Time to bring back Datsun

You have to be of a certain age to remember Datsun.

Datsuns were the epitome of the Japanese value proposition: affordable, utterly reliable cars. Datsuns came with something extra; they had more adventurous, sportier styling than most vehicles on the road at the time. They had character.

The first and last time I drove a Datsun was in 1978. During a prolonged assignment in Jamaica I was given the use of a car to escape the confinement of the secured apartment complex in Kingston.

At the weekend I bounced around the Jamaican country back roads in that vehicle, a Datsun Bluebird, stopping for the occasional Red Stripe at wayside shacks, and listening to a Jim Reeves 8-Track someone had thoughtfully left behind while the lush countryside and orange ponciana trees rolled by.

It may have been the place and/or the Red Stripe, but that Bluebird’s comfort and reassuring reliability made a positive and lasting impression. I returned home to the UK a Datsun fan.

And then the name vanished. Datsun suddenly ceased to exist. It was erased from the face of the earth in early 1980s in a sweeping global strategy that replaced the friendly name with cold, soul-less Nissan.

Why Nissan? And what was wrong with Datsun?

The Datsun story dates back to Japan in 1911. Sotaro Hashimoto, an American trained engineer, joined with three partners to create the Kwaishinsha Company to produce the first Japanese cars. They were named DAT, derived from the surnames of the three partners, namely Kenjoro Den, Rokuro Aoyama and Meitaro Takeuchi.

The DAT enjoyed early success but the company fell on hard times during the Great Depression. As part of a restructuring plan in 1930 to revitalize the brand, the name of the company was changed to ‘Datson’, meaning  ‘son of DAT’.

Datson, it was soon realized, sounded very similar to a Japanese phrase that means “to lose money”. A small but critical adjustment was made to the name, and the legendary Datsun brand was born.

In 1933, the company merged with Nihon Sangyo Co., or “Ni-San” as it was known on the Japanese stock market. Ni-San was formalized as “Nissan” and the name of the company was changed to Nissan Motor Company. Nissan continued to produce Datsun-branded vehicles for export, including the iconic Datsun 240Z, until 1984 when the worldwide transition to Nissan was completed.

The decision to replace the Datsun brand with the Nissan corporate name was announced in the autumn of 1981 in pursuit of a global strategy to emulate the success of Toyota and Honda, Japanese corporations that had become household brand names around the world.

Three years and $500 million later

Ultimately, the name change campaign lasted for three years, from 1982 to 1984, at an estimated cost of US$500 million.

Thirty years have gone by. Nissan is still here, which is an achievement in itself. Recently the Nikkei, Japan’s biggest business daily, reported that Nissan may bring back Datsun brand for low-cost cars in emerging markets such as India, Russia and Indonesia. Nissan reportedly wants a sub-brand that will help the carmaker sell inexpensive cars in these markets without damaging Nissan’s brand reputation.

I have to wonder – what reputation? Even after 30 years I don’t think of Nissan as a car brand like I do Cadillac, Jaguar, Ford or, for that matter, Datsun. What is a Nissan? Nissan is a manufacturer’s nameplate, devoid of any brand imagery.

Why stop at India, Russia and Indonesia, Nissan? Bring back Datsun. Period. The brand could be your Scion.