For those of you who don’t know, Autech is Nissan Japan’s own in-house tuning and customisation arm. By law, JDM car manufacturers have to offer a customisation service to cater for disabled drivers, and so this service forms a big part of what Autech does. But over the years, Autech has also turned its attention to performance cars from time to time, the most notable ones being hand-built R32 and R33 Skyline 4dr sedans with GT-R running gear (and the Stagea RS260 station wagon with the same), and performance versions of the Silvia. Obviously there is the dangerous possibility of Autech overlapping with the good work that Nismo does, and so Autech has over the years mainly restricted itself to the high end stuff.
And high end certainly does describe Nissan’s big extravagance of the 1980s: the Autech Zagato Stelvio.
There is a undeniable romance about the old Italian coachbuilding houses that has always had a certain glamour with the Japanese (and the rest of us!). Up until the late 60s, it was still possible to take a bare chassis, and take it to Pininfarina, Ghia or Bertone and have it rebodied in something totally unique. Obviously this service never came cheap, but in the 1980s, these unique or limited-run 50s and 60s creations fetched crazy prices in the classic car boom.
This didn’t escape Nissan’s attention and so it took the plunge and commissioned its own coachbuilt sports cars. By the 1980s, the bigger Italian houses like Pininfarina and Bertone had moved onto bigger and better things, even large-scale things, like contract manufacturing for Fiat (Bertone manufactured the X19 and Pininfarina the 2000 Roadster for many years). But one old school design house that was still willing to do whatever you wanted was Zagato.
Zagato was always one of the smaller coachbuilders, but over the decades had made a splash with some very daring designs. Some might argue that for every pretty car Zagato made, they would also make three really ugly ones (and we’ll get to that in a second…) but it was an old school name with plenty of cachet back in Japan.
So the plan was hatched, for Y31 Leopard coupe (our US friends would know it as the Infiniti M30) chassis to be shipped to Italy. There, a handbuilt body would be draped onto the JDM frame, and inside the cabin would be found a typical over the top handstitched Italian interior.
Power would be from the Leopard’s 3.0L DOHC turbo V6, tweaked to 320ps and driving through an auto transmission.
The result was….interesting to say the least. Historically, Zagato designs tend to either hit or miss and it’s fair to say that the Stelvio is not a very happy car stylistically. Some of the details are really very odd, like those big pods in the front fenders. They are actually fender mirrors, but faired-in to the bonnet line, and as a result, stick out a mile and ruin the line.
Then there are those odd looking single-vent wheels, and that weird stepped flare over the rear arches.
A fender mirror….but not as we know it
But to cap it all off, the Stevio retailed for a sticker of 18million yen. Now, to give you some perspective on that, when the R32 GT-R debuted a year or two later, it was a 5million yen car. Even cars with baller price tags like the 9million yen NSX-R are dirt cheap in comparison to an Autech Stelvio.
However the worst thing was that Zagato was also simultaneously contracted to Aston Martin to develop a limited-run car too, and when that car was unveiled as the Aston Martin V8 Zagato (the blue car below), there were some rather startling similarities to the Stelvio, but minus the ugly bits. I can’t imagine Nissan being too pleased about that….
Today, the Stelvio is a very rare sight on the streets, but there were 200 made and so they are definitely out there. Back in the day, driving a Stelvio would have given you immediate baller status in Japan, but if you wanted one today, they occasionally come up for sale at about 4million yen.
Those fender mirrors again....
In the final analysis, no matter what we may think of the styling, in the late 80s, it was a very unique mix of high-end craftsmanship and JDM turbo power. You certainly don’t get a hand-stitched, leather and wood interior like that in any other JDM car.
But did they really have to make it so…..ugly?