Icing the Cherry

50 years old this year, the Datsun 100A takes a bow.

(c) zonedatsun.fr

Here on the pages of Driven to Write, we have spent a good deal of the recent past discussing aspects of the Toyota marque and its associated brands. Not so however with regard to its once great rival and commercial antagonist, Nissan.

Upon its introduction to European (and US) shores, Nissan cars were sold under the Datsun brand name, for reasons which aren’t entirely clear, but probably pertain to marketing considerations. For Datsun, then an almost entirely unknown brand, their breakthrough motor car arrived in the envelope of the 100A Cherry, a compact front-wheel-drive supermini.

It’s probably fair to suggest that Autobianchi first planted that particular flag, in particular with its A112 of 1969, so by comparison, the 100A was a curious amalgam, looking a little fat-rumped and somewhat ornate for European tastes – not that this prevented it from selling in sizeable quantities once its virtues became apparent.

Like most of its contemporary or forthcoming rivals (the big name Euro-supermini contingent arrived one or two years later), the 100A was a booted saloon, available in two or four-door format. A hatchback estate (of sorts) was later offered, as was the most stylish in the range – a rather extraordinary looking coupé.

(c) amigosjaponessantiagos.pt

Although I would have to admit never particularly caring for the styling of any of the four 100A derivations (although the four-door does retrospectively appear better balanced to these eyes), as a youngster, I recall marvelling at the sheer fecundity of the range, but especially the wilful oddness of the coupé – which the Republic of Ireland market was, you may be unsurprised to learn, denied.

Appearance-wise, the Cherry Coupé, whose styling resembled something from Richard Teague’s AMC studios of the time, appeared as though it was in receipt of an inexpensive cut and shut with a contemporary Lotus Europa. And we think massive rear three-quarter blind spots are a recent phenomenon? To say nothing of rising DLO outlines.

The versions shown above are clearly JDM models, the X1L seemingly aimed at the sportier-minded driver, while the GL was lent a more sybaritic mien. It isn’t without its own slightly perverse appeal, and in a sense would not look out of place on 2020 roads amid today’s overstyled contrivances. And let’s not forget, Datsun’s bodystyles at the time were not exactly known for their visual restraint. It’s one way of getting noticed, I imagine.

UK weekly, Motor (week ending Feb 3 1973), featured concurrent 12,000 mile reports on both a 100A, and a Fiat 127. Motor, usually the more critical of the two British weeklies, gave the 100A high praise, but criticised its ride and excessive road induced noise. On balance they declared a draw between the Datsun and the Fiat. Motor’s Deputy Editor, the esteemed Roger Bell apparently bought a 100A for his wife, describing it as “a pleasant little car”.

That about sums it up really. Nothing particularly novel, overtly contentious (assuming one accepted its appearance) or particularly challenging, but more importantly still, one that started on demand, hail, rain or shine. Admittedly, it rusted with perhaps even greater abandon to that of doomed Pio’s 1972 opus, but in finish, equipment and durability terms, the Europeans could have learned much from the 100A, but chose instead to furrow their own courses, to greater or lesser success. But we ought to remember the Cherry as one of the very first genuine FWD superminis. How you choose to remember the Coupé however will remain a matter entirely for yourselves.

By way of companion, this linked piece, first published in February 2014, authored by DTW’s R. Herriott, covers the subject with a little more detail and some alternate insights. You can view it here.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

18 thoughts on “Icing the Cherry”

  1. Hi Eoin,

    The physiognomy of the Cherry reminds me of the Toyota Tercel. If you were not a car enthusiast you’d probably guess both are from the same country.

    1. Many years later Kia reprised the idea of the C-pillar extending onto the roof with the Stonic

    2. Good morning Eóin. It’s fascinating how the Cherry, which looked wilfully odd half a century ago, anticipated some of the current design tropes. The upswept DLO (incorporating the rear door skin on four-door model) and the sharp crease over the rear wheel arch are both highly familiar now.

      Actually, I think it was the detailing (the rear lights and grille treatment in particular) that gave it a Baroque quality. The overall form was quite smooth, as can be seen in this photo of the estate (really, a hatchback) version:

      Is it just me, or are there hints of the later Allegro estate (and Reliant Scimitar GTE!) in that side profile?

  2. Coupe= Van
    Look at that instrument pack though!! Recessed pods, rev counter and even some auxiliary instruments placed in the console. That sort of thing would have sent my 12 year old brochure-studying self in to ecstasy. Much more glamour than Dads speedo, fuel, temp, ignition warning light and row of switch blanks.

    1. Likewise, James. I used to love leafing through 1970’s brochures when they illustrated the different specifications as you moved up the hierarchy, picking out the extra equipment and trim embellishments. The ‘poverty’ spec versions really looked just that. It wasn’t just switch blanks: I well remember the blanking panel you often found in the instrument panel in place of a clock or tachometer, sometimes with a cross or marks around the perimeter to remind you of what you’re missing.

      Modern cars are much more subtle in disguising the (relative) lack of features on lower spec models. It’s often just a matter of software, for example for integrated sat-nav, where the car already has the touch-screen. This is the case with my Boxster. I don’t need sat-nav, but did enquire how much it would cost to retro-fit it. I think the answer was around £4k…yikes!

  3. My 2014 article is really rather good. I would however reconsider the word “arguably”. Michael Frayn said that wherever you see the word “arguably” one could also say “arguably didn´t”. Strike it it out.

  4. Daniel, did you also do that thing where you went through the owners handbook to see what equipment went in which blanks on the GLS/ Ghia/ HLS/ GT models and wished Dad didn’t have to settle for the L?

    1. Tragically, Yes, I did!

      It’s not at all difficult why Japanese cars were embraced with such enthusiasm in Europe. My second car was a two-year old Mazda 323, bought in 1980. The interior was positively luxurious compared with contemporary European cars:

      Note the push-button radio, clock, sporty steering wheel and velour seats. It was a long way removed from the austere 1973 Beetle it replaced. Moreover, it had carpets, a heated rear window and a heater that didn’t smell faintly of exhaust fumes when on!

  5. There is definitely a hint of the Tercel about the 100A, almost as though both carmakers wished to signal their shift to FWD in a visually obvious manner. I would also have concur that the Allegro Estate pays a little more than lip service to the so-called 100A Estate, whereas given the timelines, I imagine the reference went the other way with the Reliant. I also see elements of the AMC Hornet in the frontal treatment.

    That image of the Mazda cabin is quite striking. I recall a family friend taking delivery of a new 323 around 1979 or so, and being quite envious of its far nicer interior ambience to that of my dad’s Chrysler Avenger. Had Mazda paid a bit more attention to the dynamics, not to mention the rustproofing, they would have had a very strong proposition. As it was that first generation 323 was a very good seller here in Ireland – local build standards notwithstanding.

    1. Actually, the AMC Gremlin of the same year also employed a similar upswept rear quarterlight treatment.

  6. Okay I’ve learned a bit more about the specimen we’re studying today. Apparently the up swept rear window was called the “eye line” in Japanese because it was said to resemble an eye viewed from a front 3/4 view. the up swept window was inspired by mount Fuji and the car was almost called ‘Fuji’ with the word Fuji supposed to appear on the C-pillar.

    1. Just occurred that there is perhaps a hint of Flavia Zagato in that upward sweep as well.

    2. It’s funny you say that because the coupé was apparently inspired by Nissan’s 270X concept and I immediately thought that concept looked Italian somehow.

      I think the ‘eye line’ reference is for the 5dr and the Mount Fuji is for the coupé.

  7. “Admittedly, it rusted with perhaps even greater abandon to that of doomed Pio’s 1972 opus”

    Indeed.

  8. In a different set of circumstances, the Cherry would have been a Prince – it was the smaller partner in the 1966 merger who instigated the small front-wheel drive car with a view to entering a market below the premium Skyline, but not making a Sunny or Corolla clone. Since the Prince name was “retired” by 1968, that company became soon one of the great lost carmakers, but had a terrific legacy in the Skyline and the work of its talented engineers.

    The origins of the Cherry partly explain its closeness in size and cost to the Sunny. The FWD car was seen as having more appeal in export markets, a speculation largely vindicated.

    Prince probably had ideas for a far more advanced engine than the production Cherry’s Nissan A Series, which had left its Austin origins far behind with oversquare (73 x 59) dimensions and an eight port aluminium cylinder head.

    The powertrain follows Greek Al’s general principles, with the gearbox below the engine, driven by a train of idler gears. However engine and transmission oil are separated, and the engine is canted 5 degrees rearwards. The radiator is front-facing with an electric cooling fan. BLMC brought in the same refinement around the time of the Cherry’s introduction with the Antipodean X6 Tasman/Kimberley.

    MacPherson struts with front wheel drive, rack and pinion steering , and semi trailing arm independent suspension were well in advance of mainstream Japanese car thinking in the late ‘60s when the Cherry was being finalised for production. In some areas old values prevailed; brakes were drums all round, with front discs as an extra and the domestic entry level cars had a three speed gearbox with column change. The Nissan gearboxes had synchromesh on all forward gears. Issigonis was vehemently opposed to synchronised first gears – drive a 127 or a Mk.1 Fiesta and you may well concede that he had a point.

    An all-Prince Cherry might have incorporated far more technical intrigue, but the 1970 Nissan version which emerged had plenty pointers which BLMC could have followed for the upcoming 1100/1300 and Mini replacement. Did they pay any attention at Longbridge? I doubt it.

    1. Intrigued by the notion of an all-Prince cherry, not sure whether they envisioned a version of the 4-cylinder Prince developed Nissan L engine* or a downscaled Nissan A-sized 1000-1300cc+ half-relation.

      *- Heard the Prince developed Nissan L engine was reputedly derived or influenced by licensed Mercedes-Benz 4/6-cylinder engines altered to the point where it no longer needed licensing, however not sure which specific Mercedes Benz engines.

      Apparently the earlier Prince G engine was based on the Peugeot 202, though not sure what the story is behind the Princ developed Nissan W64 V8 engine or whether the latter was itself based on an existing engine or a clean sheet design.

  9. If I may quote from Car Design Asia (which might still be available at select bookstores):

    ‘Entering the US passenger car market in 1958, Nissan’s name carried some undesirable connotations, such as having been associated with the armaments industry during the Second World War. Datsun – originally for the “son” of car maker Dat – on the other hand, was unburdened…’

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