Nissan helps rebuild long-lost Prince 1900 Sprint sports car concept

Sometime in the early 1960s in a small workshop in Turin, two men work at their drafting boards. One is an Italian master, designer of what are considered to be the most beautiful cars ever made. The other is Japanese, and will go on to guide the shape of one of the country’s most beloved nameplates: the Skyline. Together, they will create two jewel-like little cars, both of which will be lost to time. But this year, Nissan has recreated their forgotten work with a resurrection of the Prince 1900 Sprint.

The Prince 1900 Sprint doesn’t look much like a Japanese car, but rather resembles one of the Italian etceterinis, Abarths and Erminis and Morettis and so forth. As it well should, for one of its fathers is Franco Scaglione, a prolific designer who began work in the 1950s. Scaglione’s most famous work was done for Alfa Romeo, including the absolutely bonkers B.A.T. cars, and the achingly gorgeous T33 Stradale.

By the early 1960s, Scaglione was working as an independent contractor, which is where Prince Motors came calling. But instead of simply hiring him to create a design, Prince also sent along a designer named Takeshi Inoue. This early in the 1960s, Japan was just beginning to develop its automotive industry, and having an in-house designer who’d studied with one of the greats would be invaluable.

It should be pointed out here that this was not Prince Motor’s first foray into the world of Italian design. The exceedingly rare Prince Skyline Sport was styled by Giovanni Michelotti and in fact Inoue was involved in commissioning it, but it was a one-off order rather than a collaboration. Through Scaglione, Prince saw its way to a broader design revolution.

Specifically, in one of those what-might-have-been moments, the original work was intended to be a small, rear-engined sportscar to take the fight to Porsche and Alpine. Prince’s internal Sports Vehicle Division was wrestling with how to make the fairly boat-like early Skyline keep up with purpose-built sportscars in motorsports. At the same time, they just so happened to have a mothballed project that was potentially light and agile.

In May of 1955, Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry had unveiled its “People’s Car” plan. The plan called for a vehicle that weighed under 880 lbs, cost less than $1,000, and got about 90 mpg. Various manufacturers rebutted that the plan was completely unrealistic, but Prince was among those that at least took a shot it. Thus, they had a small rear-engined sedan chassis ready to go.

It was this sedan that Scaglione’s design stylings were intended for. The chassis, internally coded CPRB, looked like a spacecraft, and bore signature Scaglione elements that made it resemble his Alfa Romeos and Abarths. However, the project was deemed unsuitable by company executives, especially as a new Skyline chassis was on its way. That didn’t stop Prince’s slightly rebellious Sports Vehicle Division from actually building a prototype model, one that has seemingly vanished and was probably scrapped.

The second-generation Skyline was a more convincing performer, as eventually demonstrated when Tetsu Ikuzawa managed to pass a Porsche 904 at the 1964 Japanese Grand Prix. The decision was thus made to rework Scaglione’s design for a proper small sportscar, based on the underpinnings of the four-cylinder Skyline S5. This was no easy task, as the two cars were completely different in both size and drivetrain layout.

Inoue was declared the best man for the job, and was put in charge of coming up with the styling for this new 1900 Sprint (the Skyline name was dropped, as Prince likely intended to export production models and wanted to avoid trademark issues). The first thing he did was try to hire Scaglione, but he couldn’t get hold of him. Communications between Japan and Italy were tricky, and Scaglione was simply off on holiday somewhere and couldn’t be reached. Prince’s brass told Inoue to draw the car up himself.

He did so in a rather roundabout way that speaks volumes of the way Japanese corporate culture worked in those days. Possibly at the direction of project manager Ryoichi Nakagawa, Inoue drew up six design proposals that had nothing to do with the Scaglione drawings. The board examined these and decided that, no, they wanted the Scaglione design. Had he simply offered that design up in the first place, there might have been much bickering and suggestions about how to improve it.

Freed of these restrictions, Inoue went to work re-tailoring Scaglione’s vision for the larger 1900 chassis. He went back to the methods taught to him by his friend, sketching out line drawings in a full-size diagram. The ideas were Scaglione’s, but the entirety of the actual reworked design was Inoue’s.

By the time the prototype car was fully built in Prince’s Mitaka factory, Scaglione re-emerged and called Japan. The team quickly sent him a photo of the 1900 Sprint, and asked for him to bless it as a Scaglione design. He did, but with one condition — that it would be credited as a collaboration with Inoue. Each would honor the other’s work.

The car was shown at the 10th Japanese Motor Show in 1963. Takumi Yoshida, a Japanese auto journalist who was present at the event remembers the 1900 Sprint having some pretty stiff competition, including the production Honda S500 and the Michelotti-designed Hino Contessa. Further, because the Sprint’s sharp front end could not accommodate Prince’s six-cylinder engine — the future of Skyline performance — the prototype would only ever be a one-off. Eventually, it was lost, sometime in the 1980s.

But many remembered it from the show. Eventually, a Prince enthusiast named Hiroshi Tanaka successfully petitioned Nissan’s design department to recreate the 1900 Sprint. Work began in 2020 and was recently completed. The car, which belongs to Tanaka, was then put on public display. Yoshida went to go see it, and says it presents a far more delicate and balanced design that he missed in his youth, but can now appreciate (he owns an Abarth 600 and a Porsche 356).

While it is a replica, not the original, the Prince 1900 Sprint is both a part of the story of the Japanese auto industry, and something more. It is a true partnership of design, of two men who worked together, Inoue often eating meals with Scaglione’s family, forming a friendship. The credit goes to both. Thanks to passionate enthusiasts that lived through this important slice of history, it’s no longer forgotten.

Images courtesy of Nissan.

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4 Responses to Nissan helps rebuild long-lost Prince 1900 Sprint sports car concept

  1. Ian n says:

    Just lovely – a great meeting of minds.

  2. Tj says:

    I love that it shares the early iteration of the Surfline that followed through other generations of the Skyline.
    I also love how back in that time car design could be pretty easily recognised as being of one person, or at least originating from person. Designs from that era have a lot more personality than today’s corporate design language approaches

  3. apple pie says:

    Ref. this article:

    Chassis CPSK, the rear engine design for the National Car Plan (国民車構想); chassis CPRB, the coupe design by Scaglione; and the 1900 Sprint were all stored at Nissan’s Murayama plant until the mid 1980’s when they were all dismantled.

  4. N97 LT says:

    From the A pillar forward, it kind of reminds me of a 240Z. I wonder if the Z design crew saw drawings of this for inspiration.

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