Words and photos by Vince Pornelos
Hidden from the public eye and tucked away in a place that you would need Google Maps to get to is a car museum unique in so many ways.
It’s not in the middle of a place of significant culture or history as all I can see around are the smokestacks of industry. No big name architect designed the building, instead it’s just painted concrete, steel I beams, and sheet metal roofing. Instead of soft music fit for lobbies, all you’ll hear are the screams of F-18 Super Hornet fighters from the nearby U.S. Naval Air Station. No fancy climate control systems or ornate displays, instead it’s just one car lined up one after the other, and each one tells a unique story of progress, innovation, passion and a drive to win.
The museum we’re at is the Nissan Heritage Collection, a massive gallery of more than 450 cars from Datsun, Prince, and Nissan spanning more than 8 decades.
The Nissan Heritage Collection is actually the private gallery of Nissan; meaning that unlike most museums, this collection isn’t fully open to the public in the sense that you can’t just arrive and view the cars. Visitors from the general public who wish to see the collection have to apply online for a slot and, once approved, can make the trip to Oppama, Japan.
Once they open that door, the first cars that greet you at the lobby are two of their proudest: the second generation Nissan Skyline GT-R (KPGC110) along with the Nissan Fairlady Z (S30). Walk a bit more into the main garage and you’ll realize why this place is special.
Lined up neatly, row upon row and column upon column are hundreds of Nissan cars from every decade of the company from the 1930s up to the present day. There were no audio guides as most museums do, but being that this is a factory garage, Nissan brought out their curators to take us through the story of their company.
Datsun’s early rabbit emblem wasn’t just a hood ornament, but a practical handle when hand cranking the engine.
The curators and specialists of the museum are actually retired career employees of Nissan, handling various aspects of the brand from engineering, testing, planning and more. The one assigned to our group used to be a product specialist for past Z cars; here they’re called Fairlady Z, but overseas we know them as the 240Z, 280Z, 300ZX, so on and so forth. One interesting tidbit he shared with us is the origin of the Fairlady name. Nissan used this because they intended the car to have such good handling and balance that you, the driver, can dance with her like you would a fair lady.
Much like a grandfather imparting knowledge on us “younglings”, our curator told us about the very earliest beginnings of Nissan, particularly how the company started out as DAT; an abbreviation for the surnames of three founders, namely Kenjiro Den, Rokuro Aoyama, and Meitaro Takeuchi. The company first made trucks and military vehicles, but in 1930 they came out with their first car and called it the “Datson” or “Son of DAT.” This was later changed to Datsun because “son” in Japanese means loss.
The first Datsun and the models that followed in its wake are on the left of the museum. An interesting tidbit is the hood emblem of these cars in the image of a rabbit; the reason for that is the word “datto”… it means fleeing rabbit. The emblem protrudes outward like the logo of Jaguar; curator tells us that it’s used by the driver as a handle to stabilize himself when hand-cranking the engine.
Eventually Datsun was acquired by Nissan. What’s interesting is that if the company followed the trend most of the Japanese automotive companies that have their names derived from the family name of their founder (Toyota – Kiichiro Toyoda, Honda – Soichiro Honda, etc.), then Nissan would be called Aikawa Motors. But such is not the case, as Yoshisuke Aikawa founded the company as Nihon Sangyo (literally: Japan Industries) or Nissan for short.
Look around and you can see the results of that effort, as the Zama garage will literally take you through the decades. From production cars that were made during the early 1930’s to the 90’s, from Datsun to the Sunny and the Skyline, to priceless examples such as the very car that their current Emperor drove when he was still a Prince, these can all be found in the collection. More importantly, you can clearly see the changes in tastes over the decades and how the designs have evolved.
They tell us that most of their collection are maintained in good working order; 70%, I believe, was the correct percentage of operable cars in their 450+ roster. Ideally, the curators want to keep 100% of the cars in their collection in working order, but it’s a tall task for their small but dedicated crew. Even for them -essentially a factory-backed team of sorts- the parts are getting challenging to acquire.
Really though, what I was personally looking forward to was seeing the collection of race cars from Nismo. Founded in 1984, Nismo or Nissan Motorsport, is the tuning arm of the company tasked with building parts and entire cars for racing. Incidentally as the Nismo Festival at Fuji Speedway concluded just a day prior, many of the race cars were being brought back into the garage, and most of these are Skyline GT-R’s of various generations that competed and won in the All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship (JGTC) and the Super GT.
All of Nissan’s most legendary racing cars are here. Over in one side are the Datsuns and Bluebirds that the company brought to the Australian cross country rally and the East Africa Safari Rally, most of which are from the 50’s to the late 60’s. Most of these early rally cars are preserved in “goal” condition, meaning they have all the battle scars from the Aussie outback and the African wild such as smashed fenders, body panels, rust, and the like when they crossed the finish line.
There were also plenty of sports prototype cars to see, including some of Nissan’s earliest competition cars like the maroon R380, the white R381, and the yellow R382. In the 80’s, Nissan competed very actively in various sports prototype championships such as IMSA GT, JSPC and WSPC with the R85V, R86V, R88C, and R89C in their signature blue, white and red colors. In the 90’s, Nissan continued their sports prototype activities, claiming the World Endurance Championship title at the 1992 Daytona 24 Hours. What was quite interesting in this collection was the R390 GT1 that took a podium spot at the 1998 24 Hours of Le Mans, as well as the R390 GT1 road version.
The best part is their gallery Skyline GT-R’s from the many championships that it took part in and most likely won. Most of the early ones raced in the 70’s in Super Silhouette guise, but what really drew our attention were the R32s, R33s, and R34s that competed in JTCC, JGTC, and Super GT. The Taisan R32 GT-R driven by Keiichi Tsuchiya and Kunimitsu Takahashi was there, along with the Xanavi Nismo R34 GT-R, the Xanavi Nismo Z, the Pennzoil R33 GT-R and R34 GT-R, and many other incredible machines. A unique R33 GT-R was the one entered in the 1996 Le Mans 24 Hours, and it was paired up with the one-off road legal version: the 1996 Skyline R33 GT-R LM Nismo. If you ever played Gran Turismo on the Sony Playstation, then Nissan’s Zama garage is candyland.
Our time inside this garage, however, was limited. With another group scheduled to come in, it was time for us to head back out and bid farewell to this incredible collection that represents one brand’s heart and soul.
From economical road cars to all-out racing cars, police cars, scarred rally machines and even a saloon that carried the Olympic torch, all can be seen at Nissan’s (semi) private garage.