Possibly the car that banished the phrase “Jap Crap” in one fell swoop, Nissan was the first of many Asian marques that settled here in blighty….
What? A Nissan? well, yes as it happens and for some very good reasons. Towards the mid 1980’s the typical family saloon car still ruled the roost with medium to large capacity engines burning good old four star pop – a time when the only things popular and green were Kermit the Frog and the Incredible Hulk.
Anglo / Asian collaboration so far as cars were concerned in the UK was nothing new, Austin-Rover had signed a partnership with Honda some years earlier. The Triumph Acclaim was the first fruit followed a few years later with the Rover 200 series of 1984 – that latter saw Honda’s version (the Ballade) running down the same Longbridge tracks, but the Nissan Bluebird was much different.
In 1984, with help from the Conservative Government of the time, a huge 800 acre chunk of land (sold at a hugely discounted rate) between Washington and Sunderland was purchased to provide a car assembly plant for Nissan to produce cars for the European market – at that time, import restrictions limited the number of cars shipped into England. Initially the cars were assembled in kit form with the first Bluebird rolling off the line in 1986.
Soon after, Washington became responsible for bumper, plastics and engine construction and within just five years, the plant had covered its costs and was making a good profit. Even though the Bluebird never sold in similar numbers to the Cavalier or Sierra, it shifted the kind of volumes that Nissan had never seen before in the UK. Rival brands such as Honda and Toyota followed Nissan’s lead by creating their own UK based manufacturing facilities in Swindon and Derby.
The UK build Bluebird was a boxy but roomy 4 door saloon or 5 door estate and had that one magic ingredient that mattered so much to both private and fleet customers – reliability. Our own homespun family saloon at this time was our dear friend the Austin Montego (Cavalier & Sierra were of US parentage) which was woefully under developed and quickly gained a poor reputation despite being talented and efficient on paper. It was in the reliability stakes where the Nissan dealt a hammer blow.
Despite the Montego featuring some truly ground-breaking features, you were lucky if they worked long term. Your typical 1.6L Monty would dribble oil down the driveway of your 3 bed semi or annoyingly loose a door handle in winter whereby the Nissan barely ever needed the bonnet lifting. Despite the plain Jayne looks, the Bluebird very quickly became the number one choice for the mini-cab operator and small to medium company car fleets who simply wanted maximum usage of their assets. I personally knew one man who ran a fleet of a dozen Bluebird’s as taxi’s that were all purchased new with each one covering well over 150.000 before any major surgery took place.
Retail sales were consistent and many traditional Austin or Ford customers walked into a Nissan dealer out of curiosity tired and fed up with unreliable or rust prone cars. Finding the dealers four square and efficient with a range of utterly dependable cars, the choice was a no brainer thanks to the Bluebird being well made, reliable, well appointed and so easy to operate that you could drive one wearing boxing gloves. Even when they did go wrong (which was extremely rare) you were dealt with quickly and courteously. The capacious estate version was also weapon of choice for the discerning newsagent. A view from the collection bay at the nearest John Menzies distribution depot at 4.00am circa 1988 would confirm this – it’s almost as if the Bluebird estate was designed to lug a ton of bundled newspapers without so much as a sweat!
Even though a ZX model featuring the same driveline as the Silvia Turbo coupe was also produced, it was far from being an exiting vehicle. As boxy as a Volvo and as forgettable as a breath, the Bluebird simply excelled in the job it was designed to do – a 1.6 or 2.0 litre five seater luggage eater. It also proved one very important point that British motor trade so desperately needed to show – that with the right product and manufacturer back up, we could (and still do) produce a first class product as well as any other country.
An interesting point worth mentioning was that the U.K produced Bluebird (and all subsequent Sunderland Nissan’s) either matched or exceeded the Japanese assembled cars – a fact found via Nissan’s global quality audits. This was driven home in a series of T.V commercials with narration by Tim “Dennis” Healey with a tag line “We now build em over here better than they dee owwa there man” – making a great play on the North East accent which was hugely popular thanks to success of the T.V show Auf Wiedersehen Pet!
It was no longer frowned upon or laughed at to buy a Japanese car as most customers showed a brand loyalty that even some of the prestige makers would have killed for. Nissan Manufacturing UK now boast the enviable reputation of being Europe’s most efficient car plant and is now responsible for producing the Leaf – Qashqai – Note and Juke with a new model for Infiniti coming on stream in 2015.
THE LOW DOWN
Produced by: Nissan Manufacturing UK Sunderland
Timeline: 1986 to 1992
Body Styles: 4dr saloon 5dr hatch & 5dr estate
Engine options: 1.6 1.8 1.8 turbo 2.0 & 2.0D
Replaced by: Primera