Octav Botnar turned Datsun into the UK’s best selling automotive import, but it would all end badly for him.
The first Japanese car to be offered for sale in the UK was, surprisingly, not from one of that country’s leading automakers, but from Daihatsu, a minnow of the Japanese auto industry. That car was the Compagno, a diminutive but pretty(1) conventionally engineered small car, offered in saloon, estate and convertible forms from mid-1965. The lack of any name recognition and a steep list price(2) meant it had little chance of making an impact, and the importers managed to sell just six examples over five years.
Toyota began exporting its rather elegant medium-sized Corona saloon and estate to the UK in October 1965 and made rather more impact. Annual sales figures are no longer available, but around 5,000(3) examples were sold over a decade to 1975. Datsun joined the fray in 1968 with its B10 small saloon and estate, marketed domestically as the Sunny, but as the 1000 abroad. The import franchise had been secured by businessman and entrepreneur, Octav Botnar.
Botnar was born on 21st October 1913 in the city of Czernowitz, which is now called Chernivtsi and is situated in present-day Ukraine. He spent four years from 1932 to 1936 as a political prisoner, then he fought with the French resistance during the Second World War before returning home to Romania. He remained in Eastern Europe until 1966 when he and his wife, Marcela, and daughter, Camelia, escaped to the West, settling in the seaside town of Worthing on the south coast of England. Botnar became the UK import agent for NSU, the innovative but troubled West German auto manufacturer.
NSU was in deep financial trouble, thanks to extensive warranty claims for failures of the Wankel rotary engine fitted to its RO80 large saloon. Anticipating that either the failure or takeover(4) of NSU would put him out of a job, Botnar began looking around for another business opportunity.
Having secured the Datsun franchise, Botnar set up an import company, Nissan-Datsun UK, and imported six examples of the 1000 model in June 1968. They were registered consecutively, OKJ 210F to OKJ 215F, and were used for press and dealer demonstrators, and for advertising ahead of the marque’s formal launch in October of that year. A wholly conventional front-engined RWD saloon and estate, in terms of size the 1000 sat between the smaller BMC Mini and Hillman Imp and larger Ford Escort and Vauxhall Viva HB. It was priced at £766 to compete with entry-level versions of the latter pair.
The 1000 sold modestly over eighteen months, during which time around 900 found buyers. In the late 1960s, Japanese cars were regarded as a curiosity in the UK, where the domestic automakers still had a stranglehold on the market and were entirely complacent and unbothered by those ‘funny little foreign cars’.
The 1000 was replaced in 1970 by the second-generation B110 model, This was a slightly larger car with a 1,171cc four-cylinder OHV engine, hence its 1200 moniker in export markets. It was available in two and four-door saloon and three and five-door estate models and was a direct competitor for the contemporary Ford Escort Mk1 and Vauxhall Viva HC. The 1200 was a resolutely conventional front-engined RWD car, with MacPherson strut front suspension and a live axle suspended by leaf springs at the rear.
The 1200 was joined by a smaller model, the FWD 100A Cherry supermini, and both models were gaining a reputation for being well built and reliable cars with items of standard equipment such as radios and heated rear windows that were extra-cost options on their domestic competitors. UK Sales in 1971 grew to around 6,000 units. Botnar established a new private limited company, Datsun UK Ltd., in December 1970 as the legal vehicle for the import business, replacing the liquidated Nissan-Datsun UK. The new company became fully operational in April 1971.
The early 1970s were tumultuous times in the UK, with widespread industrial unrest and frequent strikes affecting manufacturing industry, including the automakers. British Leyland in particular gained a grim reputation for terrible build quality and unreliability, while frequent strikes led to prolonged delays in production and delivery. In those circumstances, it was hardly surprising that UK car buyers put their historic loyalties and prejudices aside and started buying imported cars in increasing numbers. Datsun was well placed to benefit from this trend and sales in 1972 increased by a multiple of five to around 30,000 units.
Botnar facilitated this growth by quickly building up a dealer network, often recruiting family-run garages that had an established and loyal local customer base. This loyalty was being sorely tested by the poor quality and unreliability of the British Leyland cars for which they currently held franchises, so they were readily persuaded to switch to selling Datsun cars instead. At the same time, Botnar began reinvesting profits from the import business into building his own dealerships in locations where no suitable and amenable existing dealership was situated. A total of 165 Datsun dealerships were in place by January 1972.
Botnar was well aware of the broad range of upscale models that Datsun sold in its home market, but he realised that it would be much more difficult to challenge prestigious marques such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Jaguar, which enjoyed great brand-loyalty and a reputation for advanced engineering and excellent build quality and reliability(5). Instead, he maintained his focus on the lower end of the market, and on customers that had little interest in automotive matters. Such customers regarded their cars as a means of reliable transport, not a status symbol. For them, a push-button radio and heated rear window were far more relevant and appealing than, for example, independent rear suspension.
The turmoil that afflicted the UK motor industry in the mid-1970s and the 1973 Middle East Oil Crisis played out very well for Botnar, and Datsun’s UK sales and market share continued to climb year on year. Tragedy had, however, struck Botnar in his personal life: in 1972 his only daughter, Camelia, was killed in a car crash near Stonehenge in Wiltshire. In her memory, Botnar in 1979 established the Camelia Botnar Foundation(6), a charity with the aim of helping disadvantaged young people to develop the skills to lead productive and happy lives. Based in West Sussex, England, the foundation remains in operation to the present day.
While a generous philanthropist, Botnar had also a ruthless and uncompromising approach to business. The success of his UK import franchise gave him a strong negotiating hand with Datsun on the prices paid for the cars, allowing him scope to sell them very competitively against their rivals. However, Botnar’s forcefulness in negotiations won him few friends in Yokohama and this would come back to haunt him later.
The story of Octav Botnar and Datsun UK continues in Part Two shortly.
(1) The Compagno was styled by Italy’s Carrozzeria Vignale.
(2) The Compagno’s list price was £799, which was a substantial £280 more than the Austin Mini and £260 more than the Hillman Imp at the time.
(3) Source: Toyota UK.
(4) NSU was taken over by Volkswagen in 1969 and merged with Auto Union to form Audi.
(5) Such was the strength of Jaguar’s image and appeal that, although badly affected by the chaos that prevailed within British Leyland, it was still regarded with affection and enjoyed great loyalty from its customers, even if its product quality fell far short of what should be expected.