When asked about a good JNC for someone on a budget, I usually find myself turning to Nissan’s back catalogue, particularly the models from the mid- to late-1980s. It’s not that they were inherently better than Toyotas or Hondas, but rather, they were prolific in making sporty cars (much the opposite, sadly, of today). I rattle off the usual suspects — Z31, S12, or, if feeling a bit flippant, a ringer like the Stanza Wagon to see if they’re still listening. However, there’s one car that I always completely forget about until I’m perusing the darkest reaches of Craigslist: the Infiniti M30.
I don’t know why it’s so forgettable. The car is properly good looking. It’s got all the right angles in all the right places, no modern surfacing rubbish. They’re bargain basement cheap, especially when compared to its peers, and with the right parts you can have quite a good time faffing about.
When Nissan launched their luxury brand Infiniti in 1989 they did what every Japanese luxury marque did and brought over rebadged versions of luxury models made for the Japanese market. They gave to us the Q45, and alongside it was the USDM Nissan Leopard, called the M30. This could be considered the first luxury GT car from a Japanese carmaker to come to America, as the Acura Integra was marketed as a sports car and the 300ZX was sold under the Nissan banner.
While it didn’t have all the gizmos of the F31 JDM Leopard on which it was based, the M30 still got a list of options that would make a Mercedes owner weep. Items like car phones, in dash CD players with trunk-mounted CD changers, an OEM child seat, automatic climate control, fog lights, a front air dam lip kit and spoiler were all available to sate the material needs of the budding yuppie.
Finding one of these is a little like hunting Bigfoot, though. Every time I see one it’s a blurry Craigslist photo that looks like it was snapped by the Hubble Space Telescope. The M30 didn’t make much of an splash here. In America, we got a single drivetrain option, the 3.0-liter VG30E V6 mated to a 4-speed automatic. The setup was unique to the US market, taken from the 300ZX (among others).
With 162 horses on tap and a curb weight hovering around 3,000 pounds, it was considered sluggish, especially compared to its peers. At an MSRP of around $33,000, it was also priced dangerously close to cars like the BMW 3-Series and Porsche 944. Mind you, both of those also had a very popular manual transmission option as well.
Giving credit where it’s due, however, Infiniti was the first Japanese luxury marque to offer a convertible (not Lexus). Converted at ASC McLaren from imported coupes, each M30 convertible was given reinforcements to prevent chassis flex, which came with a weight penalty. However, because they were modified in the US, they were unique to the North American market and thus never sold in Japan, where they are quite coveted.
Why would such boulevardier be so coveted in Japan? Well, Japan has a completely different relationship with the F31 Leopard. Hachimaru Hero magazine ranked it seventh in its Top 20 Domestic Cars of the 80s list, above the R31 Skyline and A70 Supra.
The car started life in Japan as a Nissan Leopard, Nissan’s answer to the Toyota Soarer. It shared a chassis with the R31 Skyline to save costs and was fitted with various VG-family of V6 engines, ranging from the 120-horsepower, 2.0-liter VG20E to the 255-horse, 3.0-liter turbocharged DOHC VG30DET.
Its combination of engines and manual transmission availability meant that even the asthmatic base model could still be fun to drive. While the lower-grade models were built only to satisfy Japan’s displacement-based road tax system, the turbo models were the most powerful RWD Nissan you could get until the Z32 came out.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an 80s Japanese GT without a wildly overcomplicated suspension system controlled by a computer. In the F31’s case, it came with the Super Sonic Suspension system, which used five sonar sensors to scan the road surface under the car and automatically adapt the suspension.
This was actually the first road-sensing automatically adjustable suspension, and while it was also found in Nissan’s Cefiro, it originally debuted in the 1985 Maxima. It’s not as advanced or effective as its modern equivalents, but it marked a big step forward in technology.
While the regular F31 is rare enough in America that it can be mistaken for being a figment of your imagination, it has nothing on the NISMO Ultima Leopard which had a mind bogglingly small production run of 30. Even the catalog for the car is hard to find.
While we aren’t going to talk about every special edition of the Leopard, this one is noteworthy because of its power output of 185 horsepower —out of an naturally aspirated engine! According the F31Club, the last documented sighting of a NISMO Ultima was at a club meet in Japan 19 years ago.
Another noteworthy special edition was the coachbuilt Autech Stelvio Zagato. This car honestly deserves it’s own article, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a mention as it is based off the F31 Leopard chassis.
Japan, as usual, got the coolest stuff, like one of the best digital dashboards ever, a glovebox-mounted digital clock, a credit card-sized entry keycard and curtains for the side windows. The Japanese even had a CRT television in the dashboard.
Most importantly, however, was the probably the fact that the cars had a starring role in the 1980s crime drama Abunai Deka. Though the series ended after its 25-episode run, the antics of its Leopard-driving heroes spawned eight movies in subsequent years, the last of which was as recent as 2016.
Its parts interchangeability with other Nissans for suspension and engine modifications probably helped. Today, that interchangeability is not lost on American enthusiasts. The lions’ share of M30 enthusiasts build them as an affordable, unique alternatives to other Nissan chassis. There is a reasonably well-documented amount of information on various Nissan forums. NICO Club currently has the most active F31 user base on their M30/J30 subforum.
One of the most common upgrades is to swap over to the ever-retrofittable S13 coilovers. The fronts bolt up with S13 control arms, and only light drilling is needed at the rear. A manual transmission swap bolts right in, but a custom driveshaft will have to be made. Engine swaps are nearly equally as simple with most VG-series engines requiring minimal modification to fit.
For in-depth coverage, Project Car magazine swapped an RB into an M30 back in 2009. Was that nearly a decade ago already? I feel like I had that issue inside my twelfth grade US history textbook just the other day. The build was throughly chronicled, but unfortunately it appears to have lived quite a rough life afterwards. It eventually found a good home where it was brought back to life, and is being used as a track car. A thread of its journey can be found on F31Club.
The story of the Infiniti M30 is one of what happens when you leave your best models out of a market. At the time of its debut, the market in America a luxury GT coupe was limited. Infiniti hadn’t made a name for itself yet and buyers, scared to venture away from established brands and into the unknown, needed something mind-blowing to even consider a Japanese car. Had Nissan given us more powerful turbocharged variants of the Leopard, which made nearly as much power as a Corvette at the time, it could have been a very different story.
Instead, it always lived in the shadows of coupes like the Lexus SC, and it’s unfortunate that the car is so rarely spoken of. Personally, I think it may be in contention for the coolest car we’ve featured on Consider the Following. However, if its forgettability results in attainability for a loving owner esoteric enough to deviate from the standard S13s and Zs, that’s a good thing.