Nissan has been through a tumultuous couple of years. In November 2018 its CEO of nearly 20 years Carlos Ghosn was arrested on charges of misappropriating company funds and has since become an international fugitive. His replacement, Hiroto Saikawa, lasted less than a year before resigning over improper overcompensation. All the while, the company faced falling sales made even worse by the onset of the coronavirus. Makoto Uchida became CEO in October 2019, promising to turn the company around and rebuild the internal structure that made his predecessors’ alleged improprieties possible. It’s won’t be an easy road, but Uchida has at least one thing going for him — his first car was a Z32 Nissan Fairlady Z.
At last week’s unveiling of the new Nissan Z Proto, Uchida emerged from the seat of the Z Proto and began his speech by saying, “The Z badge has special meaning to sports car lovers, and special meaning to me because my very first car was a Fairlady Z.”
“The Z was love a first sight,” Uchida continued. “It was so cool, so desirable, and when I had driven it I felt the connection. I knew I wanted to own one.”
Then he showed a photo of his younger self, back in 1993, the proud owner of said Z. “I finally bought a Z, in gunmetal gray with a T-bar roof and of course, a manual transmission.” Uchida went on to say that he would take extra time to look at his favorite angles while polishing his car.
It is unspoken Japanese custom that if you are in a public position at a car company, you are expected to drive their cars. Ghosn, for example, faced some criticism when the papers reported on a minor traffic accident of his — not because he had collided with a motorcycle in the oncoming lane while making a U-turn, but because he was driving a Porsche 911.
However, Uchida is somewhat unusual because he’s a Japanese CEO that wasn’t company lifer. He didn’t start working at Nissan until 2003, a good 10 years after his photo with his Z32, which makes his love for his car a lot more genuine.
Uchida is also unusual for a Japanese car company CEO in that he is relatively young. He’s a good decade younger than his predecessors, and his counterparts at Toyota, Honda, and Mazda. He came of driving age during late 1980s, or peak Bubble Era Japan, which might explain his affection for the Z32.
What this means for Nissan we don’t know, but it’s better than having a CEO that shows no enthusiasm for the company’s products. We don’t know what Saikawa, a notoriously private man, drove. Few CEOs in Japan have talked about their first cars aside from Akio Toyoda, who owned a Corolla 1600GT. It’s a good choice, but we also know that Toyoda is the great-grandson of the company’s founder and was likely groomed for a lifetime at Toyota since the day he was born.
So, until we discover that the president of Mitsubishi had an Evo III rally car or something, Uchida will retain the crown for coolest first car-CEO combo.
I get good vibes from him. He seems like a real car guy, and I think his excitement about the new Z is genuine. I loved when he said “…and of course, a manual transmission.” Hearing the CEO of a car company say that in 2020 is awesome.
I know the manual is still on the decline and will eventually disappear from new cars, but it’s still nice to know that he understands the importance of the connection to a car. Hopefully this means improvements on other Nissan products, like their terrible CVT.
I wouldn’t bet on the CVTs to disappear from mainstream models, but I agree that the fact that he had a manual Z is a good sign for future enthusiast product. At least, better than if he never owned one.
Cool! Sounds like the story of me and my 300. Seems like he is a genuine car guy. Hopefully now nissan can bring back some of its other popular cars.
I’m a little bit more reserved about this whole thing. I admit that I don’t know Uchida personally nor his personal tastes, but I had mixed feelings while watching that point during the reveal of the new Z.
I could’nt help watching it in the light of what had already been done by Toyota with the Supra reveal. They were the ones to start with the “car guy” CEO trick, with Akio Toyoda emphasizing on his past cars, the A80 Supra that he took to the ring with Naruse, etc. Notwithstanding Akio Toyoda’s real interest in car culture and racing credentials, let’s not forget that above all, it was a clever marketing trick to kickstart a new sporty and dynamic image for Toyota.
While watching the Z reveal, I felt like Nissan was trying (in a clumsy way) to use the same recipe, but for some reason it didn’t really work. Maybe because Uchida isn’t as charismatic and cheerful as a person as Toyoda and his “car guy” credentials aren’t as publicly known, I can’t tell for sure, it would be interesting to discuss it. When Uchida started talking about his Z32, I cringed a little bit, it felt far fetched, like they were trying to do the same as Toyoda and his A80. Especially also considering that in the 90’s, buying a Z32 in Japan (and maybe also in the US) wasn’t really about being a car guy but about buying a status car. This was just one of the cars to have when you were a successful, dynamic and ambitious young entrepreneur.
As a manual transmission enthusiast, I also find it a little bit ridiculous that nowadays you one only need to announce a manual shifter to be praised by the gearhead community and that any model becomes some kind of hyped graal only because it’s available with a stick, even if it’s crap. To me it’s nothing more than another marketing and PR trick to sound cool, because everybody knows that stickshifts eventually (unfortunately) represents a tiny fraction of the sales, and that most people asking for them on internet will not buy the car new anyway.
I laughed when I heard Uchida say “and of course a manual transmission”. First because to me it was clearly aimed at Toyota and the Supra (which is the actual real japanese competition to the new Z), and second because I would have answered to him that to be honest, it would have been quite a letdown not to give the new Z a manual considering that it’s still the FM platform and that most of it’s components are carried away from the Z33/Z34. So Nissan already has a manual transmission that’s mostly plug and play after adjusting it to the new engine’s specs (namely the FS6R31A). So not too much efforts and costs there compared to a brand new platform that would need to be studied from a clean sheet with 2 types of transmission.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Toyota is better than Nissan (or the other way around) or anything, nor saying that it’s not a good news that the new Z will come with a stick. My point is only that it feels to me like it’s not such a big deal when you look at it in details, and that the whole sporty CEO who looks and think like a car guy feels more like the new way companies found to desperately try to bring back some kind of interest in their products and sell a few cars to gearheads who think that everything was better before and the 80-90’s kids.
I think it’s probably a mix. Of course it’s smart to try to appeal to enthusiasts by saying “Look, our CEO is an enthusiast.” I think the big difference here is that Toyota unveiled a car that wasn’t what enthusiasts were hoping for. Nissan unveiled a car that enthusiasts hoped the 350Z and 370Z would have been, an obvious continuation of the Z32.
I hope that he is sincere. He does seem a little wooden, but he may not be comfortable on a stage for all the world to see.
I am still setting my expectations lower than they were when the Z33, Z34, FRS, and Supra were announced, but I have a way better feeling at this point.