Subterfuge at the Castle and Then On to Carberytown

An infrequently encountered gem from Japan.

1989-1993 Nissan 200 SX. All images via the author.

Four short years. That’s all the time Nissan gave this affordable sports car. I had the pleasing fortune to find one in the depths of eastern Cologne around Easter this year. Not far away from it I spotted an XM (Series II) but I found it very difficult to photograph that green wedge without disturbing what I think was a homeless person sunning themselves in close proximity to the French car’s pointy snout. And since it was merely a Series II, perhaps this was no great loss.

By purest coincidence the XM and the Nissan 200 SX appeared the same year. The Japanese coupé has something of a good reputation. Honest John says “When the new Nissan 200SX arrived on the scene in 1989, it seemed that its maker had finally rediscovered some of the magic that was present during the creation of the 240Z during the late 1960s.

1989-1993 Nissan 200 SX

The features that made it so appealing, the rear-wheel drive chassis and its affordable price have doomed it to an irreversible rarity. It seems that among a sub-set of the car enthusiast scene the 200SX is or was prized for its drifting capability. That means resprays, tricked out interiors, wrong alloys, a 90,000 watt stereo system and a lot of little stickers in the windows. And crashing.

1989-1993 Nissan 200 SX

A quick gander inside the yellowing pages of shows there to be just 27 on sale and they all cost a lot more than a lovely old French 5-door hydropneumatic technical wonder. Try €15,000 for a red one. You won’t find an XM costing more than that unless it’s been prised from a museum; most cost around a third of the Nissan.

1989-1993 Nissan 200 SX

The lineage of the 200SX is bewildering – take the words Nissan, Silvia, Nismo, RS, 180, 240, Nissan Prince, channel and use them to make some sentences on your own time. The records aren’t especially clear on the time the car was on sale in this form; I put it at 4 years before a restyle savaged it.

I want to draw attention to the graceful styling of the 1989 car.

At the front, there are pop-up headlamps and I seem to be having a run of these on cars at the moment. The way the front screen plunges into the bonnet is very clean – but look at the subtle flare around the wheels and the flat-then-curved prow (above) and you realise they managed to express the design concept clearly with nothing getting in the way.

1989-1993 Nissan 200 SX ashtray. Full-strength smoking excellence.

The rear lamps have the quality of Audi, with a little accent in the form of the tab making the centre a bit narrower. I tend to think bumpers reached a sweet spot around about this time. They still remained separate volumes but were smoothed into the body; the panel gaps began migrating away from the bumpers. There are no lips around the wheel-arch cut outs. Doesn’t it look just okay?

1989-1993 Nissan 200 SX

Notice that they weren’t worried about the lack of a chrome grille. The main character here, at the front end, is a lot of horizontals and you perceive the squareness (plan view) of the car. But the overall smoothness of the car with some important inflections like the flared body-side and the profile of the bonnet create a design which gorgeously hybridises linear and organic – I like this structured roundness. It’s complex without being complicated.

Yet again I am made to ponder the Japanese car makers’ capacity to turn out lovely shapes and then start over five years later or less as if nothing was ever achieved. It brings forth some nice surprises but it also means that pleasant aesthetic effects come and then just fade away, forgotten until one encounters them at random as with this car.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

34 thoughts on “Subterfuge at the Castle and Then On to Carberytown”

  1. Good morning, Richard. What a lovely motor an unmolested 200 SX is. When these were just introduced I saw a truck loaded with only red 200 SX’s out to deliver these to dealers in the Netherlands. Never again would I see so many 200 SX’s without silly wheels are horrific body kits. Many Civics and Preludes shared a similar fate. I still regret never having owned an original unmolested ’90’s Honda.

    There are four 200 SX’s for sale in the Netherlands. cheapest I can find for sale in the Netherlands, none of them unmolested. The cheapest is a shade under € 9k, the most expensive one is almost € 28k. The last one is advertised as “Nissan 200 SX – 2.0-16V Custom Rocket Bunny”. What world we live in.

  2. Rocket Bunny is a well known (for those into those things of course) Japanese maker of add-on body panels of the extremely flared variety.
    They give the cars a cartoonist look very much appreciated by a small subset of the male audience 😃

    1. Thanks for enlightening me. I’m obviously not in there in target group, I had no idea. It’s also the later version of the 200 SX. Still it’s tastefully understated and restrained with only a hint of negative camber 😉

  3. The facelifted version looks like it had an aftermarket bumper fitted as standard

    The original had that typical Japanese look of a bumper that was integrated and non-integrated at the same time. That probably was a result of the ‘kimono regulation’ that demanded bumper designs which did not to catch loose fitting clothes like a kimono and which was met by rubber strips between bumper and body metal before integrated bumpers became the norm. This regulation was introduced as an obstacle for imports.
    To my eyes the 200 SX S13 nose looks wrong because there’s too much material between the front edge of the pop-up lights and the protruding part of the bumper. This was a common feature of many Japanese cars but much better resolved on the Honda Prelude.

  4. Good morning everybody

    IMHO, japanese carmakers during the 80’s and early 90’s used to replace cars in 4 year cycles just because they could: they were in their ‘modern’ phase, in as much as their belief in the future was without doubt.
    It would allways be better, and they were the best.

    Take the Civics: as I see it, 1983/86, 1987/90 and 1991/1995 models were each one years ahead of european competitors in most fields – and each one ahead of the former. Not so after that period.

    That’s until geopolitcs and the hell come into play: be it the near crash of the Sumitomo bank and others, the defensive promoting of diesel cars in Europe or other circunstances I’m not aware of, the fact is that Japan enters ‘stagflation’ around 1990 and I’m not sure when or if it ended.

    Am I seeing it correctly?

    1. Good morning Gustavo. Yes, the 1990s was a terrible decade for Japan, not so much stagflation as simply stagnation. The asset price bubble that bad built up the previous decade burst, leaving most Japanese people feeling very much poorer. Government attempts to stimulate the economy were frustrated by people’s reluctance to spend their already depleted capital.

      Historically, the Japanese were very prudent and cautious with their finances, and much more inclined to be savers rather than spenders. When they would spend, it would be out of interest on savings or gains on shares, and certainly not borrowed money. With interest rates near zero and a flat-lining stock market they had ‘nothing’ to spend.

      A Japanese colleague of mine at the time explained to me that she was sending money home every month to support her retired parents, even though they had very substantial savings, because they wouldn’t dip into their capital and were earning almost no interest.

  5. Nice find, this was really a good looking, affordable sportscar, and simple in an appealng, no-nonsense way. No wonder were they quite common at the time.

    You mention the bumpers having hit a sweet spot at thit time, but I might extend this observation to car design in general. It was a time when the very boxy designs gradually made way for more elaborate volumes, a bit softened with subtle flares and radii. A few years later all went too soft, with lots of elliptic shapes and large radii, and then also joined by some of the most awful seat fabric patterns ever seen in cars.
    Another characteristic of that era is a minimum of brightwork or other adornments. This might not be to everyone’s liking, but it brought forth some good, calm designs where the quality of the shapes can be experienced in the purest way. On the other hand, less stellar designs were also betrayed and tended to look bland.

    1. Less is more

      But as they progressively eliminated every non-essential design adornment, they reached the end of the game: After reaching form purity, you can not get any purer. Or it get´s progressivly harder to do it.

      Once Mies Van der Rohe reached the purity of Farnsworth House, or after Phillip Johnson buit the Glass House (is that the name?), what else could be “purified” to further lengths?

      After that, all you can do is go the other way round: To Modernism succeeds post-modernism.

      As such, and IMHO once again, car design atained it´s zenith during that period, and it will not reach such heights again.
      As computer aesthetics attained it´s zenith with MacBook Air

    2. Gustavo, I generally agree with your findings. However, if the period in question was THE zenith of car design remains to be disputed.

      I rather tend to think of the design history as coming in waves. After a tendency towards purism, of course one has to steer away from it in order to find new ways of expression. This will probably result in more decoration, but it’s also a search period for new shapes. Once these are established, I can imagine another period of consolidation and, yes, purification.

      At the moment I’m afraid we’re still in an era where the future direction is not clear. I see attempts of simpler shapes, e.g. at Hyundai, and at Mercedes’s EVs, although the latter already tend toward blandness. But in general, there is still a tendency to add more visual noise.

    3. Gustavo: good analysis. Yes, there´s not much more to take away when the walls are glass sheets and the floors are simple planes. I would say that the reductionism of the Farnsworth house is not functional though the dogma of the time insisted it was. It´s not functional to live in a greenhouse that in summer is impossible to keep warm and affords no privacy. It´s an art object masquerading as a dwelling.

  6. Good morning Richard. What a pleasing car you bring us this morning. Here’s an example in rather better condition than the one you encountered:

    The point you make about the bumpers is a very good one. Because they are still identifiably separate forms, the panel gaps are exactly where one would logically expect to find them. On more recent cars, where there is no differentiation between bumpers and surrounding bodywork, the panel gaps often appear to be drawn arbitrarily and look awkward.

    The previous S12 generation 200SX / Silvia was another lovely design:

    Note the masterful way in which the shut-lines around the rear hatch are hidden, a really delightful detail. Japanese manufacturers really on top of their game in terms of design back then.

    1. In the same way in which there were booted and hatchback versions of the first few generations of Ford Mustangs and Toyota Celicas, so there were of the Sylvia. This is the ‘formal roofline’ version of the car.

    2. The ‘SX’ or Sylvia had a proud design history right from the first Albert Graf Von Gertz influenced first model in 1965. Needless to say, given it’s looks the first models are very highly valued today, and the styling attributed to long time Nissan designers Kazuo Kimura and Fumio Yoshida.

  7. A high time for Japanese car industry. There were only two coupe cars available in the market. In the market for real people, not billionaires, speaking locally. The Toyota Celica ST-GT and the Nissan 200SX. With the high taxes based on engine capacity, the Celica sold more, as it had a 1.6 and a 2.0 version available. The 200SX used a 1.8 and later a 2.o engine. This subtle difference and the appeal of the modern Celica design with the curves, let the 200SX to fell to second place. The rear wheel drive may had frightened some prospective owners, compared to the front wheel drive of the Celica. I like both these cars, they were statements of industrial might and design that wanted to go forward and lead the way. I do not remember the european equivalents of the time. The 200SX was the purer drivers car in my opinion, offering the technology of 16 valves, two camshafts, turbo, coupled to a rear wheel drive. All these offered with tried and trusted Nissan reliability. I was spacious inside, and had a personality of a classic sports car, at the same time using the current technology. I liked its appearance, it gave me an image of a large thoroughbred sports car. They were not easy to spot going around, I remember a white and a red, recently I spotted a dark blue one. They were factory standard, no huge wheels and aftermarket add-ons. Most of them that I have spotted, were in factory standard condition. I figured out that their owners were keen and experienced drivers, who enjoyed driving fast, in empty country roads. I have to add here that the 200SX was difficult to find in Athens. It was sold more to the other cities in the countryside, where there are empty roads to enjoy driving.

  8. Thank you for your comment Simon

    I used the IMHO expression often in my former comments due to the large gap between my knowledge and my opinions regarding the issue.

    However, I´d like to ask you if the following clarification of my earlier writing may earn your agreement:

    What on retrospective terms I suggest, again IMHO, is that given a determined set of technological conditions, each object – a car, a plane, a building,a computer, a pen – tends and tries to integrate, simplify and depure it´s visual elements. This is often consequence of incremental technological evolutions that happen along the way.

    But there is a point when such process reaches it´s “zenith”, when further visual depuration and integration of elements becomes more and more dificult. Mind you, I was not meaning “the zenith in car design” (that woud be a gross statement), just the zenith on integration and depuration of visual elements in car design.

    To ilustrate my point, I could ask: Since the 70´s, how much visual “evolution” happened in passenger airplanes? Since the Biro, how much of it happened among cheap pens? Since the Smartfhone, how much of it happened among cell phones?

    But new technical developments may bring again new big leaps in design and visual appearence: As the use of concrete and steel allowed the opening of space and of windows on building facades, so the electric vehicle technology seems now to allow the appearence new visual languages in automobiles.

    Is this a better thought?

    1. Thank you Richard

      I completely agree with you.

      Neither the Farnsworth, nor the “Glass House” and even less the “Barcelona Pavilion” were, to my knowledge, liveable.
      Like a Stratos Zero is not, as far as I know, driveable…

      But they represent the maximum effort regarding the fullest development of a visual code based on (and influenced by) the technology available at a given epoch.

      And of course, the only way of finding the limits is surpassing them… 🙂

    2. I´d concur – with a given technology there´s only so much you can remove, assuming you want to remove things. Sometime about 1900 the mood took hold to remove decoration in architecture. Adolf Loos put forward some creepy arguments for this. New technology made decoration harder to do while making it cheaper to enclose volumes. I don´t think there is any fundamental reason to minimise, it´s a matter of taste. Just as you can have a bit too much decoration, the pursuit of zero can get too far and becomes oppressive. What is just a bare concrete room is passed off as good taste; it´s probably as horrible in its own was as choked Victorian sitting room might be.

    3. Gustavo, allow me to go back to the ‘zenith’ discussion. You mention that often new technologies lead to a rethinking or reconfiguration of shapes. I think this is very true.

      On the other hand you state that visual evolution should always lead to purer and better integrated shapes. I’m not so sure about this. I have the feeling that some fifteen years ago, there was a point in car design where much of this integration and simplification has taken place, but no fundamentally new technology was on the way to give new impulses. Then, instead of ‘doing nothing’ (which of course is unthinkable in our economical system), designers began to add. Not because there were new things to add, just decoration (creases, convoluted light unit shapes, you name it… the transition of the Audi A4 B6 to B7 is exemplary for this). This process seems to be going on ever since.

      And even when some really new technology came along (EV vehicles), which in theory allowed for much more design freedom and altered volumes / proportions, only a few companies tried to really explore this, while many others kept on enlarging their air intakes, minimizing window depth and adding creases. I really do hope that a Hyundai approach will be successful and convince others to go in a similar direction. I’m already seeing Ionic 5s on a regular basis when driving, and I think it’s a good sign.

    4. Simon: agreed. Not a lot happened in car design technology to drive exterior design so it went all over the place like a river without a channel. The Alfa 164 was a meaningful step on from the 75 or 90. The 166 less so. Audi has just rotted away now. Their cars have the same feeling as many other brands from the VAG stable.

  9. Thank you Daniel

    You displayed a large picture showing the Japanese economic and financial landscape at the time. I was only superficially aware of it, and I´ve been enlightened by your comment.

    Don´t you think it influenced negatively the exceptional momentum the japanese automakers were benefiting earlier?

    1. Hi Gustavo. As I recall, Japanese auto exports held up very well over this period, despite a substantial strengthing of the Yen between 1990 and 1995* (making them more expensive in overseas markets). This was the period when Lexus and Acura were beginning to make a very positive impression, in the US in particular, and strengthing the perception of the quality of Japanese cars more generally, to the benefit of sales.

      *The Yen strengthened from 140 to 85 against the US Dollar over the period. Against Sterling, the Yen moved from 260 to below 140, a massive appreciation.

  10. The image of a car manufacturer in someone’s mind takes shape by phenomena difficult to be explained logically.
    I will give you my perception, just to have fun.
    In my personal cloudy opinion, the Japanese car manufacturers rank as follows.
    Honda: Creator of the most technologically advanced cars and some of the most beautiful.
    Mazda: Individually thinking, creator of some of the purest driver’s cars.
    Toyota, Nissan and Mitsubishi are making many different cars on the same time. There are high fidelity creations, like Supra, Celica, 300ZX, 200ZX, 3000GT, some great sports cars, participation and excellence in racing activities, and at the same time, lorries, vans, buses, tractors, that dilute the image of the company. Explaining the 200SX commentary above, when it was on the market, half of the open vans going around the streets transporting agriculture products were Nissan. The Honda coupes had not this image problem, as there were no Honda lorries around. On the contrary, there were many high-end Honda motorcycles around to raise the image to noble status. The Mazda roadsters gave an image of a company aimed to pure driving experience. The Mazda vans could not spoil this image. So, my image of these companies was formed what they offered for sale in this particular market and may be grossly mistaken. It is somehow “frozen” and resistant to change, as the companies themselves modify their image as time goes by.

  11. There are two Farnsworth houses to be considered: the one that lives in photos, images and discussion, and then there is the real one. Living nearby the near one, and having toured it with Myron Goldsmith (the project architect under Mies) gives a different impression. It never was about a “functional house”. That is not what was sought, nor what was delivered. In Dr. Farnsworth own words (which she wrote in a letter), Mies was going to build her a “pavilion”, something special. And it is that.
    It is very hard to realize the delicacy of the building: it looks monumental, even a bit too much in the photos. But its an absolute charmer in reality – totally disarming and full of magic. That it was really not part of the functional ethos of the time is very clear, and a point much have missed. Its about the unique experience of living in nature, but being in a building… that is both the purist building, and not a building at all. It calls into doubt the notion of enclosure, ideas of sharing, vision and participation, relationship of inside/outside. Its full of feeling, far more than one would think from the photos. Visit and enjoy it!
    As to the 200 SX – it is a nice shape – not superb, but good. Got a second look at the time, as it showed maturity. But somehow… it doesn’t seem to go deeper. Needed a bit more of something, maybe a small bit of something unexpected.

    1. Geoff

      I beg to fully agree with your comprehensive explanation.

      It was enlightning to me.

    2. That´s a nice defense of the Farnsworth house and makes it more convincing. One one level I can accept this and see it in a different light. On another level, the building launched a lot of bad ideas. It ought to have been called “pavilion” – to my knowledege in all the things I´ve read it´s a “house”.

    3. Not to overdo the architecture discussion here, but its a building with an odd history. Mies and Dr. Farnsworth had a falling out (no more sleeping together either) and she got mad and sued him for “an unlivable house”. The suit was going badly for Mies, and would have had enormous repercussions if she had one. Oddly. Adlai Stevenson (then governor of Illinois, and later candidate for President) pulled out a book from his shelves, and in it was a letter from Dr. Farnsworth noting how pleased she was (at the time) Mies was building her a pavilion. I think the reference was in French, where the meaning is more ambiguous, but the mere word in the letter served to end the suit, and the rest is… history.

    4. To my eyes the Edith Farnsworth House (it has recently been renamed) is a reduction of a Greek temple and not so much a pavilion. One of my teachers at my architecture school criticized the Edith Farnsworth House for not being quite minimal enough as the size of the columns was chosen on esthetic grounds and they are bigger than they need to be.

      The Edit Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson’s Glass House are fundamentally different from another. The first has a classical symmetrical layout of bathroom and kitchen core, while the Glass House has more of the idea of a continuous space with the different elements placed in them in a freer way. Furthermore the relationship to the landscape is entirely different where Mies van der Rohe treated the house as a platform for viewing the landscape as a vista, the Glass House is directly anchored into the landscape. The last significant difference is the treatment of the columns: they are accentuated in the Edith Farnsworth House, making it temple-like. Johnson suppressed the importance of the columns instead.

      I think Richard’s claim that a single building launched a host of bad ideas is a bold one. I don’t think a single building is responsible for that.

  12. Agree it’s nice, neat and attractive. At the time, in the context of what else was around in the coupe segment, it was also generic, safe and slightly sanitised. It kind of looks like the love-child of the original RX-7 and a Porsche 924 – not a bad thing, but not very original. Now, its predecessor (as exhibited by Daniel) was different gravy …

  13. I´m loving this conversation.
    And I am willing to reply tomorrow (when everybody will be reading tomorrow´s post 🙂

    But for now, I´ll just say DTW is the best piece of automotive reading I´ve ever come across. I read you every breakfast since before the pandemic began and I am truly addicted to it.

    I had never said that. Well, it´s said

  14. Even though its styling is rather plain at the front on top of at times rough and messy to my eyes at the rear, still like the styling and chrome-less look of the 200SX (and other derivatives) more so the Nissan SilEighty / Sil80 up to the S15.

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