Inside Nissan's Hidden, Wacky Heritage Collection

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 06, 2016

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE—Where do old show cars go when they’re no longer stars? They used to get ignominiously crushed, but these days automakers are too aware of the historical record to do that. But, still, you have to seek them out.
 The very first vehicle produced at Nissan's Smyrna plant in June of '83. They call that Job One. The little truck has less than 400 miles on it. (Jim Motavalli photo)I did just that during a recent visit to Nashville. Nissan is based there, and these days it bases its Heritage Collection in the basement of the hugely entertaining Lane Motor Museum, a former bakery that is now home to one man’s singular vision of automotive oddity. I profiled the Lane here.
The Nissan collection, which used to be housed all over the place—wherever spare garage space was available—is now neatly tucked into a large underground room that the management is enlivening with old Huey Lewis and the News posters. My host was the amiable Steve Yaeger, whose title is manager of technology and motorsports communication.
 Ever seen a Fairlady that looked like this? It's a 1.2-liter model from '63, very bare-bones, and only 212 came to the U.S. (Jim Motavalli photo) There are 60 cars, including many “Job Ones”—including a white ’83 pickup truck (with 362 miles on it) that was the first off the line at the nearby Smyrna plant. And there were plenty of cars I’ve never seen before, such as a 1,200-cc ’63 Fairlady roadster—only 212 came to the U.S. And a number of the very earliest cars imported into the U.S., including 1,000 to 1,200-cc sedans and pickups circa 1958. The influence of the British car industry—which advised Japan’s automakers in the postwar years—was quite evident.

Modest beginnings: This was what Nissan offered American buyers in 1960. Where are the tailfins? (Jim Motavalli photo) The full range of Z cars is here, John Morton’s championship-winning Datsun 510, and a 350Z signed by such rock stars as Sheryl Crow, Cheap Trick, Devo and the late Scott Weiland.

Can you read the rock star signatures? (Jim Motavalli photo)But what really got me was the old show cars, some of which were quietly deteriorating (alas, they weren’t built to last). Here they are in order:
 The Cocoon was "futuristic" in 1991. But minivans got much wilder than this. (Jim Motavalli photo)Cocoon (1991). A six-passenger futuristic minivan job with three rows of seats, the Cocoon has aspects of Buck Rogers about it. An early heads-up display was on the Cocoon, as well as a system to spray the driver with “a refreshing scent” should he or she get sleepy.
 The Gobi: A pod truck from 1990. They shoulda built it. (Jim Motavalli photo)Gobi (1990). A truck with an egg-shaped cab, the Gobi features an “orthopedically fitted work station” for a driver’s seat. The glovebox is canvas and held on by Velcro. Under the truck bed are rubberized lockers to store stuff  like skis and camping gear. Why didn’t that idea catch on? The Gobi looks not unlike Chevy’s SSR pickup of 2003 to 2006, so it would have been ahead of its time if actually produced.
 The 2004 Arctic in all its ragged glory. (Jim Motavalli photo)Arctic (2004). This poor guy appeared to have lost its matching trailer, but there wasn’t room in the tight storage anyway. The Arctic looked wild in 2004, but stranger-looking SUVs have now made it into production. Inside is a three-abreast “modular” interior (seats are removable), and (supposedly) cutting-edge information technology systems. Six small roof windows let the sunshine in. The Arctic wasn’t wearing its years well, alas.
 The Azeal was pretty sporty, and its essence became a Sentra. (Jim Motavalli photo)Azeal (2005). I’d buy one of these! Nissan was thinking young with this sports coupe; it integrated a cellphone and MP3 player. It had plenty of go-power from a turbo 2.5-liter four, with a six speed and a limited-slip differential. The styling influenced the 2007 Sentra.
 Steve Yaeger with the Quest prototype from 2002. It was a hit in Detroit. (Jim Motavalli photo)Quest Concept (2002). Yeager told me that this concept, debuted at the 2002 Detroit show, reflected Nissan’s desire to make less-fanciful prototypes. The concept minivan, with its cool rear sunroof and Coke bottle side styling, was a close preview of the 2004 Nissan Quest.
 The SUT was an XTerra pickup in all but name. Alas, it didn't happen. (Jim Motavalli photo)SUT (1999). Basically an XTerra pickup truck, the SUT was based on the Frontier Crew-Cab and looked production ready. The rear seats could be folded to give the SUT a full bed—quite cool.
 Inside the Nissan Bevel: Fanciful, but they could have toned it down for production. (Jim Motavalli photo)Bevel (2007). I loved this California-styled beast, designed to be part panel van and part crossover. The high-rise cargo hatch and suicide doors make loading easy, but the latter would never have made it into production. Perhaps the useful fold-flat seating would have survived.
 The Bevel had the impractical doors typical to concept cars. Imagine living with those! (Nissan photo)These are just a few of the concept cars Nissan produced over the years. Read about the rest here.
Incidentally, I got to ride in two of the battery electric cars produced over the years, plus a longer-range 2016 Leaf. The latter represents an evolution toward the true 200-mile car that is Nissan’s priority. The company is improving the Leaf incrementally until then; the current car can go 197 miles on a charge.
 The Altra EV: Ready for action, but only 200 were made. Don't feel bad if you've never seen one. (Jim Motavalli photo)The 1997-2001 Altra EV—the world’s first electric with lithium-ion batteries (via Sony)—is a pleasant little station wagon. Though modest in execution it was the range champ of its day, capable of up to 140 miles on a charge. Only 200 were made for test fleets, so it was a rare beast even back then. My test car was a daily driver for Nissan spokesman Mark Perry, and it would be easy to live with as a suburban grocery getter.
 The HyperMini rather gently left me stranded. Don't blame it: Spare parts are hard to find. (Jim Motavalli photo) The HyperMini (1991 to 2001) is another story—a two-seat pod for city dwellers, with 70 miles of range. Or less. Some 26 made it to California fleets; the rest of the 219 made did duty in Japan.
Let’s be upfront here: Nobody’s making spare parts for HyperMinis anymore. Yaeger managed to patch the collection’s example together for a test ride, but he told me not to turn it off. It managed to strand me, not unpleasantly, anyway. But I had enough of a ride to grow somewhat fond of its compact dimensions. It would have been good competition for the Smart, if it had been developed.
The Heritage Collection is a lot of fun; visitors can see it, but you need to make arrangements first. There is also a bigger collection in Japan, where all the really weird stuff is kept.  Here's the Nashville collection on video:


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