Silvan Song

The many faceted Nissan Silvia.

Image: TTAC

The Silvia series, if it can be described as such began at the Tokyo motor show in 1964, when an elegant Italianate coupé was shown, based upon the existing Fairlady platform (hence the rather stunted-looking wheelbase). Powered by a 1.6 litre four cylinder engine, it was no roadburner, but for the nascent Datsun car business, it was to prove something of a halo car, somewhat in the manner of Toyota’s perhaps even more comely, and technically more accomplished 2000 GT. With slightly over 500 built, they were vanishingly rare at the time, and remain so a good sixty years later.

1975 Datsun Silvia/ 200 SX. Image: lookatthecar

The name remained dormant within Fukuoka until 1975, when it was disinterred as a more louche derivation of the 180B series. Offered primarily in JDM and US markets, the 200SX (as it was denoted in the land of the Freeway) was no technical trailblazer either – indeed, it was anything but, cleaving to Datsun’s mid-Seventies predilection for beam axles and a therefore somewhat tenuous relationship with undulating macadam. Styling was what might be charitably described as ‘Yokohama does Zagato, but perhaps before the design team had their coffee’, being a somewhat disjointed collection of lines and surfaces in frantic search of a cohesive theme, much like the similarly formatted 120Y of blessed memory.

1980 Silvia. Image: autodata1

1979 begat a new generation of Silvia. Just as the outgoing model reflected the somewhat baroque styling themes of mid-Seventies Nissan, the S110 (as it was denoted) reflected not only those of a new decade, being resolutely rectilinear in form, but that of the contemporary American personal coupé, down to the ‘Opera’ rear quarter windows. The S110 was offered in both three-volume and fastback versions, although the latter seems to have been predominantly confined to Japan. This generation model was also notable for the bodyshell becoming the basis for Nissan’s steroidal WRC contender, the 240 RS, fitted with a DOHC 2.4 litre six, which was rallied with some success between 1983 and ’85.

Nissan Silvia S12. Image: drivemag

Better known to European eyes in fastback coupé form, the 1983 Silvia was also offered with a rather severe looking three-volume body, akin to that of the contemporary Toyota Celica; both being somewhat influenced by the American domestic styling trends of the time, which favoured conservatism and stylistic formality. The S12 series it seems was offered with a wide variety of engines (depending on the market in question) ranging from a 1.8 litre four to a 3.0 litre V6.

Nissan Silvia S13. Image: carthrottle

The S13 arrived in 1988, again offered both as a fastback or a three-volume coupé. In JDM coupé form, it differed markedly from its fastback sibling, with a bluffer, better integrated nose treatment to that of the rather generic, if perhaps more aerodynamic European/US market version. US market cars (badged 200SX as before) employed this retractable headlamp treatment, regardless of bodystyle. The S13 would prove to be amongst the best-selling of the Silvia models and perhaps the best regarded, being in possession of a fine chassis, courtesy of a multi-link independent suspension, limited slip differential and on some models, four-wheel steering. Styling was particularly well judged; for the first time since the 1965 original, one could be forgiven for imagining the S13’s exterior being the work of an Italian carrozzeria.

Nissan 200SX S14. Image: autodetective

Not so its successor. 1990s surfacing was not a harmonious mating with the Silvia’s styling themes by this point and with the S14 eschewing a fastback variant, the rather amorphous looking three volume coupé was pretty much one’s lot. Still in possession of a fine chassis, the 1993 vintage model, despite being lower and wider than its predecessor, not only failed to improve upon its predecessor’s appearance, but fell adrift of more alluring European rivals, and a palpable shift in buying patterns in its previously predominant US market. The Silvia’s decline can probably be traced from this point.

Nissan S15 Silvia. Image:

By 1999, the sands of time were running out for mainstream-manufacturer coupés, but Nissan at least saw merit in one last lap of the stadium for the Silvia, introducing the S15 that year. More dimensionally compact than its immediate predecessor, its styling marked a return to the fussiness of earlier models, lacking the clarity and restraint of its best-wrought exponents. It’s probably apt that the model went out with a whimper in 2002, the market for such cars having largely dried up by that point anyway.

It’s hard enough to maintain a bloodline over four decades even if one cleaves to a clearly defined visual template. The Japanese four-year model cycle may have had its benefits, but it could be said to have done little for marque identity or product definition. Certainly, it cannot be said to have benefited the more specialised of the Japanese carmaker’s offerings. The Silvia clearly fell foul of changing market conditions, but its haphazard and fragmentary execution may too have hastened its demise.

Note: The S15 Silvia was only offered in Japan, Australia and New Zealand markets.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

25 thoughts on “Silvan Song”

  1. Good morning Eóin and thank you for a nice potted history of a car that was familiar to me in its S12 and S13 iterations, but not otherwise. Your photo of the 1964 original struck me not only for its prettiness but also, at first glance, for how large the wheels appeared to be. It is, in part, an optical illusion created by the white bands on the tyres. (I wouldn’t describe them as whitewall tyres because they’re more subtle than that.) Perhaps there’s a simple solution there for those trying to achieve the look of larger wheels without compromising a car’s ride quality? Here’s a couple of nice examples:

    If white rings are too ersatz, then how about silver?

    Returning to the Silvia, the 1975 iteration has, I think, some nice body surfacing going on beneath the gargoyle detailing:

    The same comment would apply to the contemporary range of ‘J-line’ Datsun saloons, including the 180B Bluebird, the 140J Violet and even the 120Y Sunny(!) Here’s the Bluebird:

    I’ll get my coat…(and tin hat)

    1. Thanks for posting the Bluebird, Daniel and to Eoin for reminding us of the first Silvia. It´s a real pity they only made 500 hundred. The Bluebird is a subtle bit of work. The DLO has an accent on the trailing edge which is rather modern; the wheel arches have grooves on them to catch the light and the small DLO and aperture shape is revisited by today´s Mazda3 (I see these and not Focuses or Golfs). Yet again I bewail the knee-jerk anti-Japanese attitudes that shaped my earlier perception of Datsun, Toyota and others.

    2. The 180 B is an interesting amalgam. I see faint reflections of Mark III Cortina, the late Sixties Camaro (around the tail), while the frame to the DLO perhaps suggests the creative basis for the van Hooydonk ‘Fringe’ as witnessed on current BMWs.

    3. Ooooooh…. um sorry to interrupt the thread, but there seem to be at least two of those, erm… chimaeras :

      This white one is imperfect, which… “If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right”… not quite, um. OK back to our reguarly scheduled programme.

    4. Aha! I wondered if anyone would notice: a Series III XJ with Series II bumpers. What’s not to love? 😁

    5. Not to mention this a Jag XJ12 disguising as a Daimler Double Six or the other way around.

    6. That frontal reminds me the current generación Mazda CX 5.

    7. Oh, that dashboard is lovely! Thanks for posting the image, David. There’s something retro-futuristic about that generation of Silvia that is really appealing to me.

    8. One of my favorite cars from Japan during this styling epoch was the fourth generation Skyline in Coupe form and the very weird wagon/van? variant. No European car makers had styling this ‘exuberent’.

  2. Meanwhile, back on the subject of 1970s Datsuns, here’s the 140J Violet in, rakish fastback and not-so-rakish hatchback saloon forms:

    The latter replaced the former in order to improve rear access and headroom, apparently

    1. Very alluring indeed. The bumper is a bit off but if we compare to some 70s Euro-competitors, the majority of the detailing is super tidy. These things are impossible to find now, aren´t they?

    2. And the 180B SSS coupe like the one, my friend’s mother drove. It was the first car I’d been in with a proper pillarless hardtop. The pale yellow was an unusual colour back then, too.

  3. Seeing the first three pictures, it is clear than every Silvia generation was a product of its time: crisp and delicate in the ´60s, barroque and not very tasteful in the ´70s, rectilinear and staid in the early ´80s.

    My favourite Silvia is the S13, but I think the S14 is an elegant, although conservative design. A friend of mine owns a 1996 one with about 45,000 kms on the clock in almost perfect condition and it´s fun to drive, too. The sales decline in the US market was partly due to changes in buyers taste but also to Nissan´s fixation to underpower the S13 and S14 with the KA 2.4 155 bhp engine instead of something more powerful like “our” SR20DET.

    1. Would the US versions of the S13 and S14 have instead benefited from a V6 as was the case with the US S12? Obviously a 3-litre as used in the S12 V6 would be out of the question to avoid stepping on the toes of the naturally-aspirated 300ZX, which was drifting towards being considered by some as laying claim to the title of being Japan’s first supercar. However a 2.5-litre V6 (be it from a short-stroke VG30 followed by a VQ25) would have likely had more cachet on top of indirectly harking back to the 240Z.

    2. The S12 was available with a V6 as well as a turbo 4 in the US but the S14 was saddled with the one 2.4l 4 cylinder from the small truck line, though it got a 15hp boost midlife. I was quite taken with the S15s I saw on a backpacking trip to NZ around the turn of the millenium and was disappointed to find that, when I was finally ready to move on from my GTV6, the whole sport coupe class in the US had disappeared.

  4. The CSP311 is a lovely car. Like Richard I regret Nissan only made these in small numbers. I wonder how many are still around.

  5. There’s a ‘76 Silvia for sale at Stone Cold Classics. I admire its style, but I think a Toyota Celica would have made more sense, at the time.

    I’ve got mixed views about white wall tyres; they can really give a lift to some cars, while looking a bit ‘chi-chi’ on others. Here’s a brief history of them.

  6. The S10 Silvia is a car that, on the surface, seems unnecessarily outré. With the explicit knowledge that this was where Nissan’s stillborn rotary was supposed to go, those severe wedge and triangular shapes paired with soft, curved edges like the shape of the grill, the the curve of the tail lamps, the rounded off points where the front fender meet hood and bumper make much more sense as an intended “theme”. It’s all supposed to invoke the image of a rotor. Of course, the failure for the rotary to materialize delayed the car somewhat and the resulting product ended up being little more than a L18 powered flagship “Sunny”. Who knows what could have been, as what Nissan did have running around in 1973 sounded rather promising indeed; Wheels magazine (the only English language report I’ve ever found) in February of that year got to test preproduction versions fitted in B110 Sunny models with a reported 120bhp @6500 rpm and 116ft/lbs @4400 rpm. “It’s very smooth right through the range, but lacks useful torque below 1,500 rpm. In the five speed manual coupe I drove, performance was relatively weak below 4,000 rpm, but it really flew from there on up to 7,000 rpm where an ignition cut-out device prevents over-revving. On the track I saw 112 mph in fifth gear, and the engine was pulling so easily and strongly that there was obviously a lot more available. I also drove a sedan version with automatic transmission. In this, the performance was a little less spirited overall, but felt more consistent through the range… Nissan stresses the rotary is still in its developmental stage, but it is an open secret there will be a production Datsun sports coupe with Wankel engine before 1973 is out.”

    1. Cjiguy: Thanks for the clarification as regards the S10. On reflection, I was perhaps a little unkind about its appearance. It’s an intriguing looking car, which puts me in mind of Zagato’s Flavia Sport in all its jolie laide glory. Even without a rotary (which might have lent it a degree of additional credibility – or a reputation for fragility – delete as appropriate), it represents a period where Japanese carmakers (and Nissan in particular) were taking influences from a wide variety of sources and filtering them through a very distinct visual sensibility. The results speak for themselves – for better or worse.

  7. If it is said the 240Z drew inspiration from the MGC and Big Healey, IMHO the Silvia S10 putting aside the styling seems to draw some inspiration from the MGB GT. Have people tried equipping the S10 and S110 with possibly 510-sourced IRS?

    Despite having the ingredients to introduce such a car before both Toyota and Mazda appeared on the scene in the 80s, Nissan never really got around to developing a 2-seater sportscar successor to the Datsun Sports,being scared off by US legislation against open-top sportscars then by the time they made the S13 into a compromised convertible it missed the boat and was too big against the MX5 and MR2.


  8. I like those Skylines, as posted by David, especially the estate. It looks as though the people who designed them enjoyed themselves. The coupé was apparently known as the ‘Kenmeri’ Skyline, due to the advertising campaign featuring the characters Ken and Mary. The prototype Ford Capri had a rear side window like the Skyline’s, before it was modified for production. One can also see echos of the Skyline’s design in things like the Cherry.

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