People : Octav Botnar and the rise and fall of Datsun/Nissan UK

Bill McWilliam, a former Nissan UK and Nissan Motor GB employee, recounts the interesting and sometimes turbulent story of Octav Botnar’s reign at the top of the British motor industry.

Octav Botnar

The Datsun Years (1968-1983)

Many may view Octav Botnar as one of the major contributors to the demise of the British motor industry, whilst others may believe him to be one of its saviours as, had it not been for his influence, Nissan, Honda and Toyota may have never set up car manufacturing plants in the UK.

Now, just like at the peak of his career, many people may have never heard of Octav Botnar, and even fewer would have any idea what he looked like, but for many years the reclusive Mr Botnar made more money from the British motor industry than any other individual. He was, according to 1989 Sunday Times Rich List, the ninth wealthiest man in the UK

An Unlikely Entrepreneur

Born in Czernowitz, then part of Austria-Hungry in 1913, Botnar was a fighter, having been at one time a political prisoner, and also member of the French Resistance. After World War Two he returned to his homeland, now annexed to Romania, before fleeing the Communist regime in the mid-Sixties to start a new life in England. Here he became the official importer of NSU cars but, following that company’s takeover by Volkswagen in 1969, his concession was withdrawn. Now well into his fifties, an age where many would be considering retirement, Botnar was left with no choice but to seek out yet another new business venture.

NSU Prinz 4

Having already discovered in a Dutch warehouse a small quantity of Datsun cars, in June 1968 he imported them into the UK, fitted radios and began selling them through the remnants of the NSU dealership network. The first six were registered on F plates as press demonstrators. This was not the first time attempts had been made to sell Japanese cars in the UK – in fact, Datsun was one the later entrants.

The first attempt was by Daihatsu, which unsuccessfully tried to export the Compagno into Britain in 1965, but only sold six. This was followed later that year by Toyota which, like Honda and Mazda, had a fledgling operation in place well before Botnar brought in his first Datsuns. However, the main difference was that Botnar knew exactly the type of customers he was hoping to attract and had the drive and determination to scale up his operations rapidly.

Cars for the people

After setting up Datsun UK in 1969, operating as the sole importer of Datsun cars to Great Britain, Botnar quickly recruited a network of dealerships, most of them small, family-run firms, many located next to petrol station forecourts or alongside used car dealerships. Unlike most other importers at the time who, due to high import tariffs, decided to focus on the specialist or prestige end of the market, the cars Datsun UK chose to import were not aimed at motoring enthusiasts, those that covered high mileages or even people that had any interest in cars.

In Britain, Datsun cars were aimed at ordinary people, those with little mechanical knowledge, who just wanted economical, good value, reliable cars that could transport them and their families about town and on occasional longer journeys and who often bought them as an alternative to a second-hand car.

The initial range that Botnar imported consisted of small and medium-sized saloons and estate cars. Neither the Datsun 1000 (B10), below, or 1600 (510) models were noted for their performance or for their handling, but instead they offered high levels of standard equipment and above all previously unheard of levels of reliability at a lower price than the British or European competition. Although considered less advanced than the latest European cars, the larger of the two models did feature OHC engines and independent rear suspension – albeit that it did lack disc brakes!

Datsun 1000

Although imported in small quantities, mainly to satisfy the egos of his Dealer Principals, Botnar had little interest in the sales of the larger, more prestigious Laurels and Skylines, or the 240Z, despite its strong sporting reputation. It was the cheaper Cherrys, Sunnys, Violets and Bluebirds that Datsun UK imported and sold in their thousands. Usually unconventional in their styling, with liberal use of plastics on both interior and exterior trim, each model generally came in an often bewildering range of body styles, two door, four door, coupe and estate, but with few engine options. This simplified the parts distribution networks. Each model also tended to receive some form of bodywork makeover with regular frequency.

Rocking the boat

With sales of more than 6000 cars in 1971, then five times that number the following year, the UK was the only market in the world where Datsun constantly outsold arch-rival Toyota, usually by a ratio of almost two to one. This put Botnar in a strong negotiating position with the Japanese manufacturer, allowing him to constantly reduce the prices paid for the cars he imported and, as a result, by 1973 Datsun UK had become one of the biggest importer of cars into Britain. As the network of dealerships spread, there were showrooms in practically every town and, by the late Seventies, the number of individual Datsun outlets rivalled Ford.

In 1974, the UK motor industry was in a precarious state. British Leyland, Chrysler and Vauxhall all saw their market share collapse as more and more buyers chose to purchase imported vehicles. To address this worsening situation the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders approached Harold Wilson’s Government to provide protection against the intensifying levels of imports from all countries. As the UK had become a member of the EEC the previous year, fair trade agreements meant there was little that could be done to reduce European imports, so instead the attention became focused on the cars arriving here from Japan.

Datsun 120Y
The 1973-1978 Datsun 120Y proved a big hit in the UK with buyers

The demands for action further intensified in 1975 when the Government had to step in to nationalise British Leyland as well as bale out Chrysler UK. Eventually a voluntary agreement was negotiated between the UK and the Japanese trade bodies to keep imports at 1977 levels, a maximum of 11% of the market for the next five years. Most other European countries either already had similar restrictions in place or introduced them soon afterwards. This voluntary agreement in the UK did in fact remain in place for the next 25 years and had a significant impact on the British motor industry as well as the fortunes of most Japanese car manufacturers.

‘Gentleman’s agreement’ for Japanese carmakers

Between themselves, the Japanese importers decided that their market share should be split in the same proportion as their previous years’ sales. Datsun, having followed a policy of going for volume sales of cheaper models rather than higher unit profit were the clear winners, being granted 6% of the market. Toyota, with their slimmer dealer network and having more focus on larger saloons and sports cars, were given around 3.5%.

Mazda, having put their main sales focus into troublesome rotary-engined models along with Honda, their range at the time consisting of only the Civic, and Colt (Mitsubishi), which had only entered the UK market three years before shared the remainder. Later on this carve up would make it extremely difficult for other Japanese manufacturers such as Daihatsu, Suzuki and Subaru to get a foothold in the UK market but, as this agreement did not affect commercial vehicles, these manufacturers, along with Mitsubishi put a lot of their efforts into the sales of vans and pick-ups.

As the market share for the following year was based on the current years’ sales, Datsun had to ensure that they maintained their 6% market share. To achieve this Datsun UK became the master of the dealer special edition, with two-tone paint and whitewall tyres being commonplace, despite having been out of fashion for well over a decade, along with vinyl roofs, wheel embellishers and pop-up glass sunroofs. Any shortfall in sales was dealt with by mass pre-registration at the end of each year.

Keeping the customer satisfied

Datsun 180B
The Datsun 180B was an excellent example of a Japanese car that caught the imagination of UK car buyers

Typical Datsun buyers were not wealthy and Botnar fully understood the benefits of carefully-packaged finance agreements. Unlike other makes, his finance was fully underwritten by the importer. By having complete control of the finance and offering low deposits and preferential interest rates, this allowed Datsun UK to be in a strong position to ensure their customers could afford to change their cars every few years. Marketing was mainly done through press advertisements, focusing on the economy, reliability ease of ownership and value of the product, often featuring owner testimonials rather than the expensive and extravagant television productions favoured by other manufacturers.

Due to their limited market share, there was little point of Datsun or any of the other Japanese manufacturers chasing fleet sales and the low margins they tended to generate. The only company car users that bought Datsuns in any quantity were driving schools, which appreciated their light controls and sturdy mechanicals. Private buyers always remained Botnar’s main target market and, through the vast network of small dealerships, they were provided with exactly the friendly level of service they appreciated.

However, Botnar was ruthless and would not allow anything or any one to stand in his way. One summer, during the lead up to the 1 August sales bonanza that the new registration suffix brought, the transporter drivers held the entire motor industry to ransom by going on strike and blockading the vast compounds where new cars were stored, preventing them from reaching the dealerships for 1 August delivery. While other manufacturers and importers tried to negotiate with the unions to settle the dispute and release their vehicles Botnar took a very different approach.

Having first purchased his own fleet of transporters, he hired drivers then a demolition team and some builders, Botnar then took matters into his own hands. In the middle of the night, while pickets blocked the gates to the compound, he instructed his teams to go to the rear of the compound, demolish the wall, remove all his vehicles onto his transporters then rebuild the wall. When eventually the strike was called off and the strikers returned to work they opened the gates to discover all they had been blockading was an empty compound. That year Datsun was one of very few manufacturers that could deliver new registration cars to their customers on 1 August. From then on Botnar only used his own transporters and drivers.

Nissan Bluebird and Ford Cortina
The Nissan Bluebird offered a Cortina-like package, but better priced and far more fully equipped. Octav Botnar convinced the Japanese carmaker to go for fleet sales on the back of the Bluebird’s apparent appeal to company car drivers

Expansion into Europe

With the ‘gentleman’s’ agreement restricting the Japanese importers to 11% of the UK market new ways had to be found if manufacturers wanted to increase their market share. The first to make a move were Honda which, due to the small market share the company was allowed to achieve, was unable to sell its entire range of cars in the UK. With the demand for the Civic and recently-launched Accord models using up their entire allocation, Honda chose to enter into an agreement with British Leyland allowing them to build their Ballade model under licence as the Triumph Acclaim. This situation held benefits for both manufacturers, but would likely not have happened had Honda not been so restricted by the number of cars it could sell both in the UK and in Europe.

In 1980, parent company Nissan Motor Company chose to carry out a similar exercise with Alfa Romeo, but rather than Alfa Romeo purely building Datsun Cherrys in one of their factories, the ARNA (Alfa Romeo Nissan Autoveicoli) featured Alfasud drive trains and many interior parts to increase local content. The resultant vehicle was sold through Alfa Romeo dealerships giving them a much-needed competitor in the supermini class, and also through Datsun dealerships as the Cherry Europe (below). However, the project was not a great sales success as dealers on both sides of the agreement gave the car little support. Botnar, in particular,had little interest in selling an Alfa Romeo-engined car as it did not fit well with Datsun UK’s customer profile, despite the fact that the car could have allowed him an increased market share.

By the early 1980s, most Japanese manufacturers realised that the only way that they would be able to increase sales in Europe would be by manufacturing their own cars there and Octav Botnar knew exactly the best way to achieve it.

Nissan Cherry Europe

The Nissan Years (1983-1992)

A changing market

By the early 1980s Nissan, along with most other Japanese manufacturers, now had huge global ambitions. In Europe, the import restrictions in most countries that had been accepted voluntarily severely limited any potential growth. The only way by which it could be achieved would be to start the manufacture of cars within the EEC. To coincide with their new ambitions in late 1983 the Datsun name was dropped in the UK and the Nissan brand adopted.

In the UK by the early 1980s the motor industry had changed significantly. With Ford, Talbot and Vauxhall now importing a large percentage of the cars sold in Britain from their European factories, it became increasingly difficult to establish exactly in which country a car had been built. This was particularly significant in the fleet car market, where traditionally companies had insisted on a British-only policy. Also, in 1982 the Ford Cortina, the UK’s top-selling car for almost every year of the previous decade and long established fleet favourite, ceased production to be replaced by the controversially styled and initially less well-received Ford Sierra.

With Nissan on the lookout for a site within Europe to build a new factory, the UK fleet market in a state of turmoil and the sales for the recently renamed Nissan UK limited to 6% of the British market, Octav Botnar spotted a great opportunity. Botnar convinced Nissan Motor Company in Japan that, if the company built a reliable, good value, conservatively styled, medium sized-saloon car in the UK, it would have the potential to dominate the company car market in exactly the same way that the Cortina had done throughout the previous decade.

The sales of this new model would be incremental to the 6% of the market Nissan already held and this new car could also be sold throughout Europe free from import restrictions. Having convinced Nissan Motor Company in Japan that this plan could not fail both he and the parent company in Japan went on to persuade Margaret Thatcher and her Government – which had by now become tired of supporting a consistently under-performing British Leyland – to provide the required financial incentives.

Nissan’s British Bluebird

Nissan Bluebird

On 1 February 1984 work started on Nissan’s new £700m factory, built on a greenfield site in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear. In a similar manner to the Ford plant at Halewood, and Rootes plant at Linwood 20 years previously, the new Nissan plant was built far away from the motor industry heartland, in an area of economic decline and huge unemployment. The car chosen to be built there was to be a new Nissan Bluebird in both saloon and hatchback form, replacing both the previous Bluebird model as well as the slightly smaller Nissan Stanza. As a conservatively-styled four and five-door saloon it would be similar in dimensions to the now defunct Cortina and would be produced in 1.6-litre, 1.8-litre and 2.0-litre versions, exactly the type of car that the UK fleet market bought in their thousands.

As well as satisfying the UK business user, as it was produced within the European Union, it could be sold in unlimited quantities on the European market including the UK, and would also allow Nissan UK to take up 6% of the British market with imported cars. Botnar had a lot of influence over the eventual specification of the car, particularly trim levels, assuring Nissan in Japan that this was exactly the car the fleet market was looking for. Unlike most Nissan models previously sold in Britain, the new Bluebird came in a wide range of trim levels from poverty-spec Premium to the all-singing, all-dancing Turbo Executive with air conditioning and leather.

A new approach

With the first of the British-built cars coming off the production line in 1986 and now being in a position to take a much greater share of the UK market, Nissan Motor Company wanted to have more control over the marketing and distribution of the cars it sold in Britain and, in 1985, had suggested buying Botnar out, or at least becoming a partner in Nissan UK. Talks eventually broke down with Botnar determined to keep 100% control over his business and retain the annual £120m profits which it generated. However, he did accept that he would have to create an enhanced dealership network to handle the anticipated increased volume of sales British-built cars would bring.

In typical ruthless manner he did this by terminating his agreements with hundreds of the small Nissan dealerships, the ones that had helped build Datsun into a major player in the British car market, and replaced them with his own purpose-built car supermarkets under the AFG (Automotive Finance Group) brand. Often they were built right on former Nissan dealers’ doorsteps. These car retail supermarkets meant that Botnar now had complete control of, and profit from, practically every aspect of Nissan products, from the point they left the Sunderland factory, or arrived at the port. These included distribution, transportation, dealerships and vehicle finance. To give some idea of the level of profit he was able to generate, a Nissan Micra (below) retailing at £6495 was costing Botnar less than £3000 when it arrived in the UK.

Nissan Micra

To maximise sales the friendly, family-owned dealerships were gone. Instead, he recruited ruthless, hungry sales people, incentivised by ‘on target earnings’ in excess of £50k per annum- a sizeable sum in 1988, for selling an average of 25 cars each month. Should they miss their target by one their income almost halved. Do it more than once and they were out the door. It was an extremely cut-throat environment, a long way away from the family-friendly Datsun dealerships of the Seventies and early Eighties. And I should know: as a 22-year old, my own involvement in the motor trade began as a salesman, cannon fodder at one of Nissan UK’s AFG dealerships.

Dealer Principals were summoned to Nissan UK’s Worthing headquarters for quarterly meetings where, over lunch, Botnar would drink wine whilst his guests sipped on water. Any under performing General Managers would get a public dressing down and were often advised not to return to their dealership.

To demonstrate their faith in their product, Nissan UK introduced three-year warranties on all its new cars, probably the first to be offered in the UK. These were not in fact manufacturer’s warranties, but yet another innovation from Botnar himself. During this period Nissan’s sales volumes in the UK did increase dramatically, but not nearly to the levels Botnar had promised the manufacturer back in Japan.

Fleet sales still remained elusive as, in the intervening years, since the demise of the Ford Cortina, the fleet market had changed considerably. Rather than the Fleet Manager dictating the type of car that employees drove, this had became the era of the company car ‘user-chooser’, where the company car driver would be offered a (sometimes substantial) list of cars they could choose from. Bar-room banter focused on 0-60 times, BHP and outward displays of performance such as alloy wheels and spoilers – in this context, the Bluebird did not impress. Moreover, by the late Eighties, Ford and General Motors were at all out war, continually improving specs and cutting costs to increase their fleet market share. Then there was the name: who would choose Bluebird when you could be a Cavalier?

That is not to say that the British-built Bluebird was a failure. Despite not achieving Nissan’s expectations in the UK, throughout the EEC the car sold considerably better than its predecessor, being particularly popular in Germany, Italy and Spain, justifying Nissan’s investment. In line with Nissan’s goal of enhancing their image from cheap, dependable but unexciting cars they had a raft of dynamic sports cars and luxury vehicles in the pipeline including the new 200SX and 300ZX. These were to be followed by the Bluebird’s British-built replacement, a car that promised to be dynamically a match for Europe’s best.

Nissan Primera: Top of the class

Nissan Primera P10

Released in late 1990 the all-new Nissan Primera both surprised and exceeded all expectations. Here was a Nissan car that was every bit a match for the Peugeot 405 and Vauxhall Cavalier, the current class leaders, and could even be mentioned in the same breath as the BMW 3 Series. With its 16-valve engines it could match its rivals for performance, as well as for handling and outclass them all for reliability. With its new name, here was a car that company car users would love. What could possibly go wrong?

In line with their move upmarket, Nissan Motor Company in Japan had decided that their cars could no longer be sold on price. If they could match their rivals on performance and technical ability, they would play on the same playing field on price. Botnar was furious. His whole Nissan UK empire had been built upon providing value motoring to ordinary people, whilst retaining healthy profits for himself. This was Nissan’s most important British launch in their history, but in the lead up to the Primera’s announcement the battle on pricing raged on. It soon became a farce, played out on the pages of the motoring press. Unable to negotiate the pricing levels he demanded, the British Primera launch became an enormous non-event.

Despite the motoring press raving about this unexpectedly impressive new Nissan being ‘Best in Class’, the promotion from the importer was only notable in its absence. There were almost no television or press advertisements, and to the general public the Primera slipped onto the market practically unnoticed. Determined to force Nissan’s hand and force them to lower their price, Botnar initially sold the new car with the slimmest of dealer margins and at a showroom price considerably higher than the outgoing Bluebird. Sales were dismal, with less than 2000 sold in the first three months, to the point where practically all production at the Sunderland plant was switched to LHD. However, worse was to come.

Trouble ahead

In December 1990 Nissan Motor Company, unwilling to be held to ransom by Botnar and prevented from achieving both the brand image and the sales it desired, gave Nissan UK one year’s notice of termination of their import concession. Botnar immediately responded by starting legal proceedings, claiming breach of contract and unfair termination in an attempt to either get the decision overturned or receive £250m in compensation.

Nissan Sunny

In April the following year, with relations still acrimonious between Nissan UK and Nissan Motor Company one of the trusted mainstays of the Nissan range, the Sunny was replaced by an all-new, higher-tech version (above). This all-new car had the appearance of a scaled down Primera, with great performance from smooth 16-valve engines and a specification far ahead of almost all of its aging competitors. Again Nissan was determined to push the car upmarket and increase the unit cost. This time Botnar responded by adding his usual healthy dealer margins, resulting in a car that not only cost a vast amount more than its predecessor, but also cost considerably more than all of its rivals, as well as some of its larger Primera siblings. Botnar claimed this was solely down to the manufacturer having increased their unit cost by 32%.

Price lists at the time showed the entry-level, five-door Sunny 1.4 LS at £10,890, the Primera 1.6LS at £9995 while the Ford Escort 1.4 started at £9400. Nissan UK had now priced its cars at levels well above what its traditional customers could afford. In addition, lack of marketing in any form meant that new customers were barely aware of the new models and, even if they were, considerably better deals could be had on all of its rivals.

Despite this, Nissan Motor Company had not given up on the UK. The Sunderland plant had been an enormous success boosting sales throughout Europe and the company could see the potential for further expansion. The British cars were every bit as well built (many say better) than their Japanese equivalents. To further expand their sales in Europe, Nissan had already decided that the all-new Micra replacement was to be built there.

The battle rages on

For the remainder of 1991 both Nissan Motor Company and Nissan UK held their positions, Botnar running down the Nissan brand whilst stockpiling new Nissan cars. To compound the situation Botnar was also accused of tax evasion and was under investigation by the Inland Revenue whilst at the same time trying to negotiate deals with other manufacturers with a view to becoming their sole importer and replace Nissan in his showrooms. A deal was almost struck with Fiat, but due to confusion about the time difference Fiat executives arrived at Heathrow airport to find no-one there waiting for them. They promptly got back on their plane and returned to Turin.

In the meantime, Nissan Motor Company set up a new import operation, Nissan Motors GB and began recruiting new dealers. Botnar, always a fighter, was not giving up and, as he still held practically a year’s supply of unregistered cars, from January 1992 there were two competing dealership networks, selling almost identical model ranges.

Those selling cars under Nissan UK badged their models LS, GS, GSX, Nissan Motors GB badging their cars LX. SLX. SGX. This farcical situation played out for the entire year as Botnar gradually sold off his dealerships, signed them up for standard franchise agreements with other manufacturers or turned them into used car supermarkets. Now in failing health and still under investigation by the Inland Revenue, Botnar’s operations gradually wound down, his days of being an automotive superpower were coming to an end.

The end of Japanese cars

In late 1992, the first K11 Nissan Micras (below) with its class-leading 16-valve engines and advanced specification began to come off the production line at Nissan’s Tyne and Wear plant. It was the first car from a Japanese manufacturer to win the European Car of the Year award. Around the same time Toyota began production of the Carina E at its plant in Derby. It did not take long before people stopped referring to Nissan or Toyota as ‘Japanese’ cars. Between them, Nissan, Toyota and Honda all invested enormous sums into UK production facilities, producing cars with a large proportion of local content and, as a result, created thousands of jobs. Soon what would be regarded as ‘British’ cars had been changed forever.

During the later years of his life Octav Botnar donated a huge proportion of his wealth to good causes, The Great Ormond Street Hospital having a wing named in his honour. He died in 1998 having, for better or worse, made an enormous impact on the British motor industry.

Nissan Micra K11

40 Comments

  1. This feature reminds me of the origins of Datsun UK / Nissan UK. I remember the change of branding to Nissan and the set up of AFG dealerships around 1984. In my town the established family owned BMC, Renault, then Nissan dealer closed and a new AFG showroom was built outside town. Nissan Newcastle was renamed AFG Newcastle.

    At one time (early 90s) Sunderland built Primera’s were being sold by both AFG and the new Nissan GB dealers… different badge trim levels… confusing!

    Datsun did advertise on TV with a commercial fronted by actor Jack Hedley. I saw Octav Botnar for the first and only time at the opening of the UK plant in Sept 1986. He made a speech to Management & employees during his visit

  2. I remember AFG taking over the local dealerships in my area in the 80’s, then opening a large dealership in a former factory, just before it all started going tits up.

    I do have to say that the 510 Bluebird of the sixties was a great car, and is regard as a great handling motor and a modern classic in large parts of the world. Also the Bluebird built at Nissan Sunderland, in Washington (hark back to a post a few weeks ago), was actually a Nissan Auster back in the homeland with the Bluebird being the same model we had previously in the UK.

    • I agree with daveh. The first Sunderland built Bluebird’s were already sold in Japan as Auster and also Stanza (MK2). The outgoing FWD Bluebird had only been in the UK for about 2 years selling alongside the MK1 Stanza.

      Seemed to me that Nissan merged the outgoing Bluebird & Stanza line up into a new UK built Bluebird… confusing?

  3. Very interesting because I remember being aware of the name Octav Botnar from the early 1980s. I knew of his involvement with the introduction of Datsun to the UK, but this is the first time I’ve seen a detailed story of his life and activities.

    Maybe he got a bit greedy in his later years, but overall he seems to have been a force for useful change in the motoring world.

  4. As the article indicates, Botnar was a very ruthless operator, though personally charming. As he expanded his AFG retail empire in the mid 1980s (not only due to pressure from Nissan, but also in order to take a larger slice of the pie for himself), he let nothing get in his way, even prepared to trample over hitherto loyal Nissan dealers. A favourite trick was to smooth talk the dealers into taking large loans to fund new facilities. Once they drew down on the loans and committed the funds, he would enact clauses that enabled him to demand return of the monies at very short notice. More than once the result was that they forfeited their businesses to him.
    When the VAT man came calling he managed to escape prison (unlike two of his executives, Frank Shannon and Michael Hunt) by fleeing to Switzerland. However, HMRC identified a weakness in his armour – his daughter Camelia, who had been tragically killed in a car crash in 1979 and in whose name his philanthropic works were dedicated. She was buried in the UK and HMRC blocked the exhumation of her body until a full and final settlement was reached for £50m (though this was significantly less than he had defrauded).

  5. I worked at a Datsun Dealership from 1977 until Botnar tried to squeeze my DP out of business by sending a fleet of transporters to us overnight for payment…My DP would not be pushed by Botnar so regrettably dumped Datsun and took on the painfully inadequate option of Austin Rover at all sites other than the one that unfortunately went up in smoke one night. Was the highlight of my youth growing up in the Car Industry with Datsun though…Great Cars.

  6. In the seventies, our local Nissan dealer operated out of a converted church, then when business began to boom in the mid seventies, built a new showroom and was one of the most successful in the country, with the village the showroom was based in being called Datsun City as there were so many Datsuns on the roads. Also West Cumberland/ Cumbria being a mostly working class area with above average unemployment, buyers who could never afford a new British car, or if they could it was a base model, flocked to Datsun. I reckon by 1979, every fifth car locally was a Datsun and buyers raved about the low prices, long equipment lists, rock solid reliability and decent economy, things that mattered to poorer car buyers. Not to be outdone, Toyota established a dealership in 1976 and the Corolla and Carina became a popular sight locally for similar reasons.
    Interestingly Nathan Steele, the local dealer who began selling Nissans from a converted church in 1970, stopped around 1985 and AFG took over from a purpose built plate glass showroom. Customer care was never quite as good and locally those wanting a Japanese badged car seemed to move over to Toyota, whose family dealership continued to thrive and is still in business today. After AFG folded in 1991, Nissan franchises shifted between dealers until ironically a family dealer in a village won the franchise in 2007.

    • There’s a short film called Datsun City on the BBC Archive website, featuring Nathan Steele’s garage in Moor Row and many satisfied customers in their Datsuns. I’d guess it was a feature in a regional news programme or something. Well worth a watch.

      • Yes I’ve seen it a few times and Steele really hit lucky, as the area had many motorists who’d only recently been able to afford cars and when they saw how cheap and reliable new Datsuns were, flocked to the garage. I lived about 3 miles away and I’d say by the late seventies, Datsun were the third most popular make of car locally.

  7. I remember the tussle between Botnar and Nissan as the Primera was launched and the damage that did to the cars prospects. Botner was portrayed as an absolute crook by the media at the time.

    • As Nissan moved upmarket and dealerships were cut, the market for low priced, reliable cars was taken by Proton and some Nissan dealers took on the franchise. I owned one for two years, needing a cheap, reliable car for work after my Montego died, and the only fault it had was a bulb blowing in a courtesy light. Also the 1500cc Mitsubishi triple valve engine endowed the car with plenty of power and it could reach over 110 mph flat out.

  8. I remember the AFG v small dealer conflict.
    Botnar also built up a land bank, often close to the existing small dealers, and used it as a weapon to impose unrealistic sales targets.

    Saab was preparing to launch the 9000 and expand the dealer network. I remember spending trade day at the motor show interviewing a queue of dejected Datsun dealers.

    • AFG seem to remind me of how Arnold Shark operate, buy up smaller rivals or undercut them so much they’re forced out of business, and then get a local monopoly. I think Botnar, who always claimed to be on the side of the car buyer, really let himself down with this trick and very nearly drove Nissan out of the UK. Up to his empire building in the mid eighties, nothing to fault the man as he promoted a brand that most car buyers could afford and expanded new car ownership with attractive finance deals and good trade ins.

  9. My first Datsun was bought from the local new Datsun / Rootes dealer. They closed 2 years later then another local s/hand dealer took over in 1981. Changed again to new AFG glass showroom in 1989 which didn’t last long either.

    Finally the second dealer regained the Nissan moniker status in early 90s and held it till just a few years ago (then becoming a authorised Nissan service centre) Ironically it is now an MG Dealer!

  10. The local Datsun dealer was originally a second hand car dealer who took a chance on Datsun in 1970, when they were still a very small player. It certainly worked as the dealer found people kept coming back as their Datsuns were so good and the dealer was well known in the community. Compared with the lack of customer care at some British Leyland dealers at the time( they all do that, sir, when someone came in with a fault), Datsun dealers were far better and, of course, customers rarely had anything to complain about.
    Yes, Datsuns weren’t the most exciting of drives, some of the cars were acquired tastes to look at inside and outside, and early ones weren’t very well rustproofed. but sell someone a car for less than a basic Escort with fittings like cloth seats, a fitted radio and a cigarette lighter( important back then), rock solid reliability and low fuel consumption, and they were likely to return. Then if you fancied something a bit more exciting than a Sunny 120 Y, there was always a fastback version with a bigger engine and more performance for little more.

    • In 1985 I bought my Dad’s B11 Sunny 1.5 Coupe, after he bought an Accord. The Sunny served me well till 1990 when I acquired a company Escort! Good memories of the Sunny

    • Japanese cars of the 1970 s were subject to a quota system, possibly self-imposed by the importers, Trade in offers were also very high, anything with an MoT, however short, and could barely drive would attract a substantial cut in the price to change

  11. As one of the original intake of NMGB employees (Motor not Motors) we were tasked with setting up a dealership network ready to go by 1 January 1992. The mistake many Botnar dealers made was to accept his offers of cheap financial loans in lieu of bank mortgages or overdrafts. This allowed him to call in the loans on demand and take over the dealership. More than one DP found a Botnar representative sitting at his desk when he arrived for work. We couldn’t approach AFG dealerships for obvious reasons, but there was a ready supply of former dealers keen to get their revenge – as many successfully did.

  12. Got to admire Octav Botnar’s ruthlessness in some respects, particularly regarding the transporter drivers strike and making the most of the British Car Industry’s decline.

    Was under the impression the Datsun 510 was highly praised and competitive against other rivals, Nissan could have arguably gone even further in decimating British Leyland by developing a pre-Micra rival to the Mini as well as the Spridget. They even looked at a Cherry F10-based mid-engined sportscar via the 1975 Nissan AD-1 concept, somewhat conceptually similar lines as the Healey WAEC prototype and TXC Tracer by William Towns.

    How would his position been affected had British Leyland agreed to tie up with Nissan instead of Honda?

    The only recollection of Datsun a few decades back was seeing some Nissan dealerships with the Datsun name still present and others used either as used car dealerships or scrapyards.

    • Not sure there was much admirable about his ruthlessness. Sounds like it verged on the criminal to me.I remember my dad’s Laurel 200L which rusted to such an extent that a local welder despaired of finding solid metal to weld to. That car was only about 4 years old.

      • Was referring to those particular instances rather than overall.

        My father also owned a Laurel with similar rust issues decades back, an Orange 240L he liked for being well equipped and reliable even managing to drive it around without a problem for a bit after it was hit by a lorry.

  13. Of course the early Datsuns in the UK probably didn’t have good rustproofing to cope with the British weather. Not as important in the Japanese home market? Things gradually improved in more recent years (as on home built cars). I paid extra on my Datsun Cherry to have Cadulac rustproofing in 1979

  14. It seems by the end of the 1970s Japanese cars were better rustproofed, but over the 1980s rustproofing technology improved with chassis galvanising so it’s not unusual for a car to last 20 years without serious rust.

    • I think that in Japan they use to tax cars higher if they were over 4 years old (correct me if I am wrong). So older cars that rusted away in Japan had already been scrapped. I believe it use to be a similar rule in Italy with scooters.

    • While the early Japanese imports weren’t well protected against rust.like most cars made in the early seventies, later cars like the 1978 Datsun Sunny and Toyota Corolla seemed quite well rust proofed and lasted better. By the mid eighties, you could buy a Japanese car that could last 15 years before seeing any major problems and vehicles like Mitsubishi pick ups and Toyota SUVs could do 200,000 miles.

      • The Laurel was a 79/80 model. It was first registered in Lerwick in the Shetlands so the sea air probably had a lot to do with it’s accelerated decrepitude. Still,I’d never seen a car dissolve quite like that and to make matters worse it was white making the rust stains all the more obvious.

      • My brother had a new 1978 Sunny 140Y coupe and about the same time my Dad bought a Corolla 2 dr saloon. Neither of this pair exhibited rust problems but they were only kept for less than 18 months, so too early for tinworm.

        I remember the Sept launch of the 1980 Bluebird which changed boot badging from DATSUN 180B to “Datsun Bluebird by Nissan”. Must have been the start of Nissan’s rebranding

  15. Regarding the rival two lines of model trim badging, The Primera was also sold as 2.0eZX (succeeding the Bluebird Turbo ZX), Then it became the 2.0eGT

  16. As with BL assembly we had a Nissan Datsun assembly line in Portugal near Setúbal. And Toyota in Vila Nova de Gaia. The first japanese assembled car in Europe was assembled at Movauto Setúbal in 1968. It was a Datsun 1000 sw.

  17. Our dealership Fred Coupe LTD sold Datsun cars from the very beginning, and are the longest serving dealership in the country . In the early days Datsun was so popular the customer would be prepared to wait for the attention of our very busy salesmen . On several occasions we were instructed to stop selling and registering cars because of the impact it was having in the U.K. car market . Our meetings over the years with Mr Botner were varied sometimes good and sometimes not too successful. In one instance he told us we had to open new showrooms in another three locations . We were left in a room to consider the situation and were convinced that the room was bugged. Nevertheless we have survived nearly 50 years .

  18. Magazines like Car used to frequently rubbish the driving abilities of Japanese cars and sneer at the glitzy styling and fake chrome that adorned many of their cars, but the cars they often raved about were way beyond the means of the ordinary car buyer, who wasn’t interested in reaching 60 mph in seven seconds or possessing a car with a Boxer engine. Someone buying a Datsun or Toyota simply wanted a car that started first time, didn’t need constant attention, was economical and easy to drive, and had some creature comforts like a radio and cloth bucket seats. Yes cars like the Datsun Laurel appeared rather crass and covered in glitz, but they gave buyers what they wanted and bigger Japanese cars drove better than they looked.

    • The attitude has changed since then, the dog and pony show which is motor car journalism rubbishes anything non-German, or non-Land Rover.

      • The Japanese age-related Inspection process eliminates many vehicles, as the vehicle ages, mandatory replacement of key assemblies such as the entire braking system, causes vehicles of quite modest age to become an economic write off by the owner

        • That’s why a lot of Japanese home market cars are export when they have been used about 10 years.

    • I go along with that. I remember CAR magazine described the Datsun 280ZX as “Big, ugly and bound for the boulevard”. I could use that phrase to describe the current SUV’s!

      As I said previously, the Datsun 280C Estate (not a looker) conveyed us in comfort and speed in Iraq many years ago (1979). I believe it had the same engine as the 280ZX

  19. I had CAR magazine from the late 70s till the 90s (and still have some of them). They always raved about certain French and Italian makes, which even at the time were regarded as fragile and unreliable.

    Specifically the Citroen GS which always came top of their wanted lists, and Alfa Suds which even then were rusting away in front of your eyes. But if CAR had their way, that’s what everyone should’ve been buying.

    • Car loved anything made by Citroen, although they did have a point with the CX, which looked like nothing else on the road and was a fantastic drive, and I think they had a jocular love of the 2 CV, knowing fine well the car was very much an acquired taste. Yet to someone with limited mechanical knowledge and living a considerable distance from a Citroen dealership( many mechanics hated working on them), a used GS wasn’t a good idea. Meanwhile there was good old Ford, that anyone could fix, or for a totally stress free life, a new Datsun Sunny would fall into your price range.

  20. A great account ….. My understanding is that the first Bluebirds to leave Sunderland/Washington in 1986 were classed as “assembled” because nearly all the components came from Japan.
    As such, at first anyway, they had to be accommodated within Nissan’s 6% market share quota under the Gentlemen’s Agreement rather than allowing Nissan to gain extra sales on top of that quota. (That wasn’t a huge problem as they replaced the previous Japanese-built models so there was space in the quota for them).
    For the same reason exports did not start immediately because in EEC markets they were classed as Japanese cars and fell within the restrictions applicable to Japanese imports. There was some unpleasantness in France from memory over this.
    In this respect the Bluebird was different from the Triumph Acclaim which was classed as “British manufactured” from day one and had a higher UK content than the first Bluebirds, and thus fell outside the 11% quota and could be exported without restriction to EEC markets (the Italians tried to stop it but BL won that battle).
    But this changed when Nissan started manufacturing engines at Sunderland in 1987 and from then onwards the Bluebird was treated as “British manufactured” and exports commenced.

    Before the Honda partnership developed to the extent it did, there were all kinds of discussions at government level with Nissan (the parent company) concerning potential co-operation with (or acquisition of parts of) BL.

  21. Another reason for Nissan to set up a factory in Britain, apart from using it to beat import restrictions on Japanese cars in most of the EEC, they wanted a slice of the lucrative company car market that was dominated by Ford and Vauxhall. Import quotas meant it was difficult to sell the Bluebird in any great numbers to the fleets, even if it would have made an excellent company car, with low prices and rock solid reliabillity and decent performance. Once UK assembly started, fleet buyers, particularly taxi firms, started to take a serious interest in the Bluebird.

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