Over the years, Nissan has had several manufacturing agreements with other car companies, but one of the most important to the company’s development was its deal with Austin of England in the 1950s. All Japanese motor manufacturers were looking towards British cars at that time, as the designs were better suited to Japan’s narrow roads and post war lack of materials and fuel than American cars. Several other companies eventually had tie-ups with European manufacturers, most notably Hino who assembled Renault 4CV’s and Isuzu who built the Hillman Minx. The Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), who had been formed in 1949, had placed severe restrictions on overseas imports and on foreign investment to help rebuild Japan’s manufacturing after the war. These limitations meant that for foreign manufacturers, the only way to get their cars into the Japanese market was to have some kind of tie-up with a Japanese manufacturer…
It was this that prompted Austin to approach Nissan in 1952 to ask if it would be interested in assembling Austins in Japan. At that time, Nissan’s engineers were already closely examining a Morris Minor to see what they could learn. What better way to gain an insight into the British method of car design and assembly, than to enter an official agreement? Nissan’s President, Genshichi Asahara was very keen on the idea, as he was well aware of how much had been gained from a previous tie-up in the 1930s, with American car manufacturer, Graham Paige, the result of which had been the Nissan 70. His approach to the advancement of Nissan’s own products was, that technology, just like machinery and materials, was something that you could buy. He didn’t approve of other companies like Toyota, who’s approach was to simply copy foreign designs. Asahara preferred to acquire the patent rights to certain technologies, so they could legitimately use them. The single advantage of a tie-up with Austin, as he saw it, was that the company was guaranteed to acquire all the knowledge necessary to produce a quality car, rather than copying bits and pieces and hoping it could make use of it.
Executive Director Kawamata didn’t see things the same way as Asahara and felt that a tie up with Austin would prevent Nissan’s designers and engineers from learning for themselves. Also he wasn’t happy with the fact that the deal didn’t give Nissan full manufacturing rights, so it would still have to pay royalties, which would drain funds for designing its own car at the same time. However, Asahara’s mind was made up and after commissioning a favourable study on the Austin products already in Japan, he announced at a board meeting, that the deal was to go ahead, even though several other board members opposed it. In October 1952, Austin’s vice president arrived in Japan to formally discuss the agreement with Asahara and contract was offered during November. Asahara then went to England with a team of engineers and the seven year contract was agreed on December 4th. The engineers remained in England at Austin’s factory for another month to study the production methods and the facilities, whilst in Japan the agreement was presented to MITI, who gave it the stamp of approval on the 23rd of December 1952.
Nissan’s agreement with Austin stated that it was to import and assemble at least 2000 Austin A40s annually, which would be sold under the Austin name, by both Nissan and Nisshin Motors, which was Austin’s Japanese sales representative at the time. For the first three years, Nissan was to slowly shift from assembling the cars from fully imported knocked down kits, shipped from England, to entirely locally made parts. For this, Austin agreed to supply designs, tooling and the necessary jigs, as well as any technical assistance required, for either local manufacture or car assembly, as well as providing British engineers if necessary. Of course Austin also agreed that Nissan could make use of any of the patents it held with respect to the cars. For the first year under the contract, Nissan were free from paying any royalties to Austin, but from the second year they were to pay 2% of the factory retail price of the cars they sold, which went up to 3.5% from the third year onward.
The Austin department within Nissan was set up in February 1953. This department was responsible for assembly, as well as the three year transition to locally manufactured parts and was overseen by Sasaki Sadamichi. First it had to create somewhere to assemble the Austins. This was completed at the Tsurumi factory in Yokohama and the first Austin A40 (model code B30) rolled out of the assembly shop on the 4th April. Just over a month later, an official launch was held in Yokohama, attended by, amongst others the UK Ambassador in Japan and the MITI Minister. Within a month the Austins were already riding on Japanese made tyres and had locally made windows, trim and seat foam. By the start of 1954 there were 220 components that were locally made, including many small cast components, which were made in the Yoshiwara factory.
In December 1954 the Austin A50 (model code B130) replaced the A40, yet despite this, by August Nissan was making more than half the car from locally produced components. By now the Yokohama factory was casting and machining the engine blocks, cranks and cylinder heads, the brake drums, flywheels and exhaust manifolds. The transition to local manufacture was completed by the end of the year, although the cars were not totally assembled from these parts until September 1956. In December 1958, Nissan produced an improved version of the Austin A50 (model B131), which had slightly more power and seating capacity increased from five persons to six. The car also had improved rearward visibility.
Austin did have to send technical staff to Japan a number of times to assist with the local production, but the schedule for completion was never extended to cope. Asahara insisted on this and was determined that the locally made parts should be in no way inferior to the British made components. Initially, Nissan had trouble making the body pressings to an acceptable standard, as it was now making them in house. Previous bodies had been pressed by Shin-Mitsubishi, who manufactured the Datsun bodies, but Asahara refused to contract the Austin body out alongside the Datsun. He wasn’t happy that each body needed to be hand finished on the production line and put a great deal of pressure on the department to constantly improve the quality to be on a par with Austin made panels. It took over a year to come up with a body that was of high enough quality to match the Austin, but it was to the company’s advantage, as it meant they could end their reliance on Shin-Mitsubishi, with whom it terminated its contact in 1955.
During 1957, Nissan built 5785 Austins which accounted for 31% of all the cars it sold that year and 10% of total production, including trucks and buses. Although Nissan gradually increased production of the Austins from 1953 until 1957, they accounted for less and less of their total sales, as its own Datsun models were improved and gained sales. The agreement ended at the end of the 1959 fiscal year (in March 1960) with the actual production having stopped on December 28th 1959. Nissan had built 20,855 Austins during the seven year tie-up. Whilst Nissan had gained valuable experience and technology in car manufacturing it came at a heavy price. The total royalties to Austin of England set it back $1,700,000, but the investment in local production had cost a whopping $9,200,000! Ashara’s notion that the tie-up would give them the edge in car manufacturing over the Japanese rivals didn’t quite come to fruition either. Although Nissan gained the knowledge to build the monocoque body for its own cars after the Austin tie-up ended, it could have done that anyway by simply studying other manufacturers vehicles, just as other Japanese companies did.
The Austins proved to be quite unsuitable for rough Japanese roads so some redesigning had to be done anyway by Nissan. Modifications like this required Austins approval, as it went outside of the original contract. Such changes would cause delays and difficulties that other manufacturers like Toyota didn’t have to suffer. Toyota, who merely studied other overseas manufacturers cars, actually managed to produce its own monocoque body for the Corona a full two years before Nissan did with the Cedric in 1959. Of course even though many parts and assemblies had been re-designed by Nissan, it still had to pay royalties to Austin which bit into their profits.
It wasn’t all bad news though. Nissan did retain the rights to the Austin engine, which initially went into the Cedric and Junior truck, as well as the Bluebird, although with a reduced cubic capacity. This engine (E, then E1 and later J series) remained in Datsun vehicles in various forms as late as 1980. As well as body design and manufacturing technology, Nissan also gained such advances as independent front suspension and synchromesh gearboxes. Its painting methods improved by adopting Austin’s baked enamel finish over their previous air dried paint, although Toyota also started using this technique in the mid 1950’s.
The replacement for the Austins arrived in 1959 in the shape of the 310 Datsun Bluebird and the 30 model Cedric. Both were all new designs and featured all of the techniques which Nissan had learned from the tie-up with Austin. The new Bluebird featured styling done under by a team under chief designer Hara Teiichi, which very reminiscent of British built cars. It was wider, lower and lighter than previous Datsuns and had performance more on a par with European cars than with the previous 1950s Datsuns, which featured what was essentially pre-war running gear. The Cedric also featured British inspired styling, with a structure quite similar to the Austin A50. The work on it was done under chief designer Fujita Shotaro, who had studied the Austin A50 closely. The Cedric, which was also built in the Tsurumi plant, was the direct replacement for the Austin so its launch was delayed a little so that it wouldn’t compete with the last Austins to be sold.
Although the tie-up with Austin didn’t eventually bring about the great manufacturing advantage Nissan had hoped for, it did usher in a new era for the company, which could finally produce cars that were able to compete well in overseas markets. The legacy of the Austin tie up can still be seen today as the model line it inspired, the Nissan Cedric remains in production to this day.