The Bridgehead Falls (Part Two)

Despite opposition, Octav Botnar asserts his growing power and influence.

Breakthrough: 1973 Datsun 120Y Sunny. Image: honestjohn.co.uk

Datsun’s breakthrough model in the UK was the 1973 120Y Sunny. Like its predecessor, the 1200, the 120Y had a rigorously conventional, conservative and well-proven mechanical layout, but was clothed in a smooth contemporary bodystyle with an upswept side DLO(1) that would become a signature for this generation of Datsun models. The styling flourishes, such as the ornate grilles and wheel covers, were rather ersatz for some tastes (including this writer’s) but the model really struck a chord with UK buyers and helped Datsun become the best-selling foreign brand in the UK in 1973.

In the early 1970’s Datsun’s UK range was expanded to include larger models such as the 140/160J Violet and 160/180B Bluebird. The latter was a direct challenger to the Cortina in the 1.6 to 1.8-litre D-segment, while the former was an intermediate-sized 1.4 to 1.6-litre model that straddled the C and D-segments(2). At the behest of his dealers, Botnar also imported full-size models such as the 180/200L Laurel and 200/260C Cedric(3), nominally competitors for cars like the Ford Granada and Rover 3500. These models only accounted for a small percentage of Datsun’s burgeoning UK sales, as did the marque’s halo model, the 240Z coupé.

By 1975, it had become clear that those ‘funny little Japanese cars’ were now a major threat to the domestic UK auto industry(4). The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders lobbied the Labour government of Harold Wilson for tariffs or quotas to be imposed. Wilson was fearful of causing a diplomatic rift with the imposition of restrictions on Japanese imports and instead encouraged a negotiated solution.

Stop sniggering at the back: 1973 Datsun 260C Cedric. Image: carthrottle.com

After two years, a voluntary agreement was put in place, restricting Japanese imports to 11% of the UK market, the level seen in 1977. A further agreement between the Japanese manufacturers committed each not to exceed their existing individual market shares. In the case of Datsun, the market leader, this was 6%. Toyota was in second place with 3.5% and the remaining 1.5% was shared between, Honda, Isuzu and Daihatsu. Similar agreements were reached with other European countries, making it difficult for Japanese manufacturers to grow their sales, other than in line with the growth of the market as a whole.

Botnar was determined to maintain Datsun’s UK market share and did so by offering attractive finance packages and extra equipment as standard to retail customers. He had no interest in chasing fleet sales as the profit margins on such sales were usually razor thin.

In the early 1980’s the Nissan name began appearing on Datsun cars, initially as a ‘by Nissan’ suffix to the model name. This was the start of a wholesale switch to the corporate Nissan name, which was completed in 1986, and Botnar’s company was duly renamed Nissan UK Ltd.

Nissan initially tried to circumvent European import restrictions by building a version of the Cherry supermini in Italy in conjunction with Alfa Romeo. The car was called the Nissan Cherry Europe and was powered by the flat-four engine from the Alfasud. Badges apart, it was identical to the Alfa Romeo Arna. The Cherry Europe was only sold in three-door form in the UK and Spain from 1983 to 1986 and was a flop. Almost nobody wanted a Japanese car that was (not very well) built in Italy. If Nissan was going to grow its European market share significantly, it would have to commit to building its own cars within the EU.

Botnar persuaded UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to lobby both Nissan and the Japanese government for the proposed facility to be built in Britain. Thatcher was amenable to the proposal. She was hugely irritated by the legacy of poor management and restrictive practices that still prevailed in the indigenous auto industry, so the opportunity to establish a new manufacturing hub away from the industry’s midlands heartland and starting with a clean sheet appealed to her. However, she faced widespread opposition from existing UK automakers, the unions, and even those in her own government who still resented the Japanese for their role in the Second World War.

Nissan’s Washington plant, Sunderland. Image: Nissan Global

In 1977, two years before she became Prime Minister, Thatcher had visited Japan and met with Nissan chairman Katsuji Kawamata and the country’s prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, in an effort to persuade them to choose the UK for industrial manufacturing facilities within the EU. She renewed these contacts in 1981 and began substantive negotiations.

The north-east of England was a region of high unemployment and little in the way of manufacturing industry following the closure of large shipyards on the Tyne and Wear rivers. Another key industry, coalmining, had ended with the closure of pits around the city of Durham. A 799-acre site, formerly the home of RAF Usworth Aerodrome at Washington, near Sunderland, was identified as a potential location for the development. The site had the advantage of proximity to the deep-sea Port of Tyne and Newcastle International Airport. As the site was government owned, the sale price could be set at favourable levels and it was, just £1,800 per acre, equivalent to the prevailing price for agricultural land.

Herself, at the Sunderland plant. Image: buy.motorious

One of Nissan’s key conditions was that the workforce should be represented by a single union, to simplify negotiations on pay and conditions and avoid the inter-union demarcation disputes that had historically bedevilled multi-union workplaces.

The development plan was agreed with Nissan but was very nearly derailed by Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, in his 1984 Budget. Lawson wanted to abolish capital allowances on the purchases of new plant and machinery, which would have added £27.5 million to the cost of the development. Facing down all opposition, Thatcher negotiated a confidential sweetheart deal with Nissan and the plant was secured. It was formally opened by Thatcher and Nissan President Yutaka Kume on 8th September 1986.

1987 Nissan Bluebird T72 liftback. Image: autodata24.com

The Sunderland plant’s first model was the T12 series Bluebird. It was assembled from CKD(5) kits imported from Japan, starting in July 1986 in four-door saloon form. The five-door T72 liftback version was added in January 1987. This was a D-segment FWD model with petrol engines ranging from 1.6 to 2.0 litres and a 2.0-litre diesel. It was aimed at both the private buyer and fleet market, as it was exempt from the 6% UK market share cap that covered imported Nissan models. It could also be exported without restriction to all EU markets.

The Bluebird was an immediate success, to the extent that, in December 1987, Nissan introduced a third shift at the Washington plant to increase annual production from 29,000 to 40,000 cars. Behind the success story, however, relations between Botnar and Nissan were becoming increasingly strained.

The story concludes in Part Three.

(1) Datsun named this styling feature the J-line.

(2) Whereas European manufacturers tended to offer 1.3-litre C-segment and 1.6-litre D-segment saloons, Japanese automakers instead offered three different sized models with 1.2, 1.4 and 1.6-litre engines covering the same segments. The nearest present-day equivalent to the Datsun Violet would be the Škoda Octavia.

(3) This model name was perceived as rather effete in the UK and was downplayed in favour of the numerical designation.

(4) European imports were also taking an increasing UK market share, but Britain’s EU membership since 1973 prevented any tariffs or quotas being applied to such imports, hence the focus on the Japanese.

(5) Completely Knocked Down: the car was supplied in kit form for local assembly.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

31 thoughts on “The Bridgehead Falls (Part Two)”

  1. Good morning all and apologies for the late publication of today’s piece.

    1. A belated good morning to you too Daniel 😉
      Thank you for bringing back some 70s and 80s memories.
      Re the T72 Bluebird, did the vents on the rear wing have any practical purpose at all? And did any other similar car choose such a “stick-on” style?
      And re Cedric (and not forgetting Gloria) I wonder whether there is a trend for Far East Asian countries to choose a somewhat dated English language name in addition to their own language. Years ago I used to call on a buyer called Cedric, who would only have been in his 20s, but when I next saw him 10 years later he was known by his Chinese name.
      Mind you, I had a girlfriend whose mother was called Gloria and she was as English as they came.

    2. Good morning Andy. I believe those vents were functional. Perhaps it was an aerodynamically efficient place to put them in terms of drawing out stale air from the cabin? Here’s a better view:

      The 1981 A60 Toyota Celica liftback featured similar grilles in the rear wings:

      Strangely, on US market cars, the side marker lamps were situated in place of the grilles, so perhaps they weren’t functional in this case:

    3. Similarly placed extractor vents were not atypical, here’s a more ornate example.

    4. @Andy
      The vents were probably just the usual cabin/boot pressure release vents only they decided to use them as a styling feature instead of hiding them.
      Nowadays they are usually found hiding underneath the rear bumper.

    5. The T11 Datsun Stanza that preceded the T72 Bluebird had those vents ahead of the rear lamp cluster too – on the 5dr bodyshell only. The 4dr lacked them, but did have vents of some sort at the trailing edge of the rear door window.
      Actually now I think of it, Datsun’s strategy in the early years led – as far as I can recall – to the T11 Stanza and U11 Bluebird being sold alongside one another. The U11 was as boxy as all out, with the edges chamfered just a little, whereas the T11 was a lot sleeker. Presumably the cars shared a platform and had a similar structure underneath, but the U11 didn’t have those vents.
      This was the kind of thing I was busy noticing while my schoolfriends were discovering girls…

    6. Good evening Michael. Datsun/Nissan model sizing got a bit confused with the T11 Stanza and U11 Bluebird. The former nominally replaced the Violet, which was half a size down from the Bluebird, but both cars shared the same 2,550mm (100 1/2″) wheelbase. The Bluebird was rigorously square-cut (albeit not unattractive) but the Stanza was rather smoother and more ‘European’ in style. Here are both:

      Even more confusingly, the Stanza was also available as a saloon:

  2. I remember in the 70’s there were large numbers of Datsuns 260c (diesel version) being used as taxis in Portugal.
    I think they were the first brand to break the almost complete monopoly of Mercedes as a taxi supplier.
    Those Datsuns lated for a looong time, well into the 80’s or even early 90’s.

    1. Good morning PJ. Those 260C cars were tough and reliable, and very well equipped. One feature in particular I recall was a mechanical clockwork timer for the heated rear window that stopped it being left switched on inadvertently. The interior looked quite opulent, even if it wasn’t to everyone’s taste:

    2. Here you go, Freerk:

      Yours for £45 on EBay! 🙂

      You can see it in situ, to the right of the steering column in the photo of the dashboard above.

  3. Thanks, Daniel. I didn’t notice it in the photo of the interior, but it looks similar to what I imagined. What a lovely thing.

    1. It’s a lovely piece of mechanical engineering, and such a contrast to modern day cars with their touchscreen controls for everything in the interest of cheapness, not ergonomics.

  4. That 260C interior is just superb. It has the intense busy-ness of an airoplane cockpit and a bit of 70s Cadillac in their. I am not proposing all car interiors should be like this. I am glad this one is like this. It is so different from a contemporary Granada or Rekord yet does all the same kinds of things. It is marvellous that a design problem can yield so many different and, I think, equally valid solutions. The next question is: why is Richard okay with that Nisssan but not the busy interiors that characterise today´s cars. I have an answer!

    1. Don’t keep us in suspense, Richard!

      And the answer is?

    2. Something to do with fitness for purpose and the utilisation of available technologies?

    3. This exterior image of the 1975-1979 Cedric hardtop seems to deliver whatever that dashboard is promising.

  5. Splendid part two, Daniel. My memory of the T72 liftback is quite strong as they seemed to be everywhere in my late teens. Where the memory gets fuzzy, I seem to remember our local Nissan dealer was Portland Autos who had a very glitzy and glass showroom where at least one model always seemed to be perched on the roof.

    Looking forward to part three along with Richard’s reveal!

  6. Nice photo good dog for a very interesting and slightly bizarre car.
    Maybe one of the first 4 door coupe?
    The back door with the high hip is certainly back in fashion.
    Daniel and Richard you have me waiting for more…

    1. Good morning Constantinos. Those four-door pillarless ‘hardtops’ were standard fare in the US and Japan back in the latter half of the 20th Century, proving that there’s nothing new under the sun! Here’s a typical US example, a 1975 Chrysler LeBaron:

      Certainly cleaner and more elegantly styled than most contemporary SUV coupés, in my opinion, although that’s damning it with faint praise!

    2. That Chrysler was indeed the last American four-door hardtop (as a 1978 model, unchanged from the ’76), GM having abandoned it after 1976 and Ford phasing theirs out in favor of what they called a “Pillared Hardtop” (sedan with full B-pillar and frameless door glass) in 1974-75. They had first appeared in 1955-56 so were relatively short-lived and being the most expensive sedan body style, priced above everything but station wagons and convertibles, less popular than the glamor-leader 2 door hardtop and the 4 door full-post sedan.

  7. Wow, here we are! The photo of the Datsun 120Y reminded me of this car, that was famous here as all the motoring press was using it as an example of bad roadholding. Quite unfair I believe, but this is an other matter, the magazines just wanted to create an image. It was very popular in greece.

  8. During the 80s, to be exact to the year, it is 1980-1992, because of the local tariff and taxes regulations, the taxes were a high percentage of the final car price in the showroom. This made the cars over 1600 cc very expensive, and the cars over 2000 cc out of the question. That is why I still see around Jaguar XJs from the 60s and 70s but never 80s. Take into consideration please, that the prices came very close together, regardless of the factory price of the actual car. An example, as I read now from an old magazine, BMW 316 price was 5,2 million, Renault 21 was 4,9 million. The potential customer ath this price class would not choose the Nissan. In the 900, 100, 1300 cc categories, Greece was full of Nissan Micra, Sunny, Cherry, you could see them everywhere. There was also a factory in Thessaly that assembled them.

  9. Daniel, the Stanza above was rare here, maybe it was not imported regularly and these examples were imported second hand from other european countries? The low, long, angular Bluebirds, were typical Athens taxis in 80s and 90s. I liked them then and I remember fondly them now. The doors were shutting close with a very pleasing metallic thump. I think they were a little cramped in the back, and they had a large boot. They were diesels. At the time, diesel cars were only allowed as taxis, no private vehicles. Huge, dense black smoke clouds were coming out of their exhausts, like a jet airliner flying. There were no catalytic converters then, and the quality of diesel in greece must have been below eu standards. Since early 80s the taxis are yellow with a painted blue line around the windows. Someone must had visited New York and brought back the idea, without the checkerboard line. Before this, the taxi colours were light grey overall, with a white line around the window line. I still remember the chrome painted rear view mirrors above the front wheels, could you please find a picture of these?

    1. Good morning gpant. I wonder if the Bluebird taxis you remember were actually the last of the RWD models (which were denoted 910) rather than the first of the FWD models (the U11). Both cars looked very similar, but I cannot find any photos of the FWD model with wing mirrors rather than door mirrors.

      The grey car in the photo above is the FWD model. Here is the RWD model in Japanese taxi form with wing mirrors:

      Wing mirrors used to be an identifying feature of JDM (Japanese domestic model) cars but these would have been right-hand drive, so not the taxis you remember from Athens in the 1980s.

      I had a RWD 910 Bluebird as a company car back in 1984 and it was comfortable and nice to drive. It was also much better built and finished than the Austin Montego that replaced it.

  10. Yes, exactly dear gooddog this is the car I had in mind. Thank you for the photo and the comment. I do not understand if this mirror configuration helped the field of vision of the driver. However, it was funny then for us the youths to see a car with 5 rear view mirrors. What are these two small black dots left and right of the bonnet? This is a typical Athens taxi of the period. The Nissan badge on the grille is also typical. The license plate reads ai-oh and a number, it is a registered historical vehicle. The number 138 on the windscreen seems to be the call number on the cb radio when it was employed as a radio taxi. I believe that it has the old style mechanical taximeter, behind the windscreen. It was doing ti – ti- ti like a clock as it worked. Now they have been replaced with electronic units.

    1. The two small black dots left and right of the bonnet are turn signal indicators, the lenses face rear toward the driver.

    2. That’s interesting, gooddog. They put me in mind of the little transparent plastic lugs that extend above the sidelights on the Rover P6:

      When the car was in production, I never knew the purpose of them, but I’ve since worked out that they catch enough light from the bulb so the driver can see that the lights are on from the driver’s seat. Simple and clever!

  11. Good afternoon Daniel. These Nissan Bluebird taxis I remember must have been this rear wheel drive model you described. Like this in the picture sent by gooddog. This picture has been taken in the Stadium athletic installations complex in Athens in what appears to be a classic car fair. Spot the bigger inside mirror strapped on the original one, this is something all the taxidrivers do even nowadays, and the kombologi or haimali, hung from the mirror, as a sign of traditional internal decoration and a wish for luck perhaps. The massage wooden balls appliance that are seen on the driver seat, is not a typical 1980s feature, they appeared later, in 2000s maybe. It is possible that this nice well painted 910 was still working hard then, 20 years on and had clocked some millions kilometers.
    The brown car on the japanese magazine is it, the only differences being the grille and the hubcaps, that are japan market option.
    The grey car above, in the west german licenses NE-N 385 that is the first of the FWD models the U11 looks surprising close to the RWD one, and maybe I have seen both here and I can not tell them apart.

  12. Daniel, to tell the truth, I have never seen a right-hand drive car with local license plates here. Maybe they are forbidden dy some law? Even some classic MGs they were left-hand drive.

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