Nobody was sure if Þorarinn Brynjar Kristjansson actually existed, but it didn’t matter. If you played Championship Manager on the PC, he was a god. An Icelandic striker who cost virtually nothing to ‘buy’, he was guaranteed to bang in the goals regardless which team you were in charge of. Link him up with wing service from Orri Freyr Óskarsson, a compatriot with equally dubious real-world credentials, and Raith Rovers, St Mirren, Chornomorets Odessa or whoever else would reach the Champions’ League final every season. The strange thing about Kristjansson (and Óskarsson) was that Championship Manager prided itself on realism. You played it because it was like ‘real life’. And yet, if it helped you win trophies, you quite happily entrusted yourself to a guy whose stats – and perhaps very existence – were created in an office in Milton Keynes.
Early versions of Gran Turismo were no different – expect that rather than Icelandic footballers, it was exotic Nissans that won you races. No-one in Europe gave two hoots as to whether or not a Bluebird Silhouette was a real thing, or if a Nismo GT-R LM had been invented by programmers over a coffee break. All that mattered was that they were bloody fast in digital form. Kazunori Yamauchi and team spent years perfecting their ‘Real Driving Simulator’, only for Western gamers to skoosh the opposition by launching over kerbs and skidding across the grass in what might as well have been 1,000bhp works of fiction.
Whilst I can’t avow for the footballing skills of Orri Freyr Óskarsson, I can report that all the Nissans I mercilessly exploited in Gran Turismo do exist. I know this because they are all sitting in a big warehouse in Zama, an anywhereland of convenience stores and used car lots and frighteningly low military patrol aircraft thundering overhead. Most of the old cars show obvious signs of having been either racing or in extensive service on the road. The time slot I have booked myself onto is coming to an end, so I am taking a few minutes to have a good look round a geometric 80s coupe the adjacent placard tells me is called a Gazelle. This is the best thing I have seen all morning, not because of its sporting pedigree – this one has none in spite of the mean vents and flared wheel arches – but because it has quite clearly been in an accident at some point. One of the fog lamps hangs down at a jaunty angle, the rubber trim does not even attempt to line up with the panel lines, and I can fit my thumb into the gap between the wing and bonnet. Were this an early episode of Top Gear, Quentin Wilson would be telling you to walk away. The collection of one of the world’s biggest motor manufacturers, one which prides itself on precision and reliability at that, contains a car that looks like it has been thrown back together after a prang.
I appreciate it is generally considered poor storytelling practice to put the best bit first, but in this case I believe it is warranted. For if I were to tell this story in linear order, it would sound all too predictable and derivative. It would read, well, like visiting a Japanese car factory. I arrive at the Nissan Zama Operations Centre, where an air-conditioned people carrier is waiting to take me and the one other foot pedestrian here for the tour on the three-minute drive round to the museum warehouse. Pride of place in the entrance hallway goes to a split-new all-electric Leaf and an immaculate ‘Ken and Mary’ GT-R, the latter of which is worth well into six figures. We are shepherded into an auditorium for an introductory video, a fifteen-minute explanation of how road car technology utilised the world over is developed and trialled – all right here in Zama! The group is then split into two, each team assigned one of two young women in matching white two-piece suits who guide us through a walkround of the cars, stopping frequently to dispense morsels of information without needing so much as a glance at the giant ringbinders of tour instructions they carry.
You get the idea. A hugely informative tour – even a nerd like me learned a hell of a lot from it – but slick. Precise. It does not lend the impression of a place where I might expect to find, say, my mate’s sticker on one of the cars. And yet. Folk must wonder why on earth the foreign chap is chuckling so much at the red rally Fairlady, but without exaggeration the very first thing I notice when the formal component of the visit ends is a vinyl on the front wing of a car once driven by Hideaki ‘Mad Dog’ Miyoshi advertising K’s Factory – a small rally preparation business belonging to my friend Kazuya Suzuki from Nagano. Just metres from the most recent top-level GT racers bearing the Nismo name into which Nissan is pouring millions to create a global brand, here’s a car run by a three-person workshop from way up in the mountains.
It is through such small details, however, that automotive history happens – and the Nissan Heritage Collection takes on a whole new dimension when one has the opportunity to get up close to the cars, to look at how the headline news was made. “Over there are some rally cars, have a look later if you are interested.” Our guide keeps us moving past a small cul-de-sac filled with twisted red metal, like the lady of the house in an Edwardian horror drama warning guests away from the North Wing by omission. I of course head straight back here when the group breaks to be met with some monstrously deformed creations. Muddy, rusty, mangled, weatherbeaten – these are no longer machines produced by humans, but almost semi-organic beings created by the forces of nature. A line of 240Zs, a mutant strain of the sun-drenched Californian cruiser image most of us keep in our minds. Mud, baked on by the sun, has permanently turned the gleaming red paintwork of one of them a deep matt mauve. The front wing has been torn clean off another, rusty shards of metal hanging off the remaining chassis frame. It seems to have been rolled and buckled out of all proportion. Nearby is a Violet coupe with sponsor logos painted on at such low priority one can see the individual brushstrokes, and a front valance retaining the structural integrity of filo pastry. Rust weeps out of the joins of a Silvia, which at some point in the past may have been white before the paintwork cracked into a million pieces.
But these cars are among the most significant and successful in the history of Nissan – or, for the greater part, Datsun. They represent an era when drivers like Shekhar Mehta and Edgar Herrmann bossed rallies on the African continent, winning seven times on the Safari Rally in east Africa and four times in Côte d’Ivoire. These rallies were not won through speed. They were won because the cars could take it. The damage is testimony to the strain the Safari Rally places on machinery and crews, showing just how tough it was to succeed there. Yes, we won, but look what broke along the way, look how many times we had to try before we got it right.
Across the way neat aisles of road cars span the entire history of the corporation, starting with little Datsuns with brass rabbits atop the radiator and covering a complete role reversal from producing British-designed Austins under licence after World War II through to paying a workforce in post-coal Sunderland to assemble Bluebirds and Primeras developed in Japan. If there isn’t an example of every model ever made here then it can’t be far off, hundreds of saloons, coupes, wagons and hatchbacks parked back-to back, noses pointing outwards. With so much to see there is little time to linger, but I notice there is one vehicle everyone stops to take a picture of – a grubby red 1980s Nissan Laurel. Eschewing the shiny cars either side, people point their cameras at the flaking badge, get close ups of the mottled chrome or rusty wheels. Its filthiness is a draw in its own right. The open inside of a nearby Prairie people carrier is getting a lot of attention too, but rather than marveling at the lack of the B-pillar or ease of access the guide pointed out earlier on, star attraction seems to be the mysterious dark stains on the grey cloth trim. How did these cars get dirty? What did they do? Why are they here?
The answer is partly to do with the fact that whilst Nissan themselves have kept a lot of machines for posterity, a fair few of the vehicles also come their way through owners’ clubs or individuals. That funny-looking R30 Skyline with Cibie lamps and headlight protectors didn’t leave the factory like that – it was donated by a chap who had driven it all the way round Australia. One of the Bluebirds is on plates from Nara – a good two hundred miles southwest – because that’s where the donor lived. In the auction house or in the classic car magazine such patina can mark the value of a car down, but in a collection like this it proves the car has been used, that a person has engaged with it in one form or another.
All this musing about the true meaning of dust is great, but it has eaten into my time. There are fifteen minutes left, and all I have to show for my efforts are a lot of close-ups of bits of dirty old Datsuns. At the very least I want to look through the extensive racing car collection, to see if the cars from Gran Turismo are indeed real. Sure enough, there’s the Nismo GT-R LM, which someone on the internet boasts they managed to get up to 480mph. There’s the solitary road-legal R390, which every Gran Turismo player sold right away to free up funds but in the real-world served the rather more earnest purpose of ensuring Nissan met the Le Mans criteria at the time of having one – just one single – road-legal chassis from which the race car was derived. There must be at least a dozen racing Skyline GT-Rs, their branding and liveries familiar even if their precise achievements remain an enigma – bright blue Calsonic, yellow Pennzoil, scarlet and chrome Xanavi, red and black Taisan Advan. There are eighties domestic specials, Bluebirds, Silvias and Micras – yes, a Micra – on steroids. Group C sports cars. A Can-Am racer. GT3 contenders. LMP2 endurance stars. All of it crammed in and no time to step away from the notebook and look. My vision descends into a blur of blue, white and red, of spoilers and tyres and exhaust pipes and more spoilers.
There is just too much to take in. I cope by focusing on the details. The paint chips on the boot catch of the 1999 Japan GT Championship-winning Skyline. The squint sunstrip riddled with air bubbles on a Super Silhouette racer. And then there are all the ‘ordinary’ cars there hasn’t been time to look at. There are vehicles here that have been part of Big History, like the gold-trimmed black saloons commissioned for the various delegations at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics or the Crown Prince’s personal car, but I would far rather spend a good twenty minutes poring over each of the regal seventies sedans. How did that ‘E’ in CEDRIC on the boot lid get knocked out of line? What precise research process did the designers of the Gloria go through to bring together all those European and American cues? Who even designed these big curvy cars, and when did it ever seem like a good idea to replace them with chest freezers on wheels in the mid-eighties? In the end, most of my memory of the morning is from the chest downwards, craning and crouching to look at stuff. Punch drunkenness sets in. I vaguely recall becoming fixated on the faded stripe on the side of a minivan before it is time to leave.
But what do my learnings from the morning have to do with Icelandic footballers and make-believe racing cars? The preceding paragraphs are a roundabout way of saying that by extending the remit of their Heritage Collection to the preservation of historical accumulations of dirt, imperfection and body damage, Nissan has, intentionally or otherwise, built in something crucial – authenticity. There are thousands of pristine examples of racing cars from all manufacturers the world over, many of which are in perfect condition for the simple reason that they have never been driven competitively. Some of them may even never have been fitted with a racing engine. Show cars don’t have bent wings or wonky stickers, because they never to have the opportunity to get damaged. For road cars too, repairs and alterations signify these are cars that have been places, done stuff, contributed in some small way to the course of history. I am too young to remember the Group C era, but why else would the nose of that R85V be shot to pieces if not from pounding down the Mulsanne Straight for a full weekend? It wasn’t just me on my PlayStation bumping off the walls and other cars in the SuperGT Skylines, that big crack across the front bumper means someone must have done similar in real life too.
Before I leave I am given a lime green pen that will not open properly and asked to fill in a questionnaire. Straight after a warm-up question comes the litmus test. ‘Do you drive a Nissan? If yes go to Question 2, if no go to Question 3’. Questions 2 and 3 look remarkably similar, both wanting to know why I do or do not drive a Nissan. Each has the same choice of boxes to tick. Price, reliability, performance, safety, style, trustworthiness. With the possible exception of price (which is a factor of everything else), claims to all of these attributes are grown through history, be it on the racetrack, the rally stage, or the road. All of this, then – the tours, the badges we are given as souvenirs, the old cars being shipped out to showrooms on short-term loans – is about building a brand. Car manufacturers do not preserve their history and show it to the public out of pure altruism – sure, there has to be some genuine enthusiasm in there, but ultimately this is as much part of building the story of Nissan as a progressive and innovative brand as the social media-fuelled adventure that has exploded over the last weeks and months as Nissan prepares for its factory return to Le Mans. Central to this exercise, proof that the story being told is indeed real, are the cars themselves. If they have some battle scars for added authenticity, then all the better. And if enthusiasts get to see some fantastic stuff along the way as a result, then even better still.
By the way, Þorarinn Brynjar Kristjansson was a real footballer. He signed for Aberdeen, and turned out to be hopeless.