“I think Nissan’s lost,” said Rob Fuller, leaning back in his chair at the shop where he pours his blood and sweat into those cars, as he’s done for decades. He thought for a moment, twirling absentmindedly at his mustache. “Well, I can’t say it’s lost. It has a new direction. And I’m just not a part of it.”
We were sitting in a wonderful place called Z Car Garage that’s tucked behind some condominiums on a quiet street in San Jose, California. Here, owners can take their Nissan sports cars from the 1970s to the present to get repaired or modified. Any Nissan sports car. Zs, ZXs or Infinitis are all welcome.
But the newer Nissans were few and far between when I was there—and for good reason.
Enthusiasts have been complaining for years that Nissan has lost its spirit, leaving behind its core sports car fanbase in the pursuit of out-Toyotaing Toyota. I wanted to find out what happened to the once-sporty carmaker, so I sought out Fuller, who’s been one of the biggest names in the Datsun and Nissan wrenching scene for almost 20 years. I wanted to hear his take on it.
When I visited one sunny Monday morning last August, there was a gray 300ZX twin-turbo on a lift, its hood yawning open. Fuller and his shop had done a full build on it, which included a new engine and new turbos, all with supporting modifications. Fully repainted, its multi-spoke ‘90s-grade Work VS-XXs sat suspended by modern KW Variant 3 coilovers.
In another corner, Fuller’s personal 1972 Datsun 240Z IMSA GTU race car rested motionlessly on jack stands. He’d just gotten done driving it that past weekend at the 2018 Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, in which Nissan was the honorary marque.
The shop isn’t huge, but it’s well-known. Speedhunters has been here multiple times, as much an indication of enthusiast cred as anything. Fuller started Z Car Garage in 2004 after working in another Z car shop. All told, he’s toiled on Zs for nearly two decades, but he’s loved them for a lot longer than that.
He bought his first 510 in the ‘90s after seeing it in a magazine. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that he is one of the most devoted Datsun and Z enthusiasts anywhere in the world.
“I’d been given this amazing chance to do what I want for the rest of my life with something that I love,” he told me earnestly. “And I worked my ass off for it. It’s awesome. My relationships with people come from this amazing car, this car that changed our lives.”
Fuller’s first 1971 510 was parked outside, painted a Mopar shade of green, with an SR20 engine swap and making 406 horsepower to the rear wheels. It represents a time when Nissan built cars that were affordable, desirable, tunable. The kind of cars that bred fans for life.
The “new direction” that Fuller was referring to, of course, is Nissan’s current business plan of Taking Over the World. By rolling out trucks, SUVs, economy cars and dabbling in electrification and semi-autonomy, it almost feels like Nissan is trying to out-mainstream the rest of the auto industry. Currently, there are barely any enthusiast offerings to speak of, and the ones that do exist are old, tired, expensive and bloated.
“I’m disappointed because the simple fact is I grew up during a time when Nissan ruled the world,” he continued. “Like the 300ZX, the 240SX—all of these things laying the groundwork for awesome. And then they kind of lost their way a little bit, got it back with the 350Z and then almost lose your way again.”
Fuller’s complaints of Nissan have been echoed by others, about how Nissan’s enthusiast path has been slumping as of late. But, as it turns out, this wavering has happened before.
The Skyline moniker started out in 1957 as a sedan, but the legend begins with the first GT-R, the “Hakosuka” that debuted at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1968 and launching the following year.
The second-gen Skyline GT-R, the “Kenmeri” KPGC110, only came as a coupe in 1973. The oil crisis of the era and the resulting strict emissions standards effectively cut off any kind of performance production from Nissan. The next Skyline GT-R wouldn’t be seen until a long 16 years later.
After the world-beating R32, R33 and R34 GT-Rs, there’d be another five year hiatus before the R35 would debut.
The same went for the company’s American domestic passenger car market, dragged into shape by a young, hot-blooded enthusiast named Yutaka Katayama.
Nissan had already taken some stabs at the American market starting in the late 1950s with a left-hand drive version of the Datsun 210. The problem was that the car, as the excellent Aaron Severson explains in a thorough history on Ate Up With Motor, was mechanically sound and good on gas, but also noisy and slow as bricks. Not exactly a highway car.
Everything changed for Nissan in America when the BMW 1602 was introduced into the mix. It was compact, sporty and advanced—an instant hit among enthusiasts. Nissan had a new target.
The earlier 410 had its fans and was styled by Pininfarina, but it was the 510 (styled in-house by Nissan) that truly kick-started Nissan’s reputation of providing attractive, affordable performance in the States.
Early reviews were tentatively positive. A 1968 Road & Track write-up praised the 510's smooth-running engine, easy handling and attractiveness, despite it not being able to claim a “quality feel.” Regardless, this was the car that opened up Nissan sales in the States.
And it helped that buyers were already open to the idea of a sporty daily driver. It was a formula that dominated the ‘60s, when Pontiac came into its own and the Ford Mustang broke sales records. Production of the 510 ended in 1973, but by that point, over half a million of them had been sold.
Nissan’s follow-up to the beloved 510 were the increasingly normal 610 and the 710, neither garnering the same rabid fandom and popularity of their boxy predecessor, as noted in a 1975, Road & Track article:
“The transformation from an enthusiast’s economy car—that’s what we considered the 510—to a more luxurious 610 was a logical marketing move by Datsun, but it left a gap in the model lineup that had dealers and the public alike crying, ‘Bring back the 510.’”
Indeed, you can see the same demands of Nissan from today crying out already in the 1970s. Nissan fans have been through this before.
If you’re starting to see a trend here on Nissan dropping enthusiasts every time the economy falters, that’s because there is one.
In the ‘60s, Nissan was still modeling its sports car designs after contemporary and inexpensive British sports cars. The Datsun Roadster of the era (called the Datsun Fairlady in Japan) pulled it off, an affordable and handsome little two-seater. It was rough but powerful, at least once it got a bigger 2.0-liter engine in ‘67. But American convertible sales were falling in the latter end of the decade, and something new was needed.
Katayama, the Nissan executive and enthusiast, was adamant that its follow-up, Project Z, be a closed, two-seater GT car. He, as Severson notes in another history on Ate Up With Motor, was a fan of the Jaguar E-Type and wanted a six-cylinder engine instead of a four.
Eventually, after some lengthy back-and-forth between Nissan’s offices in Japan, disagreements between designers and a very last-minute weight reduction endeavor, the first Z was born and went on to sell in the U.S. in 1969.
Sure, it was no Corvette, 911 or E-Type, but it was cheap, quick, well-built and came fully equipped. On top of that, it was gorgeous, with flowing lines and a petite stance. Severson notes that Nissan managed to move about 23,000 240Zs in 1970 when it came out. By the following year, American Z sales soared past 33,000 cars.
Unfortunately, the oil crisis and tight emissions standards hobbled the Z; power was forced to drop and weight increased as Nissan gave the cars bigger engines, growing the displacement from 2.4 liters to 2.6 and changed the name to the 260Z. More of the same with the 280Z. True Z fans today barely consider the 280Z a decent successor to the original great, but the mass market didn’t care. Sales still rose all through the 1970s, even as performance dropped.
By the late ‘70s, it was time for the original Z to retire. Its successor, the 280ZX, was another disappointment to the sporty Nissan fanbase. In a first drive review from Car and Driver in 1979, the magazine basically called the new car a Buick:
What was once an appealingly lean sportster has been transformed into a plush boulevardier, a personal cruiser not altogether different from what you’d expect of Buick if it took up a position in the two-seater and 2 + 2 market.
The message here is that Datsun has made a bit of a side step. The old Z has grown up to be a 2 + 2 sort of car-a sporting carriage rather than a hell-raiser-and it’ll haul your body around with a minimum of abuse.
From there, the Z/ZX moniker meandered a bit more in the late ‘80s to early ‘90s. The first-gen 300ZX left the 1960s aesthetic of the original 240Z behind (Car and Driver called it ugly) and it was reportedly heavy and “flabby” to drive.
Finally, the ‘90s saw the new 300ZX; finally, a return to enthusiast demands. Sleek, powerful and fast, it injected some much-needed excitement back into the line. It went on to win awards from Road & Track, Car and Driver, Automobile and Motor Trend. American enthusiasts watched in awe as the complex twin-turbo version won the Super Bowl (the ads, at least), and respected the car until it died out with the RX-7, the Supra and rest of its class of Japanese sports cars.
The Early Ghosn Era
In 1999, Renault bought a massive share of Nissan and appointed Carlos Ghosn as its CEO. Despite understanding that two-seaters aren’t volume sellers, CNN Money at the time reported that he knew they would “raise the morale of Nissan dealers and give a lift to the company’s image.”
Ghosn might’ve earned the nickname “the Cost Killer” because of his ruthless efforts at making Nissan profitable again, but it’s because of him that the Z even still exists.
In 2002, Nissan introduced the 350Z to the delight of die-hard fans like Fuller. Even now, 16 years later, he was still excited about it.
“The 350Z was just out of the park awesome in the sense that it went back to simple,” Fuller’s words came more quickly and excitedly. “Like, when the 350Z came out, I was so stoked on it that I called it the ‘03 240Z because it had a big engine, made killer power, had a bitchin’ gearbox, cool wheels, Brembo brakes, great colors, a great shape.” He stopped, picturing the car in his head. “It was, like, shit! My friends are back, let’s do this!”
Meanwhile, the Infiniti G35 on the same platform gave luxury buyers a performance option where they didn’t have to sacrifice practicality for fun.
It was, as Fuller called it, an “awesome” time for Nissan.
“There were weeks at my shop where every silver color Nissan was in it: 350Z, 350Z convertible, G35 sedan, G37 Sports Coupe. They’re all in my shop, it was like glorious times,” he glowed. Then his voice lowered dramatically.
“And then the world dropped and the 370 comes out in the middle of it.” He paused for effect.
Nissan first announced the 370Z in late 2006, but by the time it went on sale in early 2009, the Recession plucked out the eyes that easy-credit America once had for sports cars.
“So, now the car’s even better, the engine’s bigger, the brakes are bigger. The tire and wheel package is bitchin’. The wheel wells are massive! You could put big wheels and tires on it. But the whole world is like shit, man. The bottom’s dropping out. What are we gonna do? And 370Z’s like errr—” Fuller swooped his hand in a downhill motion. “They just didn’t sell. Because nothing was selling then.”
Another economic crisis. Another crippling blow to enthusiast cars. How would Nissan deal with this one?
Well, for one, it was amazing that the 370Z and the R35 GT-R weren’t killed off immediately. But on the other hand, ideas for creating new, performance offerings stalled. Nissan talked about producing a spiritual successor to the 510, called IDx. It could have gone on sale against the Scion FR-S, and it would have been incredible. But we all know that never happened.
The economy has long since been on the rebound. But our customer base just largely isn’t into buying sports cars like they used to be, back when MGs and Mazda RX-7s sold in high numbers. Enthusiasts make a lot of noise, but we’re the minority, not the majority. It’s tough to quantify how many of us actually put our money where our mouths are.
It’s worth noting that companies headed up by enthusiasts, like Toyota and Mazda, have managed to slip affordable fun into their fleets. The Miata and 86/BRZ are popular entry-level favorites and they make people like Fuller wonder why Nissan isn’t doing the same. Why can’t it put another Katayama in charge?
Today, there is no replacement for the lightweight and affordable 240SX entry-level sports car. Infiniti is whatever. The GT-R and 370Z are both aged, expensive and heavy. Unfortunately, they are what remain of Nissan’s once varied enthusiast history.
“The GT-R is amazing,” Fuller admitted, “but you’re not gonna sell 10,000 GT-Rs a month. It’s just too out of reach of the people. I can’t buy $100,000 car.”
“You gotta get this entry-level car,” he insisted, ticking them off on his fingers. “A Datsun 510. A 240Z. All of these cars that made your mark. The 240SX, the Sentra SE-R, the NX2000—all these amazing, little, easy-to-buy cool cars of the ‘90s. You need a car that can destroy an FRS or a BRZ.”
Fuller has a point here. Cars are getting far too expensive. Especially the ones that people would consider “fun.” Other than the 86/BRZ and the Fiat 124 Spider/Miata, you’ve got a handful of muscle cars, a couple of hot hatches. That’s about it, and certainly nothing from Nissan.
“A 25- or 28-year old doesn’t have 50 grand to buy their first sports car,” Fuller continued. “It needs to be something where you can put your car payment down and have fun and know that, ‘Fuck it, they’ll never get my Z.’ That’s the way it needs to be. It hasn’t been that way in a long time. It’s a bummer.”
Nissan of the ‘90s had some real aspirational performance that helped spark a generation of devotees. Like Fuller mentioned, there was the Sentra SE-R, the NX2000—even the Maxima could brand itself a “four door sports car” and people took it at face value. It wasn’t just that there were a few high-priced halo models; just about everything in a Nissan showroom has some enthusiasm. And these were cars that were actually sporty, not masquerading as such with a few appearance-only bolt-ons.
Under the Ghosn era, Nissan’s lineup became more compartmentalized; there was still room for quirky and fun stuff, like the Cube and the Murano CrossCabriolet, but those were just fleeting novelties. In more recent years, we’ve had to make do with Nismo versions of the Juke and Sentra, but these feel like cars that placate rather than encourage.
Lately, all it seems like Nissan is interested in is pushing out an electrified program with the Leaf and ProPilot Assist, its-semi autonomous tech. While those are extremely valuable and important, it’s also difficult for contemporary enthusiasts to feel included (or even considered) in the current crop of things. Especially now that Ghosn has been arrested, the future of the brand is even more unpredictable.
Nissan spent this past SEMA showing off a tuner’s dream of a 370Z that it isn’t building and told Top Gear earlier this year that a new Z is a “work in progress,” which is a canned PR response that’s neither here nor there. It’s been this way for more than a little while: wheels spinning with no discernible forward momentum.
A lot of car culture appreciation comes with a healthy helping of nostalgia. Sometimes it gets difficult to intellectually separate that from what’s objectively in front of us, but in the case of Nissan, there’s zero separation necessary because we have nothing to work with.
Instead of having lifelong fans and mechanics like Fuller looking forward, Nissan has us all looking back.