Nissan Bluebird: the first Japanese car made in Britain

Nissan Bluebird
No expense spared for this photo of a Bluebird outside Nissan's Tyne and Wear factory

Although the Triumph Acclaim was essentially a British-built Honda, 30 years ago the Nissan Bluebird was the first wholly Japanese car to be assembled here. Andrew Roberts tells its story

If you pay a visit to the Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens, you will have the opportunity to see one of the most significant cars in British motoring history. A white T12-series Nissan Bluebird 2.0 GSX may conjure mental images less concerned with thrills and glamour and more of minicab duties on a wet Tuesday in Doncaster, but to thousands of buyers this was its raison d'être. And, on the July 8 1986, “JOB 1” became the first car to leave Nissan’s production plant in Tyne and Wear.

Thirty years ago the launch of the “Sunderland Bluebird” was seen by many observers to mark the culmination of over two decades of Japanese cars on British roads, which commenced with the Daihatsu Compagno in 1965. This was followed by Toyota later that year, Honda in 1966 and Datsun (as pre-1984 Nissans were known in the UK) two years later and by the mid-Seventies no high street would have been complete without at least one 120Y Sunny or 100A Cherry.  

Their build quality was often on a par with wet blotting paper and the design inspiration for the 120Y’s hubcaps appeared to be a Fray Bentos pie tin, but these issues did not stop motorists from trading in their Austin Allegro for a well-appointed and reliable “foreign” car. The Bluebird 160B was similarly luring drivers from their stricken Marinas, and Japanese cars were so popular that the Society of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers and Traders negotiated a “voluntary restraint” of imports in 1975.

The irony, one unlikely to have been appreciated by your average British Leyland dealer, was that for many years Nissans were powered by an Austin-derived engine. It is oft-forgotten that the T12 Bluebird followed in a tradition of Anglo-Japanese cars after Nissan and Longbridge signed a “technological co-operation agreement” in 1952.

This followed a Japanese government scheme to have indigenous car makers collaborate with overseas concerns in order to rebuild the motor industry after the Second World War. Foreign vehicles would be manufactured under a licence agreement, with Western companies having their royalty payments guaranteed.

Isuzu made the Hillman Minx under licence in Japan

Hino made the Renault 4CV, and Isuzu entered into a “technological assistance agreement” with the Rootes Group to make the Hillman Minx at their Hino-shi plant. Meanwhile, Nissan selected Austin as a partner, largely because their cars were capable of enduring Japan’s dire and largely unmade road network.  

A seven-year licence allowed for the A40 Somerset and its replacement, the A50 Cambridge, to be made in Japan with a proviso that restricted sales to the home market. The arrangement also gave Nissan the right to use the engine designs in future vehicles. By 1960 Nissan had built 20,855 Austins - and shortly before the licence expired, visiting British engineers noted that the build quality of Japanese models was superior to their Longbridge counterparts.

Japanese-built Austin A40 Somerset

Two decades later, in an almost 180-degree reversal of fortune, British Leyland was seeking a partner to develop future models and commenced talks with Honda. On Boxing Day 1979 it was agreed that the forthcoming Ballade, a four-door saloon version of the second-generation Civic, would also be built in the UK as the Triumph Acclaim.

Sales commenced in October 1981 but although BL marketed its latest car as a replacement for the lower spec Dolomites what was very evident was that, in spite of the badging, this was primarily a British-built Honda. Every detail, down to the coachwork and the remotely operated boot lid and fuel filler, were redolent less of the West Midlands and more of a Toyko salaryman. However, the last car to carry the Triumph name also demonstrated how workers at the Cowley plant could produce a vehicle as reliable as the Toyota Corolla - and with a great deal more charisma.

Nissan also built the Austin A50 under licence in Japan

For the average motorist the Acclaim and its 1984 successor, the SD3-series Rover 200, the familiar marque names were a positive advantage – they could drive a Japanese-type car without appearing to be unpatriotic. The UK was then the second largest market in Europe for Japanese cars after West Germany but in the Eighties the “national origins” of a car still mattered from a sales viewpoint. BL dealers could claim that the latest Triumph was a good deal more British than the likes of the German-built Vauxhall Senator, despite its imported the engine and transmission.

Two years after the debut of the Triumph Acclaim, Nissan embarked upon a collaboration with Alfa Romeo, resulting in the 1983 Arna, which combined Japanese body panels and rear suspension with Italian engines and, ominously, electrical system. Limited commercial success then ensued and many observers thought this was due in large part to a limited market for an N10-series Cherry with typical Alfa build quality.

This did not deter Nissan from planning future European manufacturing operations and by 1984 it had decided on Sunderland and assembly began from CKD (completely knocked down) kits in 1986.

By 1987 all UK-market Bluebirds were made in the North-East, exports commenced in the following year and when production ceased in 1990 the local content was more than 70 per cent.

Unlike the Arna, which remains an almost perfect illustration of any automotive collaboration should concentrate on the respective strengths of the partners rather their weaknesses, the Sunderland Bluebird was the right car that debuted at the right time. The styling was innocuous, road manners predictable and the engines often seemed to be indestructible, especially the 2.0-litre diesel unit.

There were more exciting choices of company car, such as the Peugeot 405, and Car magazine went so far as to complain that the flagship Bluebird Executive model served “to show what average is”. But the T12 would dependably transport you to your next appointment without causing the driver social disgrace at his/her local Happy Eater - and without the need for the fig leaf of a British badge.

That first British-built Bluebird, JOB 1, may not convey the visceral excitement of an E-type or a Mini Cooper but, in its late-Eighties suburban fashion, it is equally important to the story of car-making in the UK.

With thanks to:

The Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens

Stuart Boyd at Nissan UK

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