Nissan Couldn’t Have Sold The Skyline Without Paul Newman
You may think that having Hollywood star Paul Newman appear in Nissan Skyline commercials was a “no-brainer” decision, or as simple as sending a duffel bag of cash to the actor, but the reality is far more interesting. Why? We probably wouldn’t have had the “New-man” Skyline if it wasn’t for “Ken & Mary” Skyline.
As the car industry matured and geographically diverse carmakers learned from competitors, everywhere, the Japanese automakers looked to the West for more than just vehicle styling or powertrain technology. This was true for the vehicles they exported or built abroad, but also for the ones intended to stay within Asia.
Spend enough time on YouTube and a pattern emerges: the more progressive car commercials in Japan seemed to ape American advertisements in combining a series of similar spots together in order to sell a lifestyle. The most successful of those campaigns, by a huge margin, were the ones for the C110 “Kenmeri” Skyline.
Watch the commercials today, and you may wonder: “How the hell did these sell cars?”
The appeal of luxurious, fun-loving personal coupés flourished in many places during the ’70s, and here, Nissan had a young and attractive couple exploring Japan in its latest and greatest coupé. Turns out that a doting theme tune, a very pretty Skyline 2000GTX Coupé, and a pair of “lovers” were the perfect combination: the ads were a sensation in Japan. In an interview with “Mary”, played by Diane Krey, Hemmings noted that she was one of the most recognizable people in the country.
Funny: neither Ken nor Mary were old enough to drive when filming kicked off.
The company didn’t just film television commercials and leave it at that, either: the couple was featured in much of the advertising for the models. But the time the car evolved from the C110 into the C210, Ken and Mary were long gone and the Skyline had lost some luster. Someone at the company headquarters must have wondered aloud: “If we achieved such success with two unknown actors, what would happen if we used a celebrity?”
The “New-Man” Nissan Skyline was born—but not in a marketing meeting. It’d really been born years earlier in America. Paul Newman, the actor-turned-racer and Nissan naturally fell into the same orbit thanks to Bob Sharp, the racing driver and team owner who got Newman into racing to begin with. Sharp’s philosophy—given that he also had a Datsun dealership—was that racing sold cars. In the case of his dealership, it was true to the tune of a few thousand cars per year.
Once Nissan had a star actor like Newman racing its cars in America through the ’70s and into the ’80s, it was a natural fit to cast him as the lead in a campaign to launch the company’s most ambitious Skyline yet. You may love the R30 and DR30 Skyline because of its insane Group 5 heritage or because so many were turned into Bōsōzoku-styled customs, but normal Skylines for normal people were sold thanks to the handsome charm of Hollywood star Paul Newman.
There were more than 25 Skyline variants, with roughly 100,000 sold over each of its four years in production, but as with Ken and Mary, Japanese automakers tend to plaster their spokespeople on all marketing materials. There aren’t just Paul Newman TV commercials and magazine advertisements, no. There are Paul Newman stickers, Paul Newman cassette tape box sets, and even a “Paul Newman Version” special edition in 1983—complete with his signature on its flanks and embroidered into its seats.
For me, at least, I think it’s neat that both Newman and Nissan had a mutually beneficial relationship that went far beyond the sugary brochures and TV advertisements. Though many of its drivers probably had little idea how deep that partnership ran, it’s nice to know that underneath the mountain of marketing, the “New-Man” Skyline was authentically so.