The unlikeliest of brawlers, a little burgundy-coloured Datsun sits at the front of a row of racing cars, its hood bearing a hand-painted Mt. Fuji, its right fender badly crumpled. This is a 1958 Datsun 210, its tiny four-cylinder engine not quite capable of producing 35hp, and yet it is a champion.
From August to September, 1958, this car was one of two that battled for 16,000 kilometres around Australia in the Mobilgas Trials – one was named “Fuji,” the other “Sakura,” after the cherry-blossom tree. Heading the team was none other than Yutaka Katayama, the father of the Datsun 510 and 240Z. When the upstart Datsun won the rally, it was the first overseas motorsports victory for a Japanese company, and the genesis of Nissan’s racing division.
Nismo, for Nissan Motorsport, celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. The brand is not particularly well-known outside of Japan, but did you know Nismo has its own streaming video channel and its own annual festival? That it operates a completely separate headquarters in Yokohama? And offers a hopped-up version of pretty much everything Nissan makes in Japan?
As with BMW’s M Division or Mercedes-Benz’s AMG, Nismo is more than merely a tuning division. Canadian Nissan enthusiasts can buy a Nismo version of the 370Z or Sentra, or a track-focused version of the GT-R with special Nismo-tuned suspension. Further, Nismo go-fast parts have been available through Nissan dealers for ages.
While Nismo officially opened its doors in 1984, its first president was one of the drivers of that original 1958 Datsun 1000. Yasuhara Namba oversaw the joining up of Nissan Japan’s two motorsports-oriented divisions, the Omori factory team and the Oppama privateer racing support facility. The Omori team had an enviable reputation, having taken the original “Hakosuka” Skyline GT-R and 240Z to numerous victories, so the new facility was located in Omori, a neighbourhood of Tokyo.
Today, the Nismo factory is located in Tsurumi, closer to Nissan’s Yokohama global headquarters. Even so, fans still refer to it as the Omori factory. Up front, there’s a small public museum, while a glass wall lets visitors peer in at multiple generations of Skylines and Zs being tuned to perfection.
From a racing perspective, Nismo is responsible for some of the wildest machines to ever come out of Japan. The 1998 R390 GT1, for instance, is a one-of-one homologation special with a twin-turbo V8 mounted amidships. Capable of a top speed north of 320 km/h, it carried a price tag of $1-million, but was never sold to the public.
Then, there’s the R34 Skyline GT-R Z-tune. Handmade from carbon fibre, each of these featured a 2.8L inline-six tuned to the same 500hp as the Super GT racing equivalents. Only 19 were made, and each would now fetch at least a half-million dollars if you could find one, making them the rarest and most expensive GT-R.
However, while Nismo will happily provide engineers to consult with customers with deep pockets, the company primarily exists to race and win. During the 1980s, it was the R32 Skyline that carried the banner, dominating Australian touring-car racing to the point that a reporter dubbed it “Godzilla.”
At the same time, Nismo jousted at the highest levels of endurance racing, building outrageous prototypes to compete at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and elsewhere. In 1999, a Nissan Primera (essentially the Infiniti G20) won the tightly contested British Touring Car Championship. Nismo GT-Rs still go toe-to-toe with Acura NSXs and Lexus LC500s at the highest level of Japanese racing, Super GT. There’s even a Nismo Leaf electric racing car.
Show up at a racing day pretty much anywhere on the planet, and chances are there’d be a few Nismo parts under somebody’s hood. In fact, Canada’s home-grown Micra Cup, one of the most enjoyable low-budget racing series around, employs Micras fitted with Nismo-tuned suspension.
So-tuned, the Micra is perhaps the true heir to the Datsun 210's first plucky efforts. It's cheap and cheerful and punches far above its bantamweight fighting category.
As crossovers become the backbone of Nissan’s lineup, I’d love to see Nismo work their wizardry on the Juke, the Qashqai and the Rogue. A little sprinkling of cherry-blossom magic might be just the thing to liven up your everyday commute.
Power trip: The genius of the Nismo S Note variant
Apart from specialist microcars, the Nissan Note is the bestselling vehicle in Japan. It’s easy to see why: The Note (sold here as the Versa Note) is a practical hatchback with plenty of passenger room and several efficient engine options. Here’s one you weren’t expecting.
First, take Nissan's relatively straightforward e-Power technology, a hybrid setup that moves the internal combustion further down the rung of importance. All motive power is provided by an electric motor, with a gasoline engine recharging the batteries when needed. As with a normal hybrid, regenerative brakes recapture energy, but you don't plug in an e-Power vehicle, you fill it up at a gas station.
In the case of the Nismo S variant of the Note e-Power, the drivetrain out of a Nissan Leaf has been reworked to provide 134hp and 236 lb-ft of torque, the latter immediately available the moment you stomp the accelerator pedal. Using a smaller battery pack means the Note Nismo weighs approximately 1250 kilograms, about 125 kg heavier than a Versa Note equipped with the continuously variable transmission.
Despite the weight, more than double the torque on tap means the Nismo Note scoots forward with jackrabbit speed. Top-end acceleration at highway speeds isn’t as immediately impressive, but as a vehicle for dealing with the cut-and-thrust of Tokyo traffic, the only thing better would be an electric scooter.
Get it out on one of Japan’s notoriously narrow touge mountain roads, and the Nismo suspension really shines. The aggressively bolstered sport seats would never work for the North American market, and the stiff suspension would be painful over Montreal’s potholes, but the setup is surprisingly comfortable over 2000 kms of touring around Japan.
This is a zippy little fun-to-drive hatchback with the spirit of something like an old VW GTI, but the fuel economy of a Toyota Prius. It’s genius. Canadians might soon see e-Power technology in the Infiniti lineup, but we’ll have to wait for a Nissan hot-hybrid. Should fuel prices shoot up, it’d be a great way to have your Pocky and eat it too.
Stay on top of all our Drive stories. We have a Drive newsletter covering car reviews, innovative new cars and the ups and downs of everyday driving. Sign up for the weekly Drive newsletter, delivered to your inbox for free. Follow us on Instagram, @globedrive.