While I was in Japan investigating many of Nissan's new science projects, one of the highlights of the trip (aside from seeing entire stores of claw machines) was a trip to the Nissan Heritage Museum, located on the grounds of Nissan's Oppama Motor Plant. The collection, also known as the Nissan DNA Museum, must be where they drag designers to help them recover from their comas induced from working with Altimas and Versas all day.
It's a pretty stunning collection, and is not normally open to the public, so I felt quite lucky to get a chance to wander through it. Throughout, of course, my only thoughts were how I could make you, my cherished readers, happy, so I took a crapload of photos. Come on, let's see what we've got here.
This is where it all starts— a 1933 Datsun 12. The company that is now Nissan actually started way back in 1914, and made a car called the DAT (after the initials of the three guys who founded the company). The DATson was, as you'd guess, the son of DAT, but apparently in Japanese "son" sounds like a word that means "loss" so they used "sun." Got that? Anyway, this is pleasingly small and finished like a drivable wristwatch. I like the ribbbed radiator especially. It seems inspired by cars like the Austin Seven, but it's an original design.
Look at this adorable little brown truck! I think it's a derivative of the Datsun 15, from the mid '30s. It's styled pretty conservatively for the era, but the scale is so reduced you feel like you're looking at a '30s Buick from 20 feet away when you're right next to it. Seeing a bunch of these in a row was is of those sights that just makes you feel good.
This thing is pretty fascinating. It's a 1947 Tama Electric car. Right after the war, fuel was hard to get in Japan, so an electric vehicle made good sense. This one went about 40 miles per charge with its spark-breathing six and a half horse motor. Tama later became part of Nissan, by the way.
Mostly I love the way this thing looks— it's so awkward and mis-proportioned it becomes downright charming. Sort of like how a baby vulture is so ugly it almost closes the circle and becomes cute again. It's not really rational, but I love this lumpy little refrigerator.
This tough little brute from 1947 is interesting. Mechanically, it's basically a pre-war Datsun 13 truck. The shortages and limitations of the immediate post-war period dictated the redesign, which used less material and simpler processes for the flatter, more basic body panels. It's got that get-shit-done kind of charm I'm a sucker for.
Plus, check out the amazing tiny fire truck next to it. That thing should do birthdays.
You could probably think of this as the grandfather of Nissan's Z cars. It's a 1951 Datsun 1000, with a mind-splitting 20 HP engine, which at that time and place, made this a genuine sports car. It's pretty appealing in an MG TF kind of way, and for some reason I keep picturing it animated with Mickey Mouse at the controls. It just feels, you know, Technicolor.
This one may be my favorite of the collection. It's a Silvia, from 1966, I believe. These were built on the more common Fairlady 1600 chassis, and I'm told the bodies were all semi-custom built, which is why the production numbers are so low. They feel custom— it's a strikingly beautiful car, in a crisp, elegant '60s kind of way. Sharp creases, just the right amount of careful chrome detailing, impeccable proportions. This thing manages to feel Italian, American, and Japanese all at once, and the result will give you that longing ache in the pit of your stomach. I even like the color.
Man, I want to have a little truck like this to drive around. It looks like a shrunken version of this big old Chevy truck a painter in my neighborhood growing up had, but, you know, enshrunkenated. I love the stubby hood, the white accents, all those tie-downs. It's great. Why do all these little utility vehicles remind me of friendly bulldogs?
This is a 1962 Datsun Bluebird 1200, but I wanted to show you a detail of it. You'll see that it's painted with lots of characters I don't understand, and some paintings of flowers. Apparently, this car was used for some tour where each prefecture of Japan painted their prefecture's official flower and their governor's signature.
I think this would be a good thing for, say, Ford to do with the new Fusion. But for each of the 50 states, and let's go for state birds instead of flowers. Then we can see how many states have cardinals, and open congressional hearings to get to the bottom of our lack of state bird diversity.
Skylines have always been cool. This early 60s Skyline Sport has real presence, and resembles those Bentley Continental S3s of the same era. Plus, it's really, really gold.
Ah, the friendly Be-1. This was from 1989, and it's based on the Nissan Micra. It's one of the first city cars to be specifically designed to have a retro, friendly/cute look, and it pulls it off very well. It's full of great little design details. Seriously, how could you be a dickhead driving something like this? The open-topped one next to it was used to bring in relief pitchers at Japanese baseball games, I read somewhere. That one reminds me a bit of a modernized Fiat 500 Jolly.
I wish they actually let me drive this one, but at least I got to sit in it. This is a 30s-era Datsun 17, and they actually hand-cranked it started and drove it around the warehouse. It's was a delight to see, and luckily I have a video here for you. Note the semaphore turn indicators, because they're great and some bold company needs to bring those back, because.
Okay, this one is a bit of a mystery to me. It's a '62 Fairlady 1500, clearly race-prepped. But what's with the red and green headlights? Was it a partially aquatic race, and they required port and starboard lights? Was it for identification at a distance, or in fog? Was it for Christmas? Why the green indicators, too? Anyone know anything about this?
Ah, the Pao. I really love these little cars. For a while in the 90s, Nissan had a special division called the Pike factory where they made limited-production "boutique cars"— based on established platforms (the March) they were all about trying interesting and non-mainstream styling ideas. They made the Figaro and S-Cargo as well, but the 60s-little-car-rugged Pao was always my favorite. It's like they took a 2CV's design vocabulary and applied it to a more modern hatchback and ended up with something utilitarian but fun. There's one in LA I'm trying to hunt down for a review. Stay tuned!
At the opposite end of the spectrum of awesome is this GT-R from 1973. It's amazing just how much of a shrunk-in-the-wash American muscle car this thing is. It has that same loose bravado as a Mach I or something like that. It would be entirely at home peeling out of a Dairy Queen with a girl in Daisy Dukes hanging out the passenger window, and considering where it's from, that's incredible.
This is the best way to exhibit rally cars— hose 'em down, but that's it. Don't fix anything, just leave the scars and dents and lost bits as a record of the brutal journey the car's been on. This Bluebird (410) was the first Japanese car to win its (under 1300cc) class. The East African Safari Rally is no joke, so I'm sure a class victory was a useful marketing tool to all those people outside of Japan who had yet to trust Japanese engineering.
Another East African Safari veteran, this Fairlady (Z car to us in the States who probably can't quite take the idea of a sports car called a "Fairlady" seriously) also has that great brutal rally look. I especially love rally cars made from "sleek" cars like the Z. There's something about the flowing lines and long hood betrayed by the light pods and grille mesh and all that coarse stuff that makes for a really appealing contrast. Like seeing a beautiful, elegant woman (or man, if you roll that way) in grubby work clothes. The rough dirty parts just sort of make the whole package even better. Know what I mean?
This fun little notepad of a car was used by the Japanese Olympic team in Mexico for the 1968 games. The writing on the car are the signatures of the whole team.
This Fairlady isn't exactly exotic to American eyes, but seeing such a nice example of a Z car, in such a perfect period color, really drives home just how stunning these things must have been to people first seeing them. The poor-man's E-type comparison is really apt, and it's hard to think of a mass-market sports car with as timeless a look. I've been seeing rusty ones of these on roads all my life, so it's nice to have the context shaken up a bit.
I think one of my biggest surprises viewing this collection was just how American Nissan could build cars. I'd always had it in my head that British cars were the bigger influence on early Japanese cars— look at the early 1500 Fairladies and MGBs — but holy crap this thing could be a Pontiac. It's even pretty close to American-sized as well. The design vocabulary, the proportions, the detailing— if it didn't say "Gloria" on the grille I'd peg this as American as apple sashimi.
Speaking of American influences, this other Gloria feels a lot like the other Corvairs I wish they made. I love the pill-capsule taillights and the two-tone and multiple texture effects on this car.
Another view of a '70s-era Skyline GT-R. I see lots of AMX in this one.
This one took me a while to find out about. It's a big, black, very official-looking Cedric Special sedan. What's weird is this spring-loaded contraption in the middle of the back seat. It looks a bit like the rig used to transport noodles I saw in Tokyo. While the goal of the two rigs was similar, this one had a very different cargo: the Olympic Torch. This car was built to transport the torch for the '64 Tokyo Olympics in a vibration-free environment. Though I think sitting inside a closed sedan with an open flame, even an Olympic one, burning in the back seat must be pretty disconcerting.