UK than Toyota did. Over the period between 1968 and 1986, around 1.2 Million Datsuns were imported into the UK with Toyota achieving a third of that over the same period.

dealer_harrogateDatsun dealer in Harrogate circa 1972

At the end of 1970, the new Datsun (UK) LTD concessionaires launched a new marketing plan and sales assult in the UK. It retained many of the previous dealers and by 1971, had swollen to 165 dealers across the UK resulting in just under 7,000 cars sold in the UK. A servicing school was set up which ensured at least one RITB recognised vehicle mechanic was based at each dealer. Further dealer activities, such as ‘Japanese evenings’ and ‘show weeks’ as well as dealer advertising assistance, promotional aids, sales bonuses and trade discounts were supported by Datsun UK. This direct connection with the concessionaire, was instrumental in positive moral amongst the dealers. Long term agreements and careful demographic placement also encouraged dealers to push sales. A comprehensive spares facility was based at Lancing with further stocks in Helsinki and Amsterdam with a back up directly from Tokyo meant that any concerns regarding spare parts were answered quickly. At the time, Datsun container ships would dispatch up to 2000 cars at the large port of Rotterdam, with smaller container ships importing the cars to the smaller dock of Shoreham-on-Sea. By 1972, a new facility was opened in Hull which allowed more cars to be imported in greater numbers into the UK. By which time Datsun sold 30,000 cars in the UK and was closing up the gap of Renault and VW as the leading importer of cars into the UK. By 1974, Datsun moved into a new Sussex based complex in Worthing near Brighton, which by now had established 145,000 UK sales and 285 nationwide dealers.

headDatsun UK Worthing headquarters

Press reaction
As the number of sales increased, the cars were evaluated and tested more frequently by the motoring press. They typically complemented the cars for driver usability, praising the ease of driving, good gearboxes and refined engines. Road handling was marred by the use of¬†cross ply tyres, but importers started fitting more suitable radials after the first couple of years of imports. The cars were conventionally engineered, so while there was no major innovation in the approach to engineering, it was noted that they were a match for current European cars. Datsun had released their cars in the States some 10 years earlier and a positive following had been established. The newly introduced 510 Bluebird series featured independent suspension and was sold as a cut price BMW.¬†Datsun USA had also been instrumental in the ‘mini’ pick up truck market, as well as re-energising the sports car market with the 240Z. By the start of the 70’s, the range had expanded, which now included a brand new FWD supermini car (the 100A), several well equipped family, upper medium sized executive, luxury and sports cars. Importers sold most cars on dealer specification and would order the options according the customers demands. Most models were often well equipped straight from Japan, so requests like door mirrors, rear window demisters or fog lights would usually be UK dealer fitment. This introduced customers to Datsuns accessories brand, labeled as Pardat. These options were fairly typical of the age – vinyl roofs, alloy wheels or spotlights etc. When the light commercial vehicles (Nissan never officially imported their HGVs into the UK) were introduced, the pick up trucks which were particularly fashionable in the States, usually sold with an array of after market parts.


A bigger multi-million pound Middlesbrough parts storage had now been built, which now ensured all parts were now in the UK. Datsun UK themselves was a relatively small team, and often managed and dealt with promotional material and PR without the restrictions of the corporate guidelines via Japan. Evidence of this can be seen from the sales brochures, earlier pre ’73 models were printed in Japan and would occasionally feature levels of equipment and trim not actually available in the UK. Secondly the change of style of brochures, clearly indicated a Sussex based photographer and brochure printer. However, there was a reassuring amount of feedback, training and communications from Japan which helped to improve the customer experience. Secondly it soon became apparent that Datsun dealer mechanics and technicians were seldom used other than the standard servicing requirements, as the reports of broken down cars were rare. Dealers often offered their servicing and repair departments to other (usually European) manufacturers. Dealers also offered a complete sales package, which often included swift car delivery dates, attractive part-ex deals, cut rate insurance, low rate hire purchase and servicing costs plans – relatively pain free motoring for undemanding consumers.

Dealers then perfected the after sales and service/parts network. There wasn’t a particularly heavy nationwide promotional campaign to sell the cars, but positive local marketing played a big part in the cars success, usually targeting local newspapers and magazines.

Customer focus
To see how Datsun succeed in the UK, What Car magazine conducted a customer review of the typical Datsun Sunny buyer in 1974, outlining the key successes of the brand and the 120Y Sunny in the UK. Typically the pricing and equipment list were the main reasoning behind the huge sales. The typical owner would be under 35 years, primarily used their cars in town, on A/B roads and tended to take the cars to main dealers for servicing, very few would actually service the cars themselves despite the obvious merits. However it was living with the cars that would have been the main attributes, key factors for owning a Datsun would be its reliability, warranty, value for money. Further to this real world user experiences like good fuel consumption, smooth gearboxes, effective heating and ventilation, steering, light gear changes, performance, comprehensive instrumentation, suppressed daily road noise, brakes and styling also rated highly. The fact that there was nothing that the cars were majorly criticised for. There was average scores for visibility, road handling and suspension, seat comfort and boot space but 2/3 of buyers of new Datsuns would consider buying another model.

The success continued throughout the period, but due to pressure from the British car manufacturers, the government imposed import limits reduce the sales of Japanese cars to be sold in the UK. Import quotas on new shipments of cars, could have caused a dip in the availability of new Datsuns, luckily Datsun had taken the precaution of shipping in enough stock to meet demand, so were relatively unaffected. The Sunny peaked with nearly 38,000 sales in 1978 but sales in other marques were noticeably reduced. As way to combat the import quota, the Japanese started using UK plants to assemble their cars, the well known link between BL and Honda had been forged but the ultimate aim was local production and assembly. The UK government carefully researched areas that had a volume of skilled workers in high unemployment areas and worked closely with Japan based Nissan Motors (GB) (not Botnars Nissan UK) to choose a site in the North East of England to make a car factory. The first T72 Bluebirds left the production line in 1986/87, and a steady stream of models have been produced since then. Honda and Toyota followed suit and all 3 manufacturers contribute to a major percentage of the UK car production.

Later developments
The success of the company continued throughout the 80’s, with Nissan consistently outstripping UK sales of other Japanese manufacturers. However, Octav Botnar’s 260 strong AFG (Automotive Financial Group) retail network of dealers was under scrutiny. AFG’s servicing infrastructure started using privately owned distribution companies which not only sold the cars but also took care of servicing and after sales. However, the franchise had now put a lot of independent Nissan dealers out of business during this period. The networks of small, family owned dealers who placed emphasis on customer service were struggling with dealing with extra stock (one of the main reasons why smaller dealers seldom sold larger and lower volume models) Furthermore he had been implicated in a tax evasion scandal, which meant that Nissan Global were keen to distance themselves from Botnars Nissan UK organisation and AFG dealer network. Nissan Global decided to reform the way they distributed cars in the UK and formed a separate company, effectively by-passing Botnar. Nissan Global were actively involved with the British government with the set and manufacturer of the T72 Bluebird in the North East, who decided to keep everything including distribution, servicing and sales in house. The London based Nissan Motor (GB) were completely controlled by Nissan Global in Japan and used 21 well established public owned franchises such as Reg Vardy, Appleyard and Ancaster. Sales of cars sold under Botnars AFG franchise, were not as badly affected by the newly formed Nissan Motor (GB) franchise as expected, and the internal price war didn’t appear. The two companies sold and distributed Nissan cars at the same time, with varying specs and in some cases with different badging and editions (the Pulsar and Sunny models were identical but sold in different dealers) and was complicated over the dispute over Botnars overpricing of the P10 Primera. Customers were largely unaware of the internal fight of the two companies, but assurances were sent from Nissan Motor (GB) by advising them that manufacturers warranties claims were honoured wherever the cars were sold. Nissan Motor (GB) never quite successfully capatalised on Botnars remarkable previous achievements and sales went into a gradual decline. AFG ceased operating in the mid 90’s due to Nissan Global termination to supply them with new cars. Nissan were recording low UK sales for their mid sized and large models by this time but had formed a global alliance with Renault mostly sharing platforms and components. A new European strategy, concentrating on small cars, niche 4×4 models and sports cars was introduced and the Nissan range 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.