That’s Off-The-Record: The Almost Stillborn Nissan Z

I fell in love for the first time as a 10-year-old boy in tiny Pella, Iowa. She passed me and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her until she turned the corner and ran away.

That babe was the 1970 Datsun 240Z, and it was driven by one of the coolest cats in town.

Little did I know then that I’d have a hand in bringing the Z back from the dead some 28 years later.

Nissan Motor Corporation created and built the Z in Japan, where it introduced the sports car in 1969 as the Nissan Fairlady Z.

A year later, thanks to Automotive Hall of Famer Mr. K, who first brought Nissan to the U.S. shores years before, the Z arrived in the United States as the Datsun 240Z.

It was an immediate hit for two reasons: the car was beautiful (sure, Nissan ripped off Jag for many of its design cues), but — more importantly — the Z was affordable. So affordable, in fact, that a high school junior or senior with a decent after-school job could afford the monthly payment.

A decade later, in 1980, Z sales had soared to 71,000 units in the United States before plateauing in the 50,000 to 60,000 range for most of the decade.

Then sales began their free fall thanks in most part to a bad strategy from leaders in Japan.

With the 1990 birth of the Nissan 300ZX and the later 300ZX Twin Turbo, the car lost its affordability moniker overnight and engaged in a “super car” market battle with Toyota and a few others selling sports cars in the mid-$30,000s.

Nissan lost that battle and sold barely 1,000 units in 1997. A legendary car that had helped establish Datsun (later Nissan) as a legitimate player in the U.S. market was sent off to the graveyard.

Two weeks after I joined Nissan as its new PR chief for North America in Gardena, California, in March 1998, one of my PR colleagues, Tim “Sparky” Gallagher, arranged for a tour of Nissan’s design studio down the road in La Jolla.

Jerry Hirshberg, the North American design chief, greeted us at the front door, standing about 5-foot-6 but built like a brick sh-thouse. He looked nothing like the typical automotive designers I worked with at Chrysler, my previous employer.

We walked around the lobby. He showed me some past work created by his studio before we made our way to the working area of the facility. On the table was a one-quarter-scale clay model of a concept Jerry was ready to show: the Nissan SUT. It was an SUV on the inside and shortened pickup truck on the outside. (It never went to market, though Ford did produce an SUT.)

As we continued through the studio, meeting Jerry’s staff, I finally stopped him and asked, “Where’s the Z, Jerry?”

Jerry, with an impish smile, pointed to his head. “It’s in here,” he answered.

“Well,” I said, “Get it the hell out.”

Jerry confessed he proposed a replacement for the now-dead Z, going back to its “affordability roots,” but Japan had balked and refused to fund the project. I asked him how much he needed for full-size concepts of both the SUT and a Z. He asked for a day to come up with the figures from the folks that build the actual concepts.

The next day, Jerry came back with a staggering figure: $2 million. That may not have been staggering for Chrysler, Ford, GM or Toyota at the time, but it was staggering for Nissan, which was on the brink of bankruptcy.

I went to my new best friend at Nissan, Mike Seergy, the smash mouth sales guy from Jersey who Nissan picked to lead all North American sales after he’d made Nissan the number one import brand in the Northeast.

“Seerg,” I said, “We need to get Jerry Hirshberg money to build the new Z concept.”

“What Z concept?” he asked. “I was just down there last week and didn’t see any Z.”

“I was there two days ago,” I answered. “It’s in his head. We can make two concepts — a Z and the SUT — for two million.”

Seergy gulped. “OK, I’ll take it out of my sales budget — but you only get one million.”

Seergy and I got the buy-in from the head of Nissan North America, Minoru Nakamura, but he instructed us to keep the project absolutely quiet. If Nissan’s execs in Japan got word of it, they’d surely kill it. Nakamura’s warning foreshadowed what was to come as Nissan sunk into a deeper and deeper financial hole.

Jerry Hirshberg’s team went to work, even bringing an original 240Z into the studio and piping in late ’60s and early ’70s tunes to set the mood. It quickly became distracting. Jerry’s team needed the original Z in their minds, not smacking them in the eyes. Jerry ordered the car be removed and the music turned back to Sugar Ray and Lenny Kravitz.

We built the Z concept and made it the focal point of a road show during the summer of 1998, which allowed Nissan’s dealers, financial analysts and the media to “peek under the kimono.” We showed our dealers first, as their family businesses were on the line. The dealers were understandably scared due to Nissan’s current financial state. We showed them the new version of the Maxima, the flag ship of the brand, the SUT concept — and then the Z concept. When we took the cover off the Z, the dealers cheered. After the meeting, several dealers said seeing the new Z meant we hadn’t lost our DNA after all.

Was the concept any good? It was, Hirshberg said, “Just OK.” But it didn’t matter at the time. It was just a concept at this stage. Nissan contemplating a production Z that went back to its roots was all that was necessary. Our message was clear: Nissan is not dead yet.

Nissan unveiled the Z concept at the 1999 North American International Auto Show, which almost didn’t happen. A killer blizzard that shut down Detroit’s Metro Airport for days kept half of the international media away from Detroit. The media reviews were solid, but not overwhelming.

What was overwhelming was the pending doom for Nissan as a whole as it was near flat-lining financially. DaimlerChrysler contemplated buying Nissan, but the Germans left the Japanese automaker at the altar — pregnant with a looming bankruptcy baby — after performing its due diligence. Luckily, Nissan Chairman Hanawa was so pre-occupied with Nissan’s pending demise and his growing health issues that he paid little attention to the boys and girls in the U.S. operation.

As we neared the New York International Auto Show, we decided to announce the Z was a “go program.” We had a glorious unveiling planned: the Z would be hidden on stage by a field of thousands of green, imitation corn stalks. Minoru Nakamura, our CEO and my boss, would sit on a park bench in front of the corn field while reading an enlarged copy of Road and Track magazine. Months earlier, the mag’s Sam Mitani had embedded himself with the Z design team and wrote a wonderful story about his experience. He ended his piece, stealing a line from the film Field of Dreams: “If you build it; they will come.” Nakamura would read that line and then stand up and shout, “We will build it!”

But the evening before our press conference, after a couple of hours of practice in the Jacob Javitts Center in Gotham City, I received a call in my hotel room from Nakamura. He informed me he’d received an angry phone call from Chairman Hanawa telling my boss that he, the Chairman, had not approved the Z for production.

I didn’t know what to say. My team and I, Jerry Hirshberg and his team, and Mike Seergy poured our hearts into making a new Z a reality as we tried to revamp Nissan’s tattered image.

But I did know one thing: I was pissed.

“Mr. Nakamura,” I said, “You tell Mr. Hanawa we announce this a ‘go program’ tomorrow or I’ll go on a hunger strike.”

There was a pause.

“Jason,” he said coolly, “No one care if you go on hunger strike.” He started to laugh. “I will handle this. Meet me outside for a smoke.”

At 1 a.m., Nakamura was back on the phone. “We are OK. Mr. Hanawa has approved the Z. But, he is still angry.”

“Mr. Nakamura,” I said, “I’m sorry I painted you into a corner.”

“Jason, don’t give yourself too much credit. We both painted us into this corner. See you in the morning.”

Renault would take over Nissan and keep it from death’s door. Once in production, the new 350Z was a solid performer right out of the gate sales-wise, topping 30,000 units in 2003. Its creation spawned the Infiniti G models, which gave Nissan’s luxury brand some of its best sales results.

However, since the high water mark of 2003, Z sales have declined year-after-year, with a couple of exceptions, and it garnered 6,000 sales in 2016 despite it, for the most part, retaining its original “affordability” DNA. Starting prices still remain around $30,000.

Will Nissan get its Z magic back? Maybe, but it might just take a 10-year-old American boy falling in love all over again to make it happen.

[Image: Nissan]

Jason Vines is a former automotive industry PR professional who’s worked for Chrysler (twice), Nissan, and Ford — during the Firestone tire crisis. He went on to work for Compuware in Detroit, before diving into the complex world of Bible publishing. He’s the author of “What Did Jesus Drive?: Crisis PR in Cars, Computers, and Christianity” and co-author of “The Last American CEO,” a behind-the-scenes account of Chrysler’s purchase of American Motors. He currently resides in North Carolina.

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