Beyond Infiniti (Part One)

Nissan’s luxury brand is reportedly facing another reinvention as its long struggle for relevancy continues. We examine Infiniti’s chequered history and ponder its future.

1989 Infiniti Q45 (c) Nissan Heritage Collection

When Toyota launched its first Lexus LS400 in 1989, the automotive world was simply stunned by the ambition and audacity of the Japanese automaker. Previously best known for vehicles that were carefully designed, well-built and reliable, but largely uncharismatic, Toyota had created a luxury saloon that easily matched and, in a number of respects, surpassed the best that either Stuttgart or Munich could offer. It was good enough to send Mercedes-Benz back to the drawing board for its forthcoming W140 S-Class, delaying its launch until 1991.

Also in 1989, Toyota’s rival, Nissan, launched its own luxury marque, Infiniti. Whether this was simply a coincidence, or the product of some industrial eavesdropping is a moot point. In any event, the first two Infiniti models were far less impactful than the LS400. Unlike the ‘clean-sheet’ Lexus that shared very little with previous Toyota designs, the Infiniti Q45 luxury saloon was based on the platform of the existing JDM(1) Nissan President, while the M30 two-door coupé was blatantly a badge-engineered version of the Nissan Leopard.

While Lexus won plaudits for the excellence of the LS400, Infiniti suffered some early criticism for its apparent lack of ambition, at least in relative terms. Dynamically, the LS400 was clearly pitched primarily against the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. It had a superbly comfortable ride and a luxurious cabin which isolated passengers from outside disturbances to an extraordinary degree.

The Q45, however, seemed to be more directed at the BMW 7 Series, with firm, supportive seats and an almost sporting dynamic bias(2). In stylistic terms, the LS400 was clearly a Japanese take on the S-Class, but the Q45 was quite unusual, with its slim-pillared six-light DLO, a smooth front end with radiator air intakes concealed under the bumper, and an absence of chrome trim and polished wood veneers from its cabin, which was supposedly influenced by contemporary Italian furniture design.

While the LS went on to achieve great success in the key US market, the Q45 never attracted anything like as much attention. Its somewhat anonymous appearance, at first glance not dissimilar to the contemporary (and decidedly mainstream) Ford Taurus or Chevrolet Caprice, cannot have helped its prospects. Infiniti facelifted the Q45 in 1994, giving it a conventional front grille and a more traditionally luxurious interior. In doing so, the company deprived the Q45 of its only point of differentiation from other luxury cars and achieved no uplift in sales, which were stuck around 10,000 annually.

In an attempt to broaden its range, Infiniti introduced the G20 small saloon in 1990 as its ‘compact executive’ challenger to the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4. This was nothing more than the contemporary first-generation (P10) FWD Nissan Primera with a more generous list of standard equipment. Whatever the honest merits of the Primera, it was certainly no match for the German premium trio. Nissan tried to promote the car’s European(3) influences in its advertising, but to little avail.

Primera in disguise: 1992 Infiniti G20 (c) drivemag.com

The mid-size M30, being offered only as a two-door coupé, was a marginal seller and would be discontinued without a direct replacement in 1992. Total sales over three years were around 17,000 units. Infiniti then introduced a mid-sized luxury saloon, the J30. The styling of this model was rounded and organic, as was then the fashion, and so complemented the larger Q45 model. It was presented as a ‘four-door coupe’ and with good reason, as the interior room was rather lacking compared to its intended competitors, the Lexus GS and Acura Legend. It was discontinued in 1997. Total sales over five years were 89,991(4) cars.

1992 Infiniti J30

Infiniti’s replacement mid-size saloon model was, confusingly, called the I30. This was simply the 1994 Nissan Cefiro / Maxima with the latter’s V6 engine in its largest 3.0 litre form and luxury trim. Despite the fact that it was sold alongside and was virtually identical to the US market Maxima, the I30 actually became Infiniti’s best seller. That said, the cheaper Maxima still outsold it by a ratio of more than 3:1.

Infiniti axed the slow-selling G20 in 1996 after six years during which just 96,462 found buyers. After a two-year hiatus, and apparently having learnt nothing from the previous experience, Infiniti introduced the second-generation (P11) Primera as its belated replacement. It fared even worse and was discontinued in 2002 with 53,701 sales over five years.

Following the lead of Lexus and Acura, Honda’s luxury marque, Infiniti launched its first SUV in 1997, the QX4. This was nothing more than a lightly made over Nissan Pathfinder, but the growing appetite for such vehicles in the US made its provenance of less concern for buyers and the QX4 immediately became Infiniti’s second best-selling model.

Not a Nissan Pathfinder: 1999 Infiniti QX4

After seven years and just 79,261 sales, the Q45 was replaced by a second-generation model in 1997 that eschewed the distinctive styling and sporting pretentions of the original for a more conservative and conventional luxury car style. The new model featured a four-light DLO, wide C-pillars, a chrome grille, and expanses of (fake) wood garnishing the interior, leading some to describe it in derisive terms as a Japanese Lincoln. It was a wholly generic and undistinguished design. The suspension was set up to provide a softer ride, at the expense of handling. This model was based on the JDM Nissan Cedric / Gloria platform and had a smaller (4.1 litre) V8 engine than its predecessor.

Lexus, however, had already moved the game on with its second generation LS400 in 1994, a careful and thorough update of the original that, notwithstanding its almost indistinguishable appearance, was substantively improved. The second generation Q45 fared even worse than the original, achieving sales of just 29,136 in four years.

A Japanese Lincoln: 1998 Infiniti Q45

After a decade on the US market, the contrast between the rival Japanese luxury marques was stark: Infiniti sold 78,351 cars in 2000, representing a market share of just 0.5%. This compared poorly with Lexus’ total sales of 206,037. Even Acura, Honda’s luxury marque, solidly outperformed Infiniti with total sales of 142,681. Below is a table containing a breakdown of Infiniti’s 2000 US sales by model line:

Infiniti US Sales in 2000
Model: Type: Sales: Percentage:
Q45 Large saloon 4,178 5.3%
I30 Mid-size saloon 39,532 50.5%
G20 Compact saloon 13,095 16.7%
QX4 Mid-sized SUV 21,546 27.5%
Total: 78,351 100.0%

The sales gap between the Japanese luxury marques would continue to widen into the new Millennium, with Infiniti initially falling even further behind.

Part Two of this series will follow shortly.

(1) Japanese Domestic Market (only).

(2) The Q45 was influenced by Nissan’s concurrent ‘901 Movement’ project to develop a reputation for excellence in the handling of its cars.

(3) The P10 and P11 Primera models were also manufactured at the Nissan plant in Sunderland, England, hence the tenuous European connection.

(4) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

60 thoughts on “Beyond Infiniti (Part One)”

  1. Good morning Daniel,
    Thank you for this first part of your Infiniti tale; I always liked the first Q45 (apart from the gaudy badge in front which reminds me of the belt buckle of a Texas rancher) even though it was not as thoroughly resolved as the Lexus LS400 was. About the interior of the Q45 which Infiniti claims was inspired by Italian furniture: perhaps, but I have always found that the dashboard was likely inspired by that of the SAAB 9000:

    1. Good morning Bruno. That’s well observed and the similarity is striking. Both have an air of ‘technical efficiency’ to them, but little sense of luxury.

      You prompted me to take a look at the interior of the original Lexus LS400 by way of comparison:

      The colour palate of this particular example certainly looks more inviting, but the very limited use of wood surprised me somewhat. Of course, the quality is peerless.

  2. In many ways the Q45 was a superior car to the LS400: more powerful, better handling with multilink suspension and optional 4WS and active ride, and built quality was as good as the Lexus (at least that´s what the magazines said when new). Styling wasn´t great due to poor detailing (bland grill-less front, ugly alloys, and those door handles). But at least it was a bit different, unlike the LS400. Of course, perhaps that wasn´t what the public wished.

    The M30 was a kind of showroom filler (as the ES250). And the G20, well, I like the Primera a lot (I owned a GT) but “premium” it wasn´t.

    Of course, that stupid launch advertisement campaign didn´t help…

    1. Hi b234r. I don’t recall the Infiniti launch advertising campaign. Perhaps you can enlighten me? Thank you in advance if you can.

    2. The Infiniti launch TV commercials didn´t show the car. They concentrated in the connection between the driver and the car and the nature and the emotions blah blah blah. It could be said that kind of advertisments were ahead of its time, or simply a failure. Seeing the sale figures, it seems the latter.

      Meanwhile, Lexus showed a LS400 being maxed in a dynamometer with a pile of champagne glasses on top of the bonnet.

    3. Hi b234r. Many thanks for finding and posting the advertisements. The ‘high concept’ Infiniti advertisements are far too obscure for an unknown brand, and not even that intriguing. The Lexus LS400 nails the smoothness USP, and shows the car nicely too.

    4. Infiniti´s poor performance is due to it making the kinds of saloons I like. The Q45 and M30 tick all the rectangles for me in terms of proportions and styling. I hadn´t seen an M30 image for a while but was happy to see it again. I wouldn´t mind one of those. The J30 is another handsome and distinctive car. Okay, so I like them but that´s not enough. Infiniti clearly and consistently failed to give the brand the resources and freedom to lead Nissan. Instead most of its cars were derived from or compromised by their Nissan links or origins. The way to create a top-drawer brand above a mass market one is is to let the new brand lead. So, when a new platform is made, let the prestige brand call the bangs and also have the earliest launches of that platform. That way the mass-market brand is seen to be the less-expensive version of the prestige brand and not the reverse (which is what happens when Lexus rebadge a Toyota or when Jaguar base a much-loved new product on a Ford even if that Ford is excellent to begin with).
      I suppose it´s my age telling – these late 80s car really are the business for me, with their radiused edges on underlying boxy, upright forms.

  3. There are interesting parallels/ lessons to be learnt, surely, for Hyundai regarding Genesis, and I am sure they will have analysed the paths of Lexus and Infiniti before setting out the stall for their premium brand. I quite like what I have seen thus far, even if the styling tends to be a bit synthetic.

    1. Hi S.V. Yes, there are certainly lessons for Hyundai in this tale. I’m sure the new Genesis models are of superb quality, but I can’t get past the ugly and vulgar ‘cod heraldic shield’ grille on the latest models, which looks even more ridiculous with a British front number plate stuck on it:

    2. I’m sure the Tiger Woods crash will have improved the “brand awareness” of Genesis…. No such thing as bad publicity!

    3. Great golfer…terrible driver!

      Don’t think that’ll polish out…

  4. Dear Daniel
    Thanks for this first chapter of the Infiniti story.

    When Infiniti arrived to Spain, some car business entrepeneurs, expecting a success similar to that of Lexus, quickly joined and opened Infiniti dealers, with top class showrooms in the best locations of the cities. Here is the enormous Madrid dealership, located in a high income area of the city, between premises of Mercedes and Lexus. It is now a used car showroom:

    The second part of your Infiniti story will explain why and how those showrooms never succeeded and are closed today.

    1. Wisely, the Infiniti dealer in Sevilla was in a building shared with the Porsche dealer! I don´t know what they have done with the extra space.
      I think an american traveller that arrives in any european country would be a bit puzzled by the lack of Infiniti/Lexus cars in our streets. A success they were not.

  5. Sorry, Daniel: in spite of your Imgur guide, I can’t upload the picture. 😦

    1. Hi Luis. Thanks for your comment. I’ve sent you an e-mail, so if you attach the image to a reply, I’ll embed it for you. 🙂

  6. These two Japanese flagships entered the US market just as I turned 16 and had the freedom to drive around Southern California aimlessly(something helped by $.90/gallon fuel), just for the simple joy of riding around with my friends, and I saw a lot of them on the roads. I always found the Infiniti the more striking; relatively lower and wider, at least visually, it had a more sinister road presence.

    One of the US car magazines, probably Road & Track, ran a long companion article on the Q45s styling alongside the general review. I remember that Nissan’s press people stressed that, instead of wood, the interior trim was supposed to evoke fine lacquerware. And the weird badge was inspired by the finish on Japanese knives and swords. All I saw was shiny plastic and, as brrrruno says, a belt buckle.

    1. Hi Ben. Likewise, I liked the first Q45 because it attempted to do something different (unlike its successor, but that’s for the next instalment!)

      However, if you’re going to do a luxury car interior that eschews the use of traditional wood and leather, you need to use synthetic materials of the highest quality, and there’s just too much black plastic on show in the Q45.

    2. Hi Ben, As I recall, the interior trim, and especially the dashboard face depicted in those magazine preview articles featured a sort of glittery substance swirled into the plastic. The article which we both read emphasized the “zen” theme which was also reflected in the pre-launch teaser advertising.

      I guess something went wrong between the prototype the magazines talked about and the production versions. I searched in vain this morning for a photo of the original dashboard and interior trim finish. Was there ever a picture, or just a very vivid description in C/D, R&T, or Automobile ?

      Also I recall preview articles emphasizing how the car was not only styled, but engineered to showcase distinctly Japanese culture and heritage, highlighting uniquely Japanese technology such as the soon to be available fully active suspension and HICAS rear steering system. All of this is contrary to the notion that since Lexus practically carbon copied the dimensions, specifications, and style of the W126 S-Class, that the Q45 was equivalent to a Japanese BMW.

    3. Daniel, I am certain that the original intention was not black plastic, but rather something unique and much more special as I have described above, I just can’t find it documented anywhere at the moment.

    4. Hi gooddog. I’m afraid Infiniti’s efforts have been wasted, at least on my tired eyes. I’ve looked at numerous photos of the Q45’s dashboard and all I can see is a satin-finish black plastic:

      Perhaps the finish just doesn’t reveal itself in photos?

    5. In CAR Magazine, October 1989, Don Sherman (didn´t he write for Car and Driver?) made a preview of the Q45. I quote: “The instrument panel is a grand sweep of curves wrapped tightly in leather trim”. There isn´t any picture of it.
      Perhaps in that early car the frame that surrounds the instrument panel, air vents, clock, climate control etc.. was trimmed in leather?

      Daniel, the picture you have uploaded shows a superb dashboard, at least to me. Seeing it makes me wish to drive a Q45, a very difficult chance in Europe (through not impossible, I´ve seen one for sale in Madrid last year). I´ve driven a couple of LS400 and they aren´t my cup of tea.

    6. Hi b234r. It certainly looks very nicely designed and finished and I do like it (although I could do without the rather chintzy looking clock). Unfortunately, there just weren’t enough customers who preferred the Infiniti style over more traditional and conventional ‘luxury’ design tropes.

    7. I think that if your marketing people have to explain that what is perceived as cheap shiny plastic is actually fine lacquer, then you’ve already lost.

      Gooddog, the article I’m half-remembering had lots of photos to back up its copy. It was like that excellent photo essay that Car published along with their first drive of the McLaren F1. I recall looking closely at the dashboard pics trying to see what they claimed they were seeing.

  7. The Infiniti (as well as Lexus) cars were not offered in Germany at that time.
    I think the focus of Nissan (and Toyota) these days was primarily the USandA.

    If someone in Germoney had the money for a luxury sedan, he bought a Mercedes (or BMW). So for purely traditional reasons, to show his environment that “he made it” and not so that his money was well spent or he got good quality for his money*.

    The customer in the USandA was different, „same quality for the less money” was a purchase argument, “more for the same money” was also a purchase argument.

    The Kraut, especially in this price range, bought a car to impress the neighbour, and still does today – even in lower price ranges. You could sell the Kraut cow dung as gold, and you still can, he or her doesn´t recognise quality.
    They didn’t really care anyway, in the price range of a Mercedes/BMW the car was the leasing company’s problem, not the of driver.

    I allways liked the J30. I saw this car many times when I visited LA in the early 90s to produce commercials (which the world doesn’t need). Unfortunately, it was never available at the relevant car rental companies, otherwise I would have rented it. I think it was a really well-designed car – but only without that show-off rear wing.

    * I once had a boss who said to me: “I don’t trust these tax advisors and financial advisors. They come here with a big fat car that has already lost 30% of its value when it leaves the dealer. They can’t handle their money, how can they handle other people’s money. I only trust these people when they drive into the yard with a Porsche. At least then I know that they know how to invest money properly.

    1. oh je oh je. Fred, was ist eigentlich Ihr Problem?

      Lexus was sold in Germany from 1990 onwards. My FiL, obviously identified by Lexus’ marketing as potential customer, still has a hologram LS in a plexiglass cube he was sent as a promotional gift to woo him into a test drive.

      As a former owner of a 1992 S140 GS, I can attest the brilliance of these cars. Quality-wise, definitively the best car I ever owned (and probably will own). If I‘ll ever be in the market for a new(ish) car again, it‘ll be a Lexus.

    2. So I was wrong on Lexus.

      (The other comments of yours says exactly what I wrote.)

    1. Indeed it did, Charles, but more than other concepts translated into production reality? The ‘concepts’ that make production little changed are often thinly disguised production cars in the first place, just dressed up in glitter for car shows.

    2. True. I think my disappointment stems from the fact it went from being a rather stylish, but not outrageous saloon, to something much more ordinary.

  8. Hi Daniel, I didn’t know that Infiniti’s sales were this bad! I always assumed that Acura was the worst seller of the bunch, for much the same reasons as Infiniti: not enough focus. Lexus has shown that to make a success of a venture like this, you need to go for broke and throw everything at it. Halfhearted efforts and rebadges have never worked well. Maybe you’ll get to it in a next installment, but recent efforts have been more convincing, I think. Even if they are rebadged JDM Nissan Skylines – at least that’s pretty much the coolest Nissan around. Audi, by the way, has shown that stamina goes a long way as well, so all might not be lost.

    1. Hi Tom. I won’t reveal what’s still ahead, except to say that there are two further instalments, the next covering the noughties and the final one bringing us right up to date. Plenty more plot twists and turns in the tale to come!

  9. The market in California is markedly different than that of the rest of the country. Though the Q45 was a failure and sold only a small fraction as many units as the LS400, you wouldn’t know that from observing the streets of LA in the early 1990s. Similarly, the pre Covid freeways were thick with Stelvios, giving one the impression that FiatChrysler had a hit on their hands. Conversely, a number of nationwide best sellers were relatively rare in CA. For example, in the years that the Accord, Camry and Taurus battled it out for sales supremacy quarter by quarter, one wondered where all those Fords were being sold, overwhelmed as they were on the roads by the Japanese duo.

    1. Good morning Ben. That’s an interesting observation about California having different tastes in cars than the rest of the U.S. When driving there more recently (in 2014 and again in 2017) I noticed that every other car seemed to be a Camry. More generally, Japanese cars seemed to be ubiquitous and domestic U.S. models were thin on the ground.

      I’d like to understand the cultural drivers behind the difference. Are Californians more internationalist (and, more contentiously, less ‘patriotic’) than the rest of the country? Or are they simply more pragmatic? Interesting stuff.

    2. Daniel, nationwide it seems vehicles are Camrys, F-150s or “other”!

      Californians would like to view themselves as more internationalist, certainly, as well as more pragmatic, but I grew up there and I really suspect there is a bias against American cars. When badge engineering, or close enough, was more common, the versions that had foreign brand badging were more common. More so than could be explained away by marketing or superior dealers. Examples: Geo Tracker/Suzuki Sidekick, Plymouth Laser/Mitsubishi Eclipse, and more recently the Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix.

      Of course, many Californians would claim that imports sell in lower volume in the other 49 because their fellow citizens are racists.

    3. Another explanation, less inflammatory than my accusation of bias, is that driving conditions and habits in California differ from those in, say, Texas or New York. As some have observed in the comments on this esteemed website, domestics of any country are well suited to their unique national markets. Texans and Iowans think nothing of driving two and a half hours each way to go to a football game. Whereas I know Angelenos who blanch at the thought of going anywhere east of the 405. Gas prices in CA steer buyers towards more fuel efficient offerings from the Far East. Higher registration and insurance costs preclude owning a Sunday car(whether for fun or for prestige) and a winter beater in addition to the daily driver. Lastly, though it might not seem so to Europeans, CA is densely built up relative to other parts of the US; houses and the lots they’re built on are smaller, with less room for a big American car or, nowadays, SUV.

    4. Hi Ben, you reminded me of something I wrote about in a series on GM last year, the NUMMI joint-venture between GM and Toyota. The Geo Prism and Toyota Corolla were built alongside each other at the same factory (and by the same workforce) in California over three generations from 1989 to 2002. Throughout that time, US consumers consistently rated the Corolla higher than the Prism in terms of quality and reliability, much to Bob Lutz’s puzzlement and annoyance.

      Regarding your ‘horses for courses’ point, I’ve always found Amercan cars particularly well suited to local driving conditions, at least in the East and West coast states through which I have travelled. I always try to rent an American rather than foreign car, for an ‘all-American’ driving experience.

    5. Daniel, if those consumer surveys were broken down by residence of the respondents, I’m pretty sure that you’d find that Californians and the residents of large East Coast metros were driving the perception of questionable quality and reliability for the Prizm. NUMMI built the rebadged Corolla Chevy Nova before the Prizm and the Matrix/Vibe twins after and customer surveys probably found the same disparity.

    6. California is on the Pacific Rim, and also geographically isolated from the other densely populated areas in the US. Therefore it follows that Californians exhibit a stronger affinity toward exports from Asia such as transcendental meditation, sushi, and Toyotas than do residents of Detroit, Chicago, or Nebraska. Similarly, it’s should surprise no one that Max Hoffman who first imported Mercedes, Porsche, BMW, and Jaguar to the US resided literally on the eastern coastline.

      And I would bet that Lutz was only polishing his own brass by claiming to be mystified about subjective consumer satisfaction surveys favoring the Corolla over the Prism. Toyota dealers had a reputation to uphold and a tradition of doing so, Geo dealers? not so much.

  10. Daniel, thanks for the great write-up on Infiniti, I look forward to your second installment. I was 26 years old when Infiniti and Lexus hit the US market. I remember what a big deal it was at the time. All the American car magazines were doing comparisons between the two and with the other luxury brands. Like many other people, the front end of the Infinity didn’t seem well resolved to me—it was off-putting. But the car seemed sporty which appealed to a younger me. But the Lexus quickly got a reputation for superior smoothness and refinement, even in comparison to Mercedes Benz which by then had supplanted Cadillac as the standard for prestige and luxury in the US.

    I know I’m jumping ahead of your next installment, but I must know, how were the Infiniti’s received when they finally got to the UK? Feel free to tell me that I must wait for a later installment!

    1. Hi Phil. Thank you, and glad you enjoyed it.

      I’m not letting much away when I tell you that Infiniti’s arrival was pretty much a non-event, not just in the UK, but right across Europe. From its introduction in 2003 until 2010 inclusive, total European sales were a derisory 5,754 which is an average of 719 units a year. That was unbelievably poor and not even worth switching the lights on for.

      My history is pretty much focused on the US market, because that was by far the largest and most important for Infiniti. Part Two, coming up shortly, will cover the decade from 2001 to 2010, Part Three from 2011 to 2020.

  11. The original Infinitis were pretty underwhelming compared to the original Lexus, yet was it within Nissan’s capability to challenge Toyota in that segment?

    Not sure what Nissan were thinking with adding Infiniti badges to the FWD G20 (Primera) and I30 (Maxima QX) instead of developing suitable RWD platforms (that could have also replaced the RWD S platform) or in the case of the G20 differentiate it more in addition to styling by amongst other things equipping it with AWD and 2.0-litre+ V6s.

    On the subject of the I30 / Maxima QX, had it retained the previous Maxima’s IRS (in place of the cheaper torsion bar solid rear axle system) could it have gained a similar good reputation for its handling as the smaller G20 / Primera and Almera did during the 1990s (in spite of the dull styling of all three cars)?

  12. I’m an avowed LS400 admirer, yet I also find the pre-facelift Infiniti Q45 oddly fascinating; if I could afford to own and run these two cars, I’d have them both in my garage. Looking back at the photographs (testing to see if the EU Copyright Directive’s Article 17-demanded upload filter will catch this comment as “copyright infringement”), it makes me think it wouldn’t look way out of place in the magnificent 1984 anime movie “The Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love?” – it really makes me think it’s what someone like Shoji Kawamori or Kazutaka Miyatake would design as a prop, if they actually cared about cars.

    Since the Primera was brought up, this particular car has a bit of Greek interest: Greek automotive “journalists” of the time (mainly those of a once-prestigious and wildly popular magazine) claimed that the Primera was supposed to be built in the Teokar facilities in Volos that would supposedly be expanded to satisfy the needs of the entire European market, but “the Japanese suddenly decided to shut down the factory because – choose whichever falsehood you find more interesting – the PASOK government’s MPs forgot/neglected to meet them or the PASOK government wanted the state to have a controlling stake in the new factory”.

    However, the Teokar factory ceased operations under Nea Dimokratia (right-wing) rule, and those who have bothered to read a bit about Nissan’s industrial operations in the EEC, know this couldn’t have been farther from the truth: Teokar only had the capacity to assemble CKDs, the industrial zone of Volos has always been way too small to support a plant of the size of Nissan’s Sunderland plant, and its seaport and railway connections have always been risible by the standards of any nation that claims to offer anything resembling meaningful infrastructure to its industries.

    1. Hi Konstantinos. That’s an interesting account of Nissan’s non-investment in a Greek manufacturing facility. It sounds like it could never have been a serious proposal, give the infrastructural issues you highlight. I guess it was just politicians flying kites for electoral advantage as per normal.

    2. Hi Daniel. Actually, it was a divestment. As for Greece and the vehicle manufacture sector, it’s characterized by a few serious illnesses – I hope you don’t mind me going off on a tangent here.

      1. The complete lack of anything resembling a halfway-decent industrial class. Greek industrialists have never been visionaries. Instead, they were all about putting as much free money in their pockets: Marshall Plan funds, Greek state loans with no interest and no real repayment obligation, that had the social security funds as collateral (!!!!!), EEC funds for projects that never came to fruition, and then EU funds for projects that never came to fruition. Basically, the Greek “industrial” class has always been a parasitic class that’s been mooching off Greek, US, and EU taxpayers for decades.

      2. A complete lack of any cohesive industrial and research policy on behalf of the Greek governments. For decades, most Greek universities offered only undergraduate studies. As for research facilities, their projects used to make Leonard “I basically sit down and verify other people’s experiments” Hofstadter of “The Big Bang Theory” look like Stephen Hawking. Starting anything in Greece has historically been a maze of corruption, bureaucracy, and selective application of laws, regulations, ministerial decrees, and circulars that would make any sultan or pasha raise his eyebrows and say “tell me more…” As for vehicle construction, it’s always been impossible to get type approval in Greece, because there’s never been anything for this: no laws governing type approval, no facilities to test vehicles, no nothing. Which brings me to…

      3. …Greece’s weird relationship with the automobile. Although there were a few cars here and there in the pre-war period, these were mostly taxis, buses, trucks, and the occasional private car owned typically by someone who was really well-off (mind you, most of these folks aren’t the sort you’d want around your children or your money). For far too long, Greece’s governments, and its society in fact, have treated the automobile not as a tool, a necessity, a somewhat convenient means of transport for individuals and their families.

      Instead, they’ve viewed it as a posh person’s toy, ergo proof of wealth, thus as something to be taxed not for its (undeniable) contribution to things like smog and the need for infrastructure that comes with it, but for the fact that someone owns one. For decades – and even the social-democrat PASOK governments of the ’80s – you had to be making a LOT of money to buy anything with an engine above 1.3 liters. Woefully – or, I should say, dangerously underengined, underpowered versions “made especially for Greece and Italy” were not uncommon (Citroën BX Atout, Peugeot 305 1.1, Volkswagen Jetta Invader, to name but a few).

      This attitude crept through every molecule of both Greece’s society and public administration. On one hand, you had a classist view: the proles were restricted to the aforementioned underpowered monstrosities, and anything decent was left to the landed gentry and the top execs. Some would say this was like Soviet Russia, with the VAZ, Volga, and Chaika cars – but no. The VAZ-2101 was actually pretty decent and honest for its era.

      If the proles really wanted a decent car, their options were appropriately Ottomanobyzantine: for starters, they could bribe officials to issue fake permits to get a tax-free car on grounds of (fake) disability, having over four children (this is where things, or “returning emigré” status. They could perform undeclared (and, therefore, illegal, as it constituted tax dodging) engine swaps (we didn’t have MoT tests back then) – of course, that meant they couldn’t really sell the car unless they also forged the engine number.

      And if they really had a death wish, even perform full frontal swaps from a donor car. These involved chopping the donor car from the front bumper to the bottom half of the A-pillar and the front half of the front passengers’ floor, the original car from these points to the rear bumper, weld them together, add whatever bits of trim, suspension, braking, and/or transmission gear were deemed desirable or salvageable from the donor car. The donor cars were typically imported from Europe for spares. Some of them were stolen and imported in ways I don’t want to know about. Others were crashed really badly and chopped accordingly. As for the resulting Frankencar, it had none of the charm and usability of the stripey “Frankenstrat” put together by the late, great, Eddie Van Halen, the famous “Black Strat” partscaster once owned by David Gilmour, or Eric Clapton’s “Blackie” partscaster.

      So, owning a car – and, even worse, owning a decent car was viewed as a status symbol in Greece for far, far, far too long – up until the late ’80s in the eyes of the people and up until the late ’90s for the state. What exactly did this do to Greece’s institutions that had anything to do with industrial and research policy? Well, it’s obvious: if you view something as a “toy for the bourgeoisie”, you tend to also treat any attempt at producing and/or researching it accordingly.

      When I enrolled at the Technical University of Crete’s department of Production Engineering and Management in 1994, there was no school of industrial design in Greece. I could, theoretically, go down that route after becoming an architect, but Greece is peculiar in that, to enter an Architecture School, you must first be examined on a national level at linear and freehand drawing, which – surprise, surprise! – is still not taught in greek schools. Fields like vehicle engineering have been alien to any Greek university’s curriculum for far too long. Then again, exactly where would students perform their tests and experiments? We only have two race tracks, and none of them is suitable for testing a vehicle as a product, especially regarding things like NVH. Wind tunnels? Nope. And so on. Yeah, I know what some people will say: “you can always simulate the tests in MATLAB, duh”, but no one would take that seriously.

      4 Greece’s Gyro Gearloose Complex. Remember Gyro Gearloose, the inventor from the Walt Disney comics? Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, and even well into the ’00s, I’d gotten sick of this trope: a “genius” in his basement or garage that comes up with a (supposedly) super-duper innovative idea that’ll totally shake up its field (much like Kickstarter scammers tell us nowadays about how their dime-a-dozen, made-in-China “luxury” watches will “disrupt” the horological industry) and bring glory to the Nation. Of course, the reason for all this publicity was because the “inventor” wanted to get taxpayers’ money. Not that there was ever any intention or possibility that these “inventions” would do anything; most were, from a scientific point of view, about as real as holy foreskins. The rest didn’t even work. But hey, as long as it makes Greeks glow with Boratesque pride for their nation and DNA, it’s all good.

      Now, the “Gyro Gearloose Complex” didn’t rear its ridiculous and hideously ugly head only in the coverage of small-time attic “tech wizards”. It was also apparent in the coverage of such obviously implausible ideas as the TWT Aletis or the Neorion Chicago and Enfield 8000.

      5. “BAD WORKERS! BAD!” Greece’s car “journalists” have always mourned the loss of vehicle manufactures like Biamax and Teokar, attributing them to the two Andreas Papandreou governments of 1981 and 1985, and to the “communist union leaders who brought the companies down to their knees”. Yeah, right. Has anyone of you guys ever heard of Biamax? Or Saracakis? I don’t think you have, and I can’t blame you: they were small (400 employees at best) manufacturers of bus and coach bodies for chassis made by Mercedes-Benz and Volvo, respectively. Biamax was said to have produced some monocoque buses/coaches way back, while Saracakis had customized some Volvo floorpans with public transportation authority-specified engines and transmissions.

      The flawed Greek narrative, which, as I said, attributes their downfall to the EVIL workers and commie trade unionists, was that these companies had the most innovative equipment and production lines – especially Biamax, which supposedly made the West Germans envious with its construction robots and whatnot. Yeah, right. And I’m the love child of Ritchie Blackmore and Ian Anderson. Of course, as is always the case with all Greek myths, the reality is far more mundane, and far closer to good old-fashioned bean-counting. Neither Biamax nor Saracakis could earn any share of the international market that would do anything for them.

      The internal market, which once was captive, opened up to new and used buses, coaches, and trucks from other EEC countries (and these vehicles were often in nice condition and much more nicely-built and equipped than their Greek knock-offs), so they opted to shut down their production lines and focus on importing vehicles, perhaps customizing them a bit and rebranding them to make it look like there was a shred of local added value.

      But really, how pathetic could a businessman be to stoop so low as to blame his own failure on his workers?

    3. Thanks for an informative essay. Would it be unkind to suggest that Greece is culturally and economically on the margins of the first and second world which explains the rather split characteristics of its political economy. This cultural dualism is highly interesting for visitors, scholars and humanists and anyone fascinated by social geography and history. It is not so fun if you want to drag your country towards the modern, liberal rechtsstatt or even make it a bit like northern Italy, let alone Germany or Sweden. Time and again I see underlying geographical factors as being persistently relevant to understanding socio-economic matters. I believe one can tinker with the effects of geography. Making wholesale changes is not done quickly or by decree. More problematic (I wrestle with this) is how societies can change themselves over time. Switzerland has poor natural resources. Its society overcame that with spectacular effect. Ireland and Greece in the 1980s had a lot in common apart from the weather. You could get moussaka in most Dublin bistros back then. Ireland is now conspicuously wealthy and, in particular, has sloughed off much of the daftness and ineptitude that spoiled its administration. Assuming the Irish and Greeks have identical IQs, why has Ireland moved forward so much faster than Greece? Geography and language seem to be obvious answers. Less obvious is the cultural overhang of Ottoman domination and lapses into dictatorship. There´s some chicken and egg in that though. Can one have hope that the Greeks can stifle the corruption and manani-ism that I suspect still prevails? And perhaps to look on the bright side, Greece is vastly better off now than 1971. I do think Greeks can save themselves. They have to want to though.

    4. Good morning Konstantinos and thank you for a very thoughtful contribution. As I read it, my thoughts turned to the Ireland of my childhood, a country held back for decades by a similarly insular and defensive mindset. We comforted and deluded ourselves with the notion that all our ills could be blamed on our neighbour across the Irish Sea, even after half a century of independence.

      Sometime in the 1990’s, Ireland changed fundamentally and embraced global capitalism. A period of extraordinary growth followed, as did the 2008 global financial crisis. Ireland’s economic implosion was unlike that of the Mediterranean countries, where public spending had run riot. In Ireland’s case, it was a ‘lightly’ regulated private sector that was at the root of the problem, typified by the phenomenal growth and spectacular collapse of Anglo Irish Bank.

      What is impressive about Ireland is how strongly the country has recovered from that crisis. Ireland now has the sixth highest GDP per capita globally, ahead of countries like the UAE, Kuwait and Switzerland. The UK is a lowly 26th. Admittedly, Ireland’s high ranking is partly down to huge global corporations channelling turnover (and profits) through the country, taking advantage of its low 12.5% corporation tax rate. That said, these are not just ‘brass plate’ entities and many like Google are major employers in Ireland. The wealth in Dublin these days is palpable and highly conspicuous, whether one likes that or not.

      Some do, of course, object to the naked unfettered capitalism of present day Ireland (and the undoubted social problems and widening class divide that has accompanied it) but there are now good jobs and worthwhile careers aplenty at home for the country’s highly educated young people, so they don’t have to emigrate (as I did) to seek an economically rewarding life.

    5. And I can add my name to the list of people Ireland had little use for in the early 1990s. There are the makings of a very good essay in the Ireland/Greece comparison. There are enough parallels to make the comparison meaningful and also enough contrasts to be instructive. What I´d like to avoid (but can one?) are the explanations that fall back on national cultural traits, a kind of cultural determinism. Any such explanations have get back to the structures of the landscape, the climate and geography without being themselves deterministic. I think such physical factors set the context but as I said about Switzerland, they are not strongly limiting. There´s a role for culture to overcome such apparently basic facts. Denmark in the 1830 was a pretty sparsely populated and rather poor place. Much of it was forest and heath and there were no mineral resources. Today it´s rather richer. So, Greece too can do things to mitigate the lie of the land and the distances from import to export. Maybe I need to add Greece to my list of country histories. I am currently in my Portugal mode with yet another history added to the book pile. And there´s another as it were marginal country that has moved forward from inauspicious conditions in the 1970s.

    6. Hi, Daniel and Richard. Greece is a peculiar case, as it was basically founded with one purpose in mind: to be a debt colony/protectorate bound to a set of (sometimes conflicting) interests: Anglo-Franco-Russian at first, then Anglo-Franco-Austrohungarogermanoprussowhatever thanks to the Glücksburg dynasty, then Anglo-American (hence the Civil War, which saw both Churchill and the US side with the Nazi collaborationist forces, and the junta), then EU-American (and by EU, let’s face it, we mean the France-Germany duo). I remember one of our instructors at the National School of Public Administration and Government explaining that, after WW2, it was decided that Greece’s “development” model would be based on shipping and tourism. I can understand your eyes have already started to roll like crazy in their sockets, but there’s more.

      I remember, way back in 1997, the then-president of the Hellenic Management Association came, invited by our Financial Management professor, to visit us future production engineers and give us a little talk. He said “Greece doesn’t need to be industrialized; it doesn’t even need agriculture. All it needs is tourism and financial services!” You can’t make this stuff up. And we had to give this guy a healthy round of applause! We were studying production engineering! Without an industry, where would we find employment? Were our parents supposed to fund our studies so we’d then migrate to Germany, France, or whatever other industrialized country to create profit for that country? With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I now can’t help but wonder what self-respecting kleptocrat or druglord would come to Greece in order to launder his money.

      Putting aside the destructive pre-1981 US interventions and Schäuble’s insane and punitive austerity recipes, Greece has been run by a class of well-connected kleptocrats (people who got rich by collaborating with the Axis occupation forces, the dictatorship, and by all sorts of shady means), corrupt conservative politicians, and a rotten-to-the-core judiciary and military. What exactly were the chances these people would have even a shred of a long-term vision for actual progress? Would they ever allow a Dante Giacosa to rise? No, because they never cared: their only raison d’être has always been to take taxpayers’ money, siphon it to their offshore accounts, and then strut their posh existence around.

      As for whether Greeks can save their country, Richard is right in saying the question lies in whether they actually want to do it. The 2015-2019 “far left” government was, in fact, a social-democrat government, whose legislative and executive powers were hamstrung both by the obsessive austerity lysenkoists of the EU, but also by the rotten state mechanism that, until then, existed only to funnel EU and national funds to the kleptocrats. Baby steps – in fact, sheepish steps – were taken, but the “far left” government didn’t want to ruffle any feathers in the public administration and judiciary, or to clash with the ultra-conservative (we’re talking Iran-like), ultra-populist Greek Orthodox Church that’d been our main importer of US-made religious conspiracy theories. They were afraid.

      Eventually, these timid attempts at undoing the damage done by the austerity policies and the endemic corruption were brought to an end in July 2019, when the Greek people “brought things back to normal” and “restored the rightful owners of the country”. As for me, I’ve taken a stance full of Schadenfreude and cynicism and, when my fellow voters (I no longer consider them mature enough to be citizens, as their experience with multiple governments should have enabled them to know better) complain, I’m just telling them “you brought this on yourselves, I’m paying for your idiocy/racism/religious nuttery/nationalism/desire to lick someone’s ass and get promoted at the expense of someone else when you shouldn’t, now shut up.”

  13. I need to add that the reason Greece was needed when it was founded was to act as a sort of “Christian buffer zone” between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. I believe this reason has ceased to exist and, therefore, I believe the Governments That Matter believe the country’s outlived its purpose.

    1. I’ve given up, Richard. It’s a lost cause. The 11-year-long financial crisis has led half a million university graduates to migrate, mostly to Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Czechia, etc., never to come back. And how did the right-wing government that was elected in 2019 respond? With an initiative that’ll fund selected companies that have branches in Greece, so that they’ll hire about 1,500 young, highly-qualified, Greeks who left the country during the crisis, for 18 months, with a €3,500 salary – of course, none of the reasons that made them leave in the first place is going to be fixed. Instead, they’ve dismantled all kinds of social protection, they’ve given immunity to everyone who’s in the posts that were responsible for the crisis, they’re moving to Pinochet’s social security and pension model, they’re planning hospital closures during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, they’ve mishandled the vaccination campaign, and they’re blaming women for not giving enough births. Oh, and one of their first moves was to put the public broadcaster under the control of the PM’s office. As for the Press, 95% of it makes North Korean newspapers look like investigative publications run by the likes of Greg Palast and Matt Stoller.

    2. It is. Their rhetoric in everything is utterly Orbán-like. And their actions, even though they engage in some serious tokenism and entryism.

    3. And the EU stands idly by, wringing its bureaucratic hands and returning a blind eye to abuses such as these in its own backyard. Shameful.

      (We probably should draw a line under this interesting and highly informative discussion as we are in an arena where DTW doesn’t normally stray and Eóin is probably sharpening his quill as I type this.)

    4. But this is reality I’m so sorry, dear
      To be the spoilsports personality for another year…

      (Courtesy of Carter USM)

    5. That must be some sort of popular music beat combo with which I am unfamiliar…😨

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