Memory Lane: Visiting the Nissan North America Heritage Collection Part 1 (with video)


Back in October of last year I was given the privilege of visiting Nissan North America's head offices as well as seeing their heritage collection that's closed off to the public. Needless to say it was an amazing experience for a lifelong fan of Nissan's cars like me and I've been wanting to share it with all you readers for a while now. Unfortunately since the trip I've been busy with one thing or another – or more like one car or motorcycle or another – so it's taken some time to put all the photos and video I took in a presentable fashion.

The trip started because I had originally scheduled some time off work in the hope that foreign destinations would have reopened by then. Sadly when the time came both my old home of the Philippines and the wonderful land of Nippon were still not letting in any filthy foreigners just so they could gallivant around, take bad selfies, buy tacky souvenirs, and infect the local populations with their cooties.

Rather than let my precious vacation time go to waste I scrambled for an alternative and decided to use some of it to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway. If you've perhaps never heard of the BRP it's 469 miles of asphalt that snakes its way from Virginia to Tennessee through some of the most scenic countryside you'll see this side of a Bob Ross painting. And it's even prettier in the autumn when all the trees decide green is so last season and erupt in a riot of reds and yellows and just a hint of orange.

To cram in as much cool stuff as possible I decided to start my trip in Norfolk, Virginia where one of the top naval museums in the country, Nauticus, was located alongside the USS Wisconsin – 60,000 tons of American steel directed to the purpose of hurling democracy to whoever needs it in the form of a 16-inch naval bombardment.

Then I drove out to Shenandoah National Park where I did a bit of hiking but mostly wanted to hit up Skyline Drive – for obvious reasons. Too bad I was in a rental Kia Soul instead of an actual Nissan Skyline but one does what he can with what he has.

The next couple of days would be spent meandering down the Blue Ridge Parkway until I hit the end and drove through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, grabbed lunch in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and then finally made it to my ultimate destination of Nashville.

Just southwest of “Music City, USA” is Franklin, Tennessee where Nissan moved its North American headquarters back in 2005 from its earlier location in the expensive real estate and business environment of California. Since I'd been to Nissan Global headquarters in Yokohama, Japan I was very interested to visit its American counterpart if I ever got the chance. During my first trip to Nissan HQ in 2017 I also got to check out the company's heritage collection at the Zama facility in Yokohama but I knew Nissan North American had its own smaller version back here in the US. Die-hard Nissan nerd that I am I desperately wanted to see that too so I reached out to the company.

Luckily for me Nissan NA responded back saying they would be able to accommodate me and let me see the collection. It turned out to be a very fortunate thing too that I was able to contact them first. I knew from previous trips that Nissan Global HQ in Japan has a large entrance hall that's open to the public - the photo that I took in 2017 gives you an idea what it's like. Since I wasn't sure at first that I would be able to see the Nissan heritage collection on this trip – especially since COVID hadn't run its course – I figured I could at least visit Nissan NA HQ and check out what areas were open to an ordinary schlub off the street - well, an ordinary schlub with a crazy obsession for all things Nissan.

As it turns out, there are no areas at Nissan North America HQ that are for general public access. Well, okay, the outside grounds aren't fenced off, mined, and patrolled by Rottweilers with frickin' laser beams but once you enter the building itself you're immediately confronted by a set of security turnstiles. Over to one side you have a reception desk but unless you have business with someone at the headquarters no amount of pleading will get the nice lady there to lend you that all-important visitor badge so you can sashay into the inner sanctum.

Why is that? Simply because there are all sorts of important big business-type goings-on happening all throughout the building from product planning sessions, to design and engineering meetings, to presentations of new models to VIPs and dealership reps, and all the way to the all-important Thursday catered Chick-Fil-A lunch at the cafeteria. Can't have just any rando walk off the street and take spy shots of the next generation GT-R in one of the basement product vaults while munching on some crunchy chicken goodness amirite?

Okay, it was kinda disappointing that Nissan NA didn't see fit to put a public guest hall in the middle of the building to show off the company's wares especially since there was an area right there for doing so (only cordoned off by the aforementioned security turnstiles). Can you blame them though? I mean, Franklin, Tennessee isn't exactly a swinging tourist hotspot like Yokohama, Japan. Yokohama has the Nissin CupNoodles Museum after all to really rake in the crowds! What does Franklin have to match up to that? A stack of old cannonballs at the former site of a Pizza Hut, that's what!

All kidding aside, I think the contrast between the large public area of Nissan Global HQ and the lack of such at Nissan NA just speaks to different corporate and national cultures. Large American companies simply are more focused on keeping their business campuses secure and aimed strictly on company concerns than their Japanese versions. Understandable even if it is a bit of a downer if you're a fan of said company.

In any case, lucky me at least had the blessing of Nissan corporate that day so I was able to whoosh past the turnstiles and check out more of the building.

As I hinted at earlier, just past the turnstiles is a display area where a rotating selection of Nissan's products is situated. During my visit it was the recently-released all-new 2022 Frontier pickup being shown off. There were three brand new ones in various trims accompanied by a sweet classic Nissan Hardbody race truck as a link to the company's long history of making awesome pickups.

Off to the right side of the display was a room that looked distinctly like it had been set up as a merchandise store. It was empty of any goods but the shelving and signage clearly indicated its function. My guide explained that it indeed used to be a store for Nissan merch but that it was intended only for employees and wasn't currently functioning. That dashed any hopes I had that day of adding to my collection of cute Nissan teddy bear keychains that I started in Yokohama. Wait, did I say cute teddy bears? I totally meant to say my collection of MANLY Nissan carabiner keychains. Yup, no stuffed animals here, no sir!

After letting me have my fill of taking photos of the main hall my guide then made me pinky swear to put away all my cameras as he led me down into one of the product halls that are totally, absolutely, most definitely, and very assuredly not open to anyone who doesn't know the secret handshake.

Silly me was secretly hoping I'd be greeted by an R36 GT-R prototype with active aero, 800 horsepower twin-turbo V6 with an additional 300 hp from a tri-motor electric setup and KERS system, thought control steering, and Brie Larson behind the wheel but sadly that wasn't the case.

Seeing the Z Proto and all-new Ariya electric crossover for real wasn't a bad alternative though – and the ladies at the check-in desk were very pretty in their own right so that kinda made up for the lack of Ms. Larson.

As I said, I pinky swore not to take photos so have these press pics from Nissan instead and just imagine you're in the secret basement of a big corporate headquarters.

The new Z and Ariya weren't the only cool cars there. A mint Z32 300ZX was there looking gorgeous in it's factory original black paint as well as a new Nismo R35 plus an older sibling – the only Japanese-spec car in the Nissan NA heritage collection: a JDM 2008 GT-R that was brought over for promotional purposes when the R35 first launched in the US and left-hand drive models weren't available yet. Again, sadly I have no photos to share but rest assured the privilege of being down there was worth my vow of non-picture taking.

After coming back up to ground level it was getting around lunch time so my guide said farewell until the afternoon when we'd meet up again at the Lane Motor Museum where the heritage collection was stored.

Before I get into the Nissan NA heritage collection I should say something about the Lane Motor Museum because if you're a dedicated gearhead you owe it to yourself to swing by if you're ever in the vicinity.

While there are a lot of great car museums in the US the Lane sets itself apart in the quirkiness of its collection. Instead of mainly focusing on vehicles of mainstream historical significance the Lane's collection is much more esoteric and is populated mostly by the oddities of the automotive ecosystem. What other automotive museum can boast of having an example of the world's smallest production car – the barely four-foot long Peel P50 made (somewhat) famous by Top Gear – as well as a 100 ton LARC-LX, the largest wheeled amphibious vehicle ever deployed by the US military?

In between those extremes you've got examples of fabric-covered cars, propeller-driven cars, amphibious cars, and of course, something no collection of automotive weirdness can be without: French cars.

Describing all the cool stuff in the Lane collection would take a whole other article or five so we'll move on and get to the main topic of this post.

Although the Nissan North America heritage collection happens to be housed at the Lane Motor Museum it's not part of the museum's own catalogue and isn't on display to the public. While some members of the collection might be brought out for exhibit from time to time – like this 300ZX Indy 500 pace car that was part of the open-wheel racing display – most of it usually remains secured in a separate section of the museum's large basement storage area.

On the way to that storage area my guide pointed out a few interesting Nissans that had made their way to the museum's own collection.

At the Zama facility in Yokohama the heritage collection is housed behind this snazzy red door that proudly proclaims that you've arrived at the “Nissan DNA Garage”.

The door for the North American heritage collection is far more unassuming – just a bare wooden door without even any sign indicating the treasures stored behind it.

Comparing the Nissan NA heritage collection to the one at Zama isn't really fair though since the latter is the repository for Nissan's history on a global scale. Naturally the mothership is going to want all the coolest stuff for its own catalog including some of the most significant cars from North America like the 1985 IMSA GTP championship-winning GTP ZX-Turbo or the R91CP that claimed the 1992 24 Hours of Daytona victory. Being a Japanese company it's also only logical that many of the roadgoing models that end up in North America are first developed and sold in their home market of Japan.

Nissan has such a long history in the North American market though that there's still plenty to admire in the regional collection.

Before we get into any individual cars however, let's talk about the feel of the collection itself which is something that really struck me right away about it.

When you first enter the storage room for the NA heritage collection you notice all the cars right away of course but then you also notice all the memorabilia located all around. There are posters everywhere, signage from various events, stacks of books and promotional literature, award ribbons, and a few signs talking about certain cars. They're all over the place and are arranged somewhat orderly but not with the level of fastidiousness you'd see in a proper exhibit. No, the collection isn't a museum (which is a shame since Nissan deserves one) but it has its own wonderful charm in that it feels more like you're visiting a friend's garage rather than some sort of institution. Granted, it would be a friend with lots of money but it just feels like its a collection of someone who's a true fan of the brand rather than a sterile, meticulously curated presentation.

That shouldn't be a surprise though when you learn that even though the NA heritage collection is owned by the company its upkeep is primarily handled on a volunteer basis by a small group of employees. Yes, that's correct, even though Nissan corporate allots money to maintain the collection a lot of the effort that goes into caring for the cars and restoring ones that need work is done strictly through off-the-clock work by passionate employees.

As a diehard Nissan fan who's spent the past 6 years or so restoring my once-neglected Nismo R32 and accumulating my own little hoard of memorabilia it's awesome to see that the heritage collection is as much a labor of love as it is a part of company business. If you're reading this blog you're probably a passionate gearhead as well who knows the experience of sweating away hours working on a beloved vehicle so let's all give massive props to the team at Nissan NA for their efforts!

So, what all is in the collection? Well, let's start at the beginning with the oldest cars in the collection.

The lovely little red convertible you see here is a 1961 Datsun Sport SPL213. This car is significant both for being the direct ancestor of the now legendary Z cars and for being the first sports cars sold by Nissan in the US. In fact, the first Datsun Sports debuted in Japan just 2 years earlier as the S211 but this second generation was specifically designed with the US market in mind – the L in the model number actually means “left-hand drive”. The Sport was actually first sold in 1960 as the SPL212, a year before this car in the North American collection and that model was the first car to be named as the “Fairlady”. 

Interestingly the Japanese collection has one of those original 1960 cars, and yes, it's left-hand drive since they were only sold in North America. The little roadsters were actually based on the Datsun 223 pickup truck of the time and shared a 1.2 liter inline four motor. Humble as those beginnings might be the engine's 60 horsepower had only 1958 pounds to push around. Only around 500 of both the 212 and 213 were ever made so these are very rare cars indeed.

If the cute little four-door box beside the Datsun Sport looks a little familiar it may be because you've seen it on Jay Leno's Garage. Back in 2018 he did a feature on the NA heritage collection where he got to drive this very Datsun 1200 sedan. Dating back to 1960 this was the first model officially sold under the new US subsidiary of Nissan Motors. While small numbers of the 1200's predecessor, the 1000, were sold in the country starting in 1958, Nissan didn't have an official US division yet. Two years later Nissan Motor Corporation USA was officially founded in Gardena, California and headed by a certain Yutaka Katayama a.k.a. the legendary Mr. K who's considered the father of the Nissan Z. From selling just 146 of the Datsun 1000 since 1958 the 1200 would go on to sell 1318 units – not earth-shaking numbers but a proper beginning in a country still enamored by massive, gas-guzzling Detroit iron. Also based on a Datsun pickup truck like the Datsun Sport I mentioned earlier, the 1200 makes do with just 47 horsepower – all of which worked hard to kick off Nissan's proper entry into the US market.

This next car made an even bigger impact on Nissan's standing in the US market: a Datsun SPL311, or more commonly known as the “Roadster”. Before this car only the Europeans were considered proper sources for a lightweight 2-seat sports car. By marrying a 95 horsepower 1.6 liter four-banger to a lightweight chassis with independent front suspension the SPL311 put the world on notice that Japan was gunning for the category dominated by makes like Lotus, MG, Alfa Romeo and so on. Debuting in 1965, the Roadster would go on to make a name for itself in SCCA racing and marked the beginning of Nissan being considered a maker of performance cars.

The car right beside the Roadster is one that's mostly been forgotten but deserves recognition by anyone who's heard the words “S-chassis” and associates it with 240SX's wildly hurtling sideways in huge plumes of tire smoke. That car is the S10 200SX, first sold in the US in 1977. While the first generation Nissan Silvia was a hand-built, expensive boutique coupe of which only 600ish were made, the succeeding S10 was the first proper mass-production Silvia. It also introduced the “S” chassis numbering that begat the S13, S14, and S15 that still induce lust in JDM car fans today. The S10 though was a far cry from the legendary drift and circuit beasts its descendants became – with only 90 hp and a leaf-spring, live axle rear suspension it wasn't exactly set up to set your pants on fire hence it's little-known status today; unlike the cars just past it in the collection.

The Datsun 510 needs little introduction to well-versed import fans. Although not quite as legendary as the GT-R or Z, this is one of the cars that certainly put Nissan on the automotive map when it was introduced in 1968. The sedan version in particular had four-wheel independent suspension, unlike the live-axle rear of the 200SX and the 510 wagon. This, coupled with a capable 96 horsepower engine, rear-wheel drive, and front disc brakes took the 510 to numerous SCCA Trans-Am victories as well as rally wins overseas and helped bolster Nissan's rep for affordable performance cars.

Another humble but important car is tucked in the corner past the 510s – a 1971 Datsun 1200 coupe. Known as the Sunny in Japan, this car was the ancestor to the Sentra as Nissan's entry-level car to compete with the popular Toyota Corolla. Back then though even the entry-level cars were rear-wheel drive and the 1200 was capable enough that it snagged its own share of racing victories overseas though it didn't quite reach the same exalted status as the 510.

In front of the 1200 is something that might seem totally out of place in a collection of historic Nissans if it weren't painted in the iconic Brock Racing Enterprises colors. BRE is legendary in Nissan history after taking on the established European sports car marques first in the Datsun Roadster then later on with the 240Z and 510 and scoring numerous victories along the way. In 2018, Nissan was the featured marque at the Monterey Historics and to help commemorate Peter Brock's massive contribution to the company's history two of these special mopeds were made in his team colors. One was given to the man himself, and the other resides in the Heritage Collection as you can see here.

Many, many more vehicles reside in the Heritage Collection but we can't possibly cover them all in just one article so I think I'll end this one here for now. Please be sure to come back though because we've still got some really, really cool stuff left to cover ranging from cool concept cars, to more historic mass-market models, all the way to some serious racing machinery. If you want to get a quick overview of the rest of the collection while waiting for future posts then please enjoy this video from the Youtube channel:

Until next time, drive safe as always everybody!