The Bridgehead Falls (Part One)

Octav Botnar turned Datsun into the UK’s best selling automotive import, but it would all end badly for him.

Small beginnings: 1967 Datsun 1000. Image: Nissan Global

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.

Octav Botnar. Image: alchetron.com

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.

1970 Datsun 1200. Image: Nissan Global

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.

1975 Datsun 100A Cherry

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.

(6) www.cameliabotnar.com.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

23 thoughts on “The Bridgehead Falls (Part One)”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. A great article on a character unknown to me. Unlike in Britain the first Japanese car in the Netherlands was the Isuzu Bellel in 1963.

    The 1000 and 1200 are a little too old for me to remember, but I definitely saw 100A Cherries around in my childhood. My dad’s aunt had a 120Y automatic in brown and his uncle had a Laurel. Looking forward to the next installment.

  2. Daniel, while I was reading your excellent articles about the Datsun Z the name of Octav Botnar came to my mind, as he was rather successful importing and selling Datsun/Nissans in the UK (surely could it be its biggest market in Europe in the ´70s and ´80s?)
    I remember british car magazines in the early nineties reporting the internal conflict between Botnar´s Nissan UK and Nissan GB, but I never knew the exact reason. Looking forward to read the Part Two!

  3. Good morning Daniel. An excellent article and I am looking forward to Part 2.
    How naive and inward looking our politicians and car manufacturers were in those days as your article clearly explains. I get the feeling, following the last few years, that we really haven’t learned very much in the interim period sadly.

  4. Good morning all. Yes, Octav Botnar was driven to succeed to an extraordinary degree, perhaps because of his traumatic early life experiences. He was a fascinating and complex character, as we shall see in the upcoming further parts to his story.

  5. There´s a kind of metaphor in this story: a driven immigré sets up a successful business selling immegré cars. The reaction of the UK presss to Japanese cars was almost always negative which I say on the basis of the reviews I have read. It would have been more constructive to communicate what was good about the cars rather than fail them for a feature that wasn´t critical to their design, namely handling and driving excitement. I don´t imagine very many of the butter and soup cars that the Datsuns outcompeted were all that hot on handling or driving excitement either. That kind of thing belonged more to the brands Datsun didn´t compete with. It is interesting how firm a grip the high end makers have on their markets; fifty years later no Japanese brand outcompetes Benz et al. Whatever we may feel about their styling and marketing, the upper market players are providing what their customers want. BL and the other extinct brands didn´t manage this. Another thing is that in that 50 years another wave of new brands have come along and again (unless Genesis hits a lucky punch) it´s the mainstream brands seeing their market being eaten up. Kia and Hyundai are not robbing sales from BMW and Audi but, I suppose, Nissan, Ford, Opel and Citroen and Renault. Further more, evidence indicates they are competitive dynamically too.

    1. Above all Japanese manufacturers delivered the service quality their customers expected for their hard earned money.
      The first to react on this were the German three who created a vendor lock-in situation with their fleet contracts and brought up the quality of their dealers no end. That’s a concept neither Opel or Ford not PSA or Fiat understood and then they wonder why their customers buy somewhere else.

    2. Dave: it seems so obvious that customer service matters. Look at what customer disservice has done for Alfa Romeo.
      Here´s some literature on the topic:
      Jahanshahi, A. A., Gashti, M. A. H., Mirdamadi, S. A., Nawaser, K., & Khaksar, S. M. S. (2011). Study the effects of customer service and product quality on customer satisfaction and loyalty. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 1(7), 253-260
      and
      Devaraj, S., Matta, K. F., & Conlon, E. (2001). Product and service quality: The antecedents of customer loyalty in the automotive industry. Production and Operations Management, 10(4), 424-439

  6. The smaller size aside would love to see a closer comparison between the first four generations of RWD Nissan Sunny and the Morris Marina/Ital (along with possibly the Hyundai Pony given its Marina background notwithstanding or precisely because of the Cortina parts), at least in their respective similarly displaced Nissan A and BMC A-Series powered forms (sans the Hyundai’s Mitsubishi units).

    The B110 would benefit from MacPherson strut front suspension (as would the Pony), whereas it was planned yet abandoned for the Marina (that had to make do with Torsion Bar suspension) though both (plus the Pony) featured rear leaf spring suspension until the B310 that from then on made use of a more advanced coil spring four-link configuration, the Ital going on to feature telescopic front dampers and parabolic rear springs.

    In many ways it can be argued that the RWD Sunnys despite their size were roughly what the Marina should have been (on top of a Peugeot-influence body by Pininfarina).

    1. “In many ways it can be argued that the RWD Sunnys despite their size were roughly what the Marina should have been (on top of a Peugeot-influence body by Pininfarina).” Indeed – the Marina arrived after a lot of sensible, practical people applied their reasoning focused on something they thought was just good enough. Wasn´t the Marina BL´s idea of a Ford Cortina?

    2. Hi Richard. “something they thought was just good enough” sums up the Marina in a nutshell. BL seemed to have the knack of either over-engineering (the Issigonis cars) or under-engineering (pretty much everything else) but never really finding the sweet spot that made the Japanese so successful.

      Without giving too much away, Botnar was smart enough to realise that taking on the prestige makers would be a big ask for Datsun/Nissan and this would become a contentious issue between him and the manufacturer. Stay tuned!

    3. The initial idea for what became the Marina (mainly by the Leyland people rather than the BMC folks) was essentially a rebodied Morris Minor with 1100-1500cc engines (the latter being the 1.5 E-Series that later appeared in the Oz Marinas) to create a mk1 Ford Escort (or more accurately a Sunny B10-B210) sized car, before it was stretched and repositioned (then crudely cost-cutted yet equipped with the boat anchor 1.8 B-Series) to challenge the mk2 Ford Cortina while the ex-Ford engineers working on the Marina knew the then upcoming mk3 Cortina would grow larger and move the game on in the segment.

    4. One thing that was in the Marina’s favor despite the circumstances of its conception would be how flexible the Minor-derived platform was, which is not surprising considering it was part of a related family that included the Oxford and Six/Isis. Contrast that with the oft-repeated idea that the significantly less flexible Ajax platform by Triumph (in terms of stretch – not conversion from FWD to RWD), would have been a better starting point for the Marina.

      The Sunny platform would also prove to be surprisingly flexible forming the basis of the Vanette / mk1 Serena (preceded by the Datsun Sunny Cab / Nissan Cherry Cab C20*) as well as the S platform used in the Silvia from the S10 onwards up to the early-2000s for both.

      *) Datsun Sunny Cab C20 – http://datsun1200.com/modules/mediawiki/index.php?title=Sunny_Cab

    5. Not forgetting as well the same S-platform underpinning the Datsun/Nissan Violet A10 that proved to be successful in the WRC, the Marina itself being a rather unlikely rally car that managed to finish 2nd in the 1972 Cypriot rally as well as win its class at the 1971 RAC Rally and finishing twentieth overall amongst other motorsport achievements.

      https://www.classiccars4sale.net/classic-car-review/sh-morris-marina
      https://www.retrowow.co.uk/transport/70s/morris_marina.html

  7. Crikey…that photo of the 1975 Cherry brought back vivid memories of one my grandfather owned, bought new on a T plate, if memory serves. It was the exact same colour, too. It had an all-black interior and heavily tinted glass. Dad would borrow it to take the family on days out. The unremitting gloom of the interior, combined with the strong odour of vinyl on warm days, plus the Cherry’s appalling ride quality, made me suffer the most hideous car sickness. Still, it was a reliable old thing, he kept it until he died in 1989.

    1. Hi Keith, and thanks for sharing your recollections. Even wackier than the 100A Cherry was the cigar-shaped 120A coupé:

    2. Ahh, the 120A coupe.
      In 1976 I had a colleague who drove this car and took me for a drive one day. What an ugly car.
      So cool.
      For some reason I remembered this car last year and I thought for a short moment to bring back that coolness into my life.
      Unfortunately, this car seems to be completely extinct – or the current owners are no longer giving the car away for good reasons.

  8. The main attribute of ´70s Datsuns seems to be their reliability, something that created a loyal base of buyers; but I read they had a reputation for rampant rust (worse than Ford/Vauxhall/BL products). In theory that was something that should have alienated buyers, but it didn´t…

    1. Hi b234r. As I recall, most cars in the 1970s rusted to a greater or lesser degree and, unlike mechanical unreliability, corrosion didn’t leave you stranded, so was tolerated. Those with enough money to afford a new car had probably traded them in by the time the corrosion got serious enough to require the application of Isopon or Plastic Padding.

  9. Such a highly rated car as the 100A would normally mean there would be thousands of them still on the road? The number is in fact around 15.

    1. In the end, when the car is very old (+25 year old, “youngtimer” territory), what keeps it on the road is its desirability. Old cars, even good quality ones, will suffer from wear, and need repairs.
      “A car lasts as long as its owner is willing to spend on it to make it last”. If the car is really appealing, there will always be somebody wanting to repair it, keeping it in nice condition, or restoring it. I don´t think there are too many 100A enthusiasts around.
      Of course if the car is a real dog when new-ish, it probably didn´t last enough to become a “youngtimer”, “classic” or something like that.

    2. Quite a lot of decent cars disappear almost entirely – a car has to offer something beyond general all-around competence. Cars which survive disproportionatly are usually expensive when new or have a special feature. Stand out cases of more ordinary cars with impressive competence are the Volvo 240, Mercedes 200E and its relatives, Saab 900. As regular readers here will know (cue eye-rolling) the Peugeot 406 seems to be attaining that status here in Denmark, leaving its peers far behind in terms of survival rates. Citroen C5s (Mk1) also seem to linger, more than I´d have thought given their wierdness. People seem to like them – it´s the huge interior I suppose.
      I have a funny feeling Opel Astras 1992-2005 seem to be also surviving a bit more than peers; the Toyota Avensis Mk1 also seems to hang about – I notice them worming their way into my conscious when really they ought not to.

  10. Memories, my mother had a Datsun 1000 wagon for many years, a 3 door shape which doesn’t really exist anymore except in SUV land. Replaced by the first model Honda Civic, probably a significant upgrade. Fun fact, the steering box (or possibly the whole rack, I don’t know enough engineering) from these was a preferred upgrade for MG TCs in the Melbourne MG scene a few decades ago, it turned my fathers into something fairly drivable, it had been diabolical.

    1. Hi Justin. That is a fun fact! You have to admire the ingenuity of whoever spotted that potential upgrade.

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