Datsun Is Still Around, and Doing Well (Sort Of)

A recent Nissan press release said that Datsun sold its 100,000th car in India. In the United States and other developed countries, Datsun vehicles were all rebranded Nissan in the early 1980s. But the brand lives on in developing countries today.

There’s an old, corny joke about the Datsun brand name. Supposedly Nissan executives wanted to distance themselves from bad memories of World War II, and needed a name to call their company in the United States and other allied countries. So they called a branding expert, telling him what they were looking to do. They told him that if he could come up with a good name ASAP, they would mail him a check.

“When you need name by?”, the expert asked. “Tuesday latest,” the Nissan exec said. “Dat soon??”, said the expert, thinking he’d need more time to think it over. “OH! Excellent! We send check tomorrow!” And thus, the joke says, DAT-SOON (Datsun) was born.

In truth, the joke is only partly correct. Nissan executives chose the Datsun brand for overseas sales to distance themselves from memories of World War II military production, but the Datsun brand was not made up on the spot. It had a long history well before World War II, or even World War I.

And it could be a need for Nissan to distance itself, for opposite reasons, that the Nissan brand came back in 2013.

Datsun History

In 1914, Japan was an industrial powerhouse. Not as much of a player as the United States or England, but still far more advanced that most Asian countries at the time. Having been favored by European powers in the Sino-Japanese war of 1895 and a subsequent conflict with Russia, Japan started becoming a power of their own in the region.

In this environment, three Japanese businessmen started a car company. Their surnames were Den, Aoyama, and Takeuchi, and they called their company DAT (which also sounds like “to take off like a rabbit” in Japanese). This company and others it had merged with produced full sized cars for the Japanese public. In 1930, the Japanese government allowed people to drive cars under 500cc without a license, so they released a miniature version of the car, called the “son of DAT”, or, Datson. In 1934, Nissan purchased the DAT company, and they changed the name of the Datson to Datsun.

During the war with China that grew to become World War II, passenger cars were restricted. Most companies built trucks for the empire’s war effort, and then later for occupation forces, but eventually got back to building passenger cars for the public. After the war, Nissan called all of their passenger cars Datsuns.

Yutaka Katayama, aka “Mr. K”, is regarded by many Datsun/Nissan Z-car enthusiasts as the “father of the Z car”. Prior to becoming the head of Nissan in the United States, he struggled with the idea of working for a war company when he actually had wanted to sell passenger cars to the public. He felt that the Datsun name had maintained its purity by not being used on wartime machinery, and to him this seemed an obvious choice when the company wanted to distance itself from its wartime past.

Thus, due to a long history and the feelings of “Mr. K”, Datsun went to the United States and other world markets.

The End of Datsun and its Rebirth

Changes in corporate leadership eventually led to the Datsun name being dropped. After seeing other Japanese manufacturers rise to household names, Nissan wanted to have a stronger, unified global brand and simplify production. So, in 1981 the Datsun name was phased out and replaced with Nissan.

The Datsun brand laid dormant for decades. Owned by Nissan, it went unused in all markets. In 2013, Nissan leadership decided to bring back the Datsun name. But this time, it was only for cheap cars sold in developing countries. Places where you’ll see a Datsun driving around today include India, Indonesia, South Africa and Russia. Nissan says that it chose to bring the name back because it has a good reputation elsewhere for value and reliability.

And it would appear to have worked. Sales are booming in India.

The most common Datsun model on the roads today is the GO and its variants. While it probably doesn’t jog anybody’s memory of the original DAT and Datsun cars, the GO comes in three trim packages, the D, the A and the T. So Nissan, at least, hasn’t forgotten the history.

But what Nissan won’t advertise in other non-Datsun markets is just how cheaply made their Datsun models are. With 1.2L three-cylinder engines, no automatic transmissions, and compromised performance, these cars are made to avoid hitting already small pocketbooks too hard. Even worse, Global NCAP crash tests show that the vehicle suffers extreme structural failure, and earns a zero-star safety rating.

While this is purely speculation, the low quality of cars sold in developing countries might be the reason they chose to distance their Nissan brand in these markets. While Datsun was originally used in the U.S. to avoid a tarnished wartime name, Datsun might be in use this time to keep the Nissan name clean from bargain-basement “death traps” they sell in some places. Not only would they want their best shot at selling better cars there in the future, but they don’t want bad cars hurting their brand in developed places.

What do you think?

Are you a Datsun or Nissan fan? Do you own an old Datsun-branded vehicle? I’m curious to see what you think about the death and rebirth of the Datsun brand. Tell us about it in the comments!

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