A new Datsun rising
The news that Nissan is going to revive the old Datsun badge will have kicked off memories for more than a few of us this past week. After all, Datsun was really the first Japanese brand that people outside of Japan began to take seriously.
The Datsun badge came out of the purchase of the original DAT company by Nissan Heavy Industries in the thirties. DAT came from the initials of the original three investors, the -sun because the second car DAT made was called the Datson (as in son of the first model) but son means loss of money in Japanese, so it was swiftly changed to Datsun.
Datsun was used by Nissan for its cars in the US and Europe until 1986, when then company chairman Yutaka Katayama decided that the firm’s name should become as resonant as that of rivals Honda and Toyota, and the Datsun brand should be phased out.
My personal memories of Datsun are a little more, well, odd. You see, back in the day when I was growing up in the wilds of West Cork, a mate of mine worked for a car hire company. The cars were Datsun Cherrys, absolutely none of which were equipped with their original engine or sometimes even chassis numbers. Cars were cannibalised to keep other cars going and the ones that were going were foisted upon unsuspecting tourists. That old trick about shoving a pair of tights into a noisy gearbox to keep it quiet? Yep, that kind of operation.
On quiet days, when the boss was away (which was often) these Cherrys would be taken out for spins in the back yard. God, we abused those Cherrys. From banjaxed engines to cracked chassis, they suffered every form of mechanical mendacity that late teenage brains could devise. Which was a lot. But even net of having to frequently swap out engines, change heads, carry out some emergency welding, there was a sense of the sheer strength of these cars. That they were born for the abuse, able to take whatever we could throw at them. It was in the grassy, unkempt back yard, amongst the hulks of Cherrys gone and Cherrys yet to be that my appreciation for the sheer toughness of Japanese cars matured (even as I lacked any personal maturity of my own).
There aren’t many Cherrys left now. Rust and lack of care (ahem, that’s my hand up) did for most of them, and truth be told, they weren’t exactly top of the classic car preservation list. But there was in their simple, square `80s shapes a hint of the Japanese domination to come, of the rise of the Asian car giants and the end of Americo-European motorised hegemony. Which kind of makes it ironic that Datsun itself is being reborn to take on the challenge presented by the burgeoning Korean conglomerates and the ever-present threat of cheap Chinese car inundation.
We don’t know yet what kind of models the new Datsun will build, but they’re unlikely to be in the sporting vein of the brand’s highpoint; the classically beautiful 204Z sports car. They probably won’t be as outright awful as those Cherrys either (surely the brand’s low point) but will more than likely follow the same template that Renault (Nissan’s partner in the Renault-Nissan group, both companies personally run by the autocratic Carlos Ghosn) has taken with its budget brand, Dacia. Which is to use older technology, low-cost production techniques and simple, cheap-to-do styling to create a range of solid, simple, unassuming and in some cases surprisingly good cars.
It will allow Nissan to flog decontented cars at rock-bottom prices without the danger of damaging the more high-tech Nissan brand or tempting customers of lower-priced Micras and Notes into less profitable Datsuns.
Which means that we more than likely won’t see any new Datsuns in Ireland. We asked Paul O’Sullivan, Nissan Ireland’s marketing director and he told us “I don’t think so. It’s really being done just for emerging markets, where the customer’s needs are somewhat different. There aren’t any plans for Datsun in western Europe as yet.”
Which makes sense. For all our unwillingness (inability) to splash big money on cars, Ireland has a mature car market, one wedded to classical premium brand principles. Buying a cheap-o Datsun when you could have a more upwardly-mobile Nissan simply wouldn’t work here. Oh wait, did someone just mention Skoda? Or the fact that Dacia will be coming to Ireland? Hmmmm…