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