Fairlady?

An illustration for a "SR20" badge.

I’m not sure if it’s because of Grand Turismo, or animé, manga or just the fact that Japanese classic cars may finally be getting some respect, but everyone seems to know the roadster as a Fairlady. As in, “Oh, a ’67 Datsun roadster, do you mean a Fairlady?” from the guy at the Knecht auto parts. Could have knocked me over with a feather.

Twenty years ago the guys at the chain parts store would argue with me that my car did not exist. “That’s not a Datsun, they never made a convertible. That’s a Triumph.” Really. So somebody bothered to replace all of the Triumph badges with Datsun badges, had a custom valve cover fabricated, made up a VIN plate – just to be able to fake the title and registration? “Yep, that’s a Triumph, and we ain’t got no metric parts.”

Granted, this was the Deep South and anything not “Merkin” was highly suspect. You’d think the “Ferrin” car crowd would be more understanding, but a car made across the wrong pond was not worthy of respect. “Your car can’t be a classic, it’s Japanese.”

These days almost every gamer kid knows what a Nissan Skyline is, even if their parents have no clue. And a Sylvia, and probably a Bluebird.

The old saw goes that Nissan used the Datsun name in the US market to save face in case they were a failure. Probably true, though the Roadster was a Datsun in Japan. The trucks and higher-end cars were Nissans – such as the Sylvia, Cedric and Skyline.

The Fair Lady name is credited to Katsuji Kawamata, President of Nissan Motors Japan who saw “My Fair Lady” on Broadway in 1958 and thought it would be a good name for a sports car. The SPL211 Fair Lady debuted in 1960. By 1963 the SPL310 1500 was a “Fairlady”. The story goes that Mr. K (Yutaka Katayama), President of Nissan USA, knew that the name would not fly in this country and ordered the badges removed from the cars as they came off the ship and replaced with Datsun badges. I have also heard stories of dealers changing the badges. With the debut of the SPL311 – the 1600 the Fairlady badges were history in the US. When the successor to the Roadster came along it was dubbed the “ultimate Fairlady” or the “Fairlady Z” in Japan. Mr K would have none of it and the car became the 240Z.

Recently the Datsun Fairlady was named one of the Top 10 Worst Car Names of All Time, joining the Studebaker Dictator, Geely Beauty Leopard and the Mazda Bongo Friendee. This shows that the original name of the car is well known enough in the US to make the list!

With the JDM craze, the baggy pants/backwards baseball cap crowd began putting Sylvia badges on their 240SXs and started importing  the cool twin-cam JDM SR20 motors to replace the US-market KA truck motors. And they began paying attention to all the cool Japanese cars we never got in the US. Previously I had to make a special trek to Kinokuniya, a Japanese book store chain, to buy expensive Japanese magazines that featured all of the cool cars and shops with truly odd names. My rusty katakana got quite a workout trying to decipher dat-to-san fe-a-ra-di and ni-san su-kai-rai-n. Now even “Merkin” car guys know of the Datsun Fairlady and Nissan Skyline – though you can still baffle them with Prince Motors!

With this trend of calling vintage Japanese cars by their original domestic market names, I wonder how well the cars would have sold with those names in the US. Is “510” a more macho name than “Bluebird”? Would you have bought a Cherry or Sunny? What about a Violet or a Laurel? I suppose the time was not right for such “Japanese-ness” and perhaps they would have had to withdraw Datsun from the the US and concentrate on the rest of the world.

In any case, I think unique names are much better than boring letters and numbers. I like Nissan Leopard much better than Infiniti M30, Nissan Primera rather than Infiniti G20. I hope the Japanese will be more confident about their quirky domestic product names as they seem to be getting more comfortable with home-grown Japanese aesthetics such as the Nissan Juke and Cube.

As for me, I’ll just leave you with this picture of the back of my ‘67.5 Datsun.

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