11 Rare Japanese Classics Ripped From Western Car Design
In the Nissan Zama Heritage Collection, a rather familiar feel
It’s not easy to get to Nissan’s Heritage Collection. First you have to fly to Japan. Then, you have to make your way to Yokohama. Then, you have to convince the attendants to let you in.
Fortunately when you finally enter, you’re surrounded by a cache of 450 rare vintage cars, packed headlight to tail lamp in a shuttered factory. If you’re lucky, you’ll run into Eiichi Shimizu, a fifty-plus year Nissan veteran, an expert on the company’s vehicular history, and the former secretary to Mr. K, the first president of Nissan and the man responsible for shepherding into existence some of the brand’s most beloved vehicles.
International automotive design has heavily influenced Nissan throughout its history, particularly in its first five decades, before Japanese were truly a part of the global market. “Nissan looked up to America, to Italy for design,” Shimizu-san says. As he wanders the aisles of Zama, he points out the vehicles that best demonstrate that cross-cultural influence. They are:
1938 Nissan Type 70/1935 Graham Crusader
For its very first branded passenger car, Nissan wanted to team up with General Motors or Chrysler to create a stately vehicle for leaders in the Imperial military. Unfortunately, there was a bit of…conflict brewing between the countries at the time. So the Japanese acquired tooling from a small Detroit automaker, in the form of the 1935 Graham Crusader. “The only thing Nissan designed on this car was the hood ornament,” Shimizu-san says.
1957 Prince Skyline Deluxe/1955 Chrysler New Yorker
Prince was an independent company before Nissan acquired it, and this was the marque’s first ever Skyline-branded vehicle, the precursor to the Skyline GT-Rs that would help launch Japan into the enthusiast market. It has the look of a ¾ scale 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Sedan, especially around the headlights and grille, but Shimizu-san points toward the rear: “Tail fins are 1955 Chrysler New Yorker.” He’s right, of course.
1960 Prince Skyway Van/1957 Chevrolet Nomad
There’s no denying the 1957 Chevrolet Nomad in this near replica, from the grille and greenhouse to the swage line. Even the color is vintage 1950s America. Though the car’s size certainly isn’t.
1960 Datsun Fairlady SPL 213/1956 Chevrolet Corvette
The progenitor of the 1600/2000 roadsters and groundbreaking Datsun 240Z, this adorable convertible was the first Datsun officially imported into the US. This makes sense since, as Shimizu-san is quick to point out, its rounded nose and tail, denticle grille, bug-eyed headlamps, and contrasting coves make it pretty much a shrunken copy of the 1956 Chevrolet Corvette.
1962 Prince Skyline Sports/1962 Chrysler Newport Coupe
This hand built coupe sits on the chassis of the big Gloria sedan. Penned by famed Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti (Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Lancia) it looks like nothing else in the contemporary Nissan lineup. But it does look suspiciously like the vaguely Italianate 1962 Chrysler Newport Coupe.
1966 Datsun Bluebird 1300 SS/1963 Alfa Romeo Guilia Super
This second generation Bluebird sedan had a rigid monocoque body, and a hotted-up dual-carb 1300cc “SS” engine, giving Datsun a player in the burgeoning European sport sedan market. This Continentalism is due in part to the design being penned by Italian carrozzeria Pininfarina. Shimizu-san concedes on the strong resemblance to the 1963 Alfa Romeo Guilia Super.
1966 Nissan Cedric/1963 Maserati Quattroporte
An elegant sedan with an airy greenhouse, amphibious headlight surrounds, and a pinched schnoz, this four-door was also penned by Pininfarina. Shimizu-san gestures to the front end and asks what influences we see. He’s leaning Chrysler or Studebaker, but he allows our assessment: first generation 1963 Maserati Quattroporte.
1966 Nissan Silvia/1965 Lancia Fulvia
This angular coupe was part of what Shimuzu-san called the brand’s “Crisp Look” design language, with a sharply creased beltline and roofline. These elegant and rare two-door hardtops were semi-custom built atop the Fairlady roadster chassis. The parallelogram roof, quad headlamps, and lidded brow all remind us of the 1965 Lancia Fulvia.
1970 Nissan Gloria Super Deluxe/1966 Cadillac Sedan deVille
This long, creased luxury sedan is parked along the wall of the museum, almost obscured by a very Jeep CJ-like 1960 Nissan Patrol. The stacked headlamps, pointed prow, hi-lo split grille, and trailing line atop its front fenders, all cry out 1966 Cadillac Sedan deVille. “But, much smaller,” Shimizu says, gesturing at shrinking the car.
1973 Nissan Skyline GT-R/1970 AMC AMX
Fanboys howl for the delicate, first-generation Skyline GT-R of 1969-72 or the flare-fendered twin-turbocharged third-generation R32 of 1989-1994. But we have always had a soft spot for the angular short-lived second-generation car (only four months in production). Maybe because it looks like the American muscle cars of our early childhood, especially the 1970 AMC AMX.
1982 Cedric Turbo Broughm/1980 Rolls-Royce Silver Spur
This is one of the last cars we examine with Shimizu-san. He calls out its pillarless four-door design, and the first application of turbocharging to the Nissan straight six engine borrowed from the Z. But we’re obsessed with the big rectangular sealed beam headlamps, the upright vertical grille, and the angular and formal hood and pinched windshield. We wonder if we’re stretching things to suggest 1980 Rolls-Royce Silver Spur. “Rolls-Royce?” Shimizu asks, squinting. Then he nods. “I see it. Yes.”