Datsun Fairlady 1500 Helps Nissan Designer Stay In Touch With His Past
Photography by Andrew Golseth
Nissan is one of our favorite Japanese marques for many reasons, in large part because of the classic Datsun-branded lineup comprised of inexpensive, reliable, stylish, and (most importantly) fun as hell to drive vehicles. Back in Datsun’s heyday, it didn’t matter what you needed in an automobile, you could “DO IT IN A DATSUN” thanks to a complete motoring essentials lineup. Be it a GT sports car (240Z), a flickable family hauler (510), a sturdy pickup (620), or a traditional roadster (Fairlady), Datsun had you covered.
The mechanical and visual simplicities of old Datsuns are long gone, but behind the closed doors of Nissan design studios worldwide, enthusiasts, sculptors, innovators, and visionaries are implementing their talents into the future of the automobile. Like it or not, times are changing, but the people tasked with modern automobile design and development still infuse great enthusiasm into their work. To illustrate this, I sat down with Nissan designer John Sahs to ask about the industry, where it’s been, where it’s going, and of course what makes driving this fine Fairlady so special.
AG: John, when did this whole becoming an automotive designer idea take shape?
JS: Honestly, when I was younger I never thought of becoming a car designer. When I was a kid, I just really loved art. I loved drawing. It was my way of venturing into my creativity. Growing up, all my friends had toys, but my parents didn’t spoil me. So the only way I could really have the same experiences was through drawing things that I liked.
Art was a big thing when I was a kid like I said, and my dad was an aerospace engineer. He’s always loved cars, and when he was younger he had a couple of Corvettes—a ’62 and ’65, I believe. I grew up with him working on his cars, so I remember him always wrenching in the garage on his Ford 150 or Dodge. He had trucks too because he was always fixing the house and taking on other projects.
Anyway, on the weekends I’d go in the garage to see what he was up to, ask him what he was doing. He’d tell me, you know, “I’m just tuning up the carburetor,” or, “Changing the spark plugs and oil.” That’s when I started getting interested in the mechanical side of automobiles.
When I turned 16, my dad gave me my first car, a 1976 Dodge Dart. It was a peach color. It was previously my dad’s car for just getting around and it kind of became a father-son thing. At the time, all my friends were driving Preludes and Celicas, all these modern sporty-looking hatchbacks and stuff.
AG: And you had the big American car?
JS: [Laughs] Yeah, I had this big American car with a bench seat. I remember the headliner was torn and the foam inside got really brittle. Every time I’d go over a speed bump, “snowflakes” would fall on my head!
I’d get to school and people would ask, “What’s in your hair?” [Laughs] But one really cool thing about that car was it had so much space—when we’d go cruising to the beach or movies, all the girls would sit in my car because there was so much room. So, that was a plus.
So that was my first car, but the one that really got me into all this was a ’74 BMW 2002. My dad got me the manual to it and said, “This is your car, but you’ve got to work on it. You’ve got to pay for everything yourself, do everything and learn everything about this car, and you’ll save yourself a lot of money.”
So, that’s what I did. I learned how to do the basic maintenance to the car. I actually really enjoyed it too. It was kind of a zen feeling, you know? Where you get into the zone and you want to make sure everything is working properly so when you start it up, you get a sense of accomplishment.
AG: Certainly. Is this when the car designer dream came about?
JS: Well, I liked working on cars, but when I was reaching the end of my senior in high school, all my friends knew what they wanted to do, but I still hadn’t put it together—how to combine art and cars. I ended going to El Camino Community College in Torrance and started taking classes.
Initially, I majored in biology because, of course, I had an Asian mother who wanted me to become a doctor or a lawyer or whatever. So, I majored in biology and figured out real quick that’s not what I wanted to do with my life. I refocused on art and switched my major to graphic design.
Then a counselor tells me, “Hey, John. You know if you become a graphic designer, you’ve got to be in the top 3% because if you’re not, you’ll end up doing coupons for newspapers.” Obviously, that was a bit of a shock to hear. I certainly didn’t want to be doing coupons for the rest of my life!
AG: What’d you do to ensure that wasn’t going to be the case?
JS: I went to a technical advisory office in a different department, and I said, “I don’t really know how to apply my art skills.” They asked, “Have you heard of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena?” I hadn’t, but the counselor hands me a catalog and I start flipping through the pages. As soon as I saw these sketches of cars, these futuristic shapes, and all the modeling that they did, that was it.
When I saw that, I said, “I want to do this for the rest of my life.” That was my “Aha” moment, like someone hit me with a hammer, and I got this feeling of self-enlightenment, you know? I remember the words, “Shape the Future.” And that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to shape the future through cars.
AG: So, off to Pasadena?
JS: Well, not so fast. I applied to Art Center and got rejected because, it turns out, it’s one of the most prestigious schools for car designers—it’s very competitive. That was hard. It was a defining moment in my life.
I said, “Okay. Either I do this or I don’t.” I wanted it. So I enrolled in night classes at Art Center. It was called Introduction to Product and Transportation Design. Three months in the summer, I hunkered down, no more parties, no more going out with my friends, I even broke up with my girlfriend—sorry about that one, Melissa!
I knew this was my path. I went to night classes, got my portfolio together, applied, and got accepted. Though there are bound to be a lot of egos at a place like that, it’s funny because a lot of the students I went through this with end up being friends for life—like Franz von Holzhausen, who is now the VP of Design at Tesla, and Derek Jenkins, who just ventured from Volkswagen and now is working with Lucid. I even got to work with Chris Bangle on a sponsored project with Fiat—an Alfa Romeo 164 concept.
AG: What was that like?
JS: Chris gave me some great advice. I was confused with something and told him, “I don’t know what I want. I don’t know what you want, I don’t know what my teachers want, I don’t know what Fiat is looking for.” He tells me, “You know, in this business, you can’t be in the middle of the road. You’re in the left lane or the right lane. But if you’re in the middle of the road, you’re gonna get hit by a truck.”
Basically, he was telling me to make a decision. From that day on, I really honed in on what I wanted to do for projects, and this confidence has actually brought me lot of success. That was great experience working with Chris Bangle. Unfortunately though, I graduated in ’92 during an oil crisis when no car companies were hiring!
Basically, the worst time to graduate. Thankfully, my senior thesis got noticed.
AG: What did you end up creating?
JS: It was a project where I combined a car company and a product company. I chose Swatch, the Swiss watchmaker, because I felt they were very iconic, and sort of pop-arty. I wanted to capture that company’s brand image and combine it with Ford. My design was a one-seater electric vehicle, a futuristic delivery truck for Swatch products.
AG: What was the inspiration for that beyond the brand identities?
JS: A cappuccino machine, believe it or not. I made this really funky one-seater, cappuccino machine-inspired delivery vehicle. The funny thing about it was, which I didn’t know at the time, Mercedes-Benz executives were all over it. They said, “We love it. That’s weird.”
It turned out they were actually doing a secret project with Swatch, which I had no clue about, and they said, “Hey, John. We would like to offer you a job.” They were offering me a position to work out of their Japan-based studio.
My first choice was Nissan though. Mostly because when the 300ZX came out it was like a spaceship. Just super pure and clean. That car made such a strong impression, it made me want to work for Nissan. But when I graduated, Nissan was in a sort of a hiring freeze. It’s funny, the last company I wanted to work with was Mercedes.
AG: Why’s that?
JS: Well, I’d always imagined Mercedes as an old man’s car, for rich old men. But I accepted the job, packed two suitcases, and moved to Japan. I’d never been to Japan so I was super excited. I thought it was only going to be a two or three-year stint, but I ended up living in Japan for 19 years—from 1993 to 2012, with one year in between spent in Stuttgart.
AG: How’d the shift to Nissan happen?
JS: I got a phone call from a headhunter, asking if I’d be interested in working for a Japanese car company. Of course by this point I said, “No, I’m not interested because I work at Mercedes.” But when he said, “This Japanese car company is revitalizing their design team, their entire product portfolio. You might just want to consider taking an interview.”
So I went to the interview at the Ginza studio, honestly not all that interested. The interview was with Shiro Nakamura, who at the time was the chief designer of Nissan. This was when they were developing cars like the FX35/45, G35, 350Z, and Murano. Looking back, a lot of these have become iconic cars in one way or another.
The interview was going all right, but what really got me interested was when he said, “John, you know, you can stay at Mercedes-Benz and have a really good career, or you can join a company where you can be part of the change, where you can leave your fingerprint on the design, and really make a difference. We have 40 new cars coming out, and one of those 40 cars can be yours.”
AG: That’s what sold you on switching to Nissan?
JS: Yeah, that really stuck with me. It kind of took me back to my college days, the arts, and the 300ZX was the car that really influenced me, so I joined Nissan in 2000 and I’ve been with them ever since.
AG: Any favorite projects under the Nissan banner?
JS: Yeah, a couple really stand out. My first project was a show car, the GTR concept car. I designed the interior of the GTR concept, which was an amazing experience. I went to England, help build the prototype, and got to see it unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show. It’s an incredible feeling, accomplishing something like that. It was the flagship of Nissan. It sent a message to the world, “This is the new Nissan.”
Another memorable one was the third generation Nissan Cube. That was the most fun project I’ve ever had in my life. Because it’s not just a car, I took a more “my room” concept where it’s an extension of your house, which rings especially true in Japan where space is very limited.
The Cube ended up selling rather well globally, even in Europe. That was that point where I realized I finally applied my fingerprint at Nissan. They’re still selling them in Japan, which is crazy because it’s more than 10 years old now.
AG: Speaking of older cars, the Datsun Fairlady 1500—how’d this car enter your garage?
JS: When I moved back to San Diego to work at the La Jolla Nissan Design studio, my buddy Julian asked me, “What car are you going to get?” I wanted a classic but wasn’t sure which, I knew I just wanted something that fit my personality. I’m an outgoing person but at the same time a relaxed kind of guy.
My friend happened to find this Datsun through another friend. I saw the pictures and immediately thought, “Oh, this is it.” I didn’t even see the car in person, I just bought it and had it trailered down from Oregon to San Diego. It was love at first sight, I suppose. It’s an amazing, fun little car to drive.
I love the design, the front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout with the cabin set towards the rear axle. The proportions are traditional convertible sports car spec. Being a designer, proportions are the first thing you’ve got to get right, and they got it right with this.
Of course, they were inspired by the MGs of the era. What Nissan did was they made a more reliable MG, basically. I did some investigation work on how they came about with the name. The CEO of Nissan at the time saw a movie called “My Fair Lady.” He felt that name really fitted the car and would appeal to the American market. It was a sports car, but at the same time it had some class to it.
AG: It’s great fun to drive. Is it entirely original?
JS: It’s still got the original 1500 engine, though I had it rebuilt after blowing it up [Laughs]. A lot of people with 1500s upgrade to the later 1600 or 2000 model engines, but I wanted to keep this car correct to how it came. The only thing that’s not “right” is the five-speed. The car originally came with a four-speed, but I swapped it for better freeway driving.
AG: The color is just so right.
JS: It was a selling point. The color is called Sora, which means Sky in Japanese, which is of course what I named the car, Sora. This respray is a bit more vibrant though; the original color was a tad lighter.
And she had to have a name because she’s kind of my weekend mistress. I take her out for drives, we go have coffee with friends every weekend. My wife hates it! [Laughs] She never gets in the car. I took her once, and she was terrified.
AG: She didn’t like it?
JS: No. She didn’t like it at all. She thinks it’s too dangerous.
AG: I guess it isn’t for everyone. What’s your favorite thing about the Datsun though?
JS: Oh, man, just driving it. I love driving this car. You feel like you’re going 100 miles per hour when you’re really only going 45. And the sensation of really being a part of the car, when you’re shifting, turning, feeling every bump in the road, you’re connected.
Obviously, it’s not very fast but it’s got what I call “perky torque.” It’s very responsive when you stomp on the accelerator and the carbs make that throaty grumble, it’s just hard to beat that sound. The theater of driving this car with the steering wheel close to you, the location of the shifter, and the upright windshield with its panoramic view, it’s great.
AG: Plus, it’s easy on the eyes.
JS: Exactly. I love the details of it. The exposed hinges on the rear deck really capture the time in manufacturing. Another favorite piece is the instrument panel, which feels a bit like sitting in a Cessna cockpit with all the old dials and toggle switches. I love that. I love the mechanical feeling of that, when you’re flipping the switches for the light or the windshield wipers.
It’s just more satisfying to operate than a modern rocker switch. All the switchgear in modern cars, you push it but you’re not sure if it’s on or not, or engaging. But here, you feel the response, “Yes, I turned on the light,” or, “Yes, I turned it off.” It’s just cool.
I love the simple surface. It’s cute, but at the same time, when you really look at the body section, it’s got this very full shoulder that runs from the headlamp all the way to the rear. The lines are simple and clean. It’s got this chrome molding that goes from front to rear. Visually, that’s expansive, making it appear longer than it is.
People don’t realize how different these early 1500s are from the later 1600 and 2000 models. The body-to-window ratio is very unique because the 1500 has a shorter windscreen and a taller body. The next Datsun Fairlady models, the 1600 and 2000, their windshields were taller due to increased rollover protection—the beginning of the safety aspect of cars, which gives these earlier cars a slightly different character.
AG: Speaking of modern versus classic, do you have any frustrations about working in the auto industry in the modern age?
JS: I think every- our biggest challenge is working with the evolving regulations we get dealt every year from the Transportation Department. What happens is you have to meet these points to satisfy safety standards. All new cars have to be within the same dimensions. The pedestrian impact standards are the trickiest. There are all these points on the hood, bumpers, and fenders you have to meet.
Those are the challenges we face because we have to maintain character in the design as well. I wouldn’t call it a frustration, more of a challenge. I think designers are successful when they meet safety standards without losing their intent for the design. It’s always, “How can I keep my design intact and fulfill the requirements?”
The past is always important though no matter what we have to create now, and under which circumstances. That’s a big reason why I have this Datsun. To remind me of when I was a kid growing up, seeing my dad working on his car. Now I’m working on my own car. It’s got that connection to your past. There’s still a car culture with the younger generation, but it’s maybe not as abundant as it once was. When I grew up, cars were an expression of freedom.
I can get away; I can go anywhere I want in a car. But now with this [picks up iPhone], kids are connected to their phones and I think it’s how many “escape.” For most, cars aren’t used to disconnect anymore. It’s more of a “get me from point A to point B,” but there is still a percentage of kids out there that are into cars of course.
AG: The kind of kids reading this, admiring your Datsun. I mean, who wouldn’t smile at this car?
JS: It’s bright, it’s colorful, and it’s small. From kids in grade school to people in their senior years, everyone gives me a thumbs-up. For some reason, this car has a strong connection with people. I hear people all the time yelling stuff like, “Hey, I used to have one of those when I was in high school,” or, “Oh, I remember those.”
The kids love it because it’s different from modern cars. It has the round headlamps, the chrome bumpers, and it’s got these rear taillights that sort of look like afterburners. This car always seems to connect with people; it makes them smile and that’s great because I think it’s rare to see a car making people smile nowadays.