Shunned Sensei - 1966 Nissan A680X

Immediately after the horrors of the Second World War, former imperial powerhouse Japan found itself on the side of the losers. Unrelenting bombing campaigns by the American forces had laid waste to huge swaths of the nation’s wooden cities, which saw the country forced to rebuild in record time. Under Allied occupation, Japan was inspired to modernize its largely feudal society, and became an industrial juggernaut in just a few short years following its independence in 1952.

During this time, Japanese car makers were busy focusing on building cheap affordable transportation to mobilize the people at large. These Kei-car rules were however very strict, as they were designed to conserve materials in the wake of massive steel shortages following the war. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was little room for flamboyance, speed and power in these early years. As a result, nobody was really all that concerned about the noble art of motorsport.

Snapshots from the 1st Japan Grand Prix, Suzuka 1963.

Snapshots from the 1st Japan Grand Prix, Suzuka 1963.

This sentiment changed at the beginning of the 1960’s. Thanks to the Soichiro Honda’s drive for absolute perfection, Suzuka Circuit opened its doors in 1962. Designed by Dutchman Hans Hugenholtz as a test track for Honda, the unique figure-eight track with its swooping curves introduced Japan to motor racing in the best possible way.

It didn’t take long before the racing craze caught on, as Suzuka hosted the 1st Japan Grand Prix little over a year later. Though the name would suggest otherwise, this was not a Formula One event. Instead it was open to GT and touring cars with relatively stock mechanicals. The event saw the first win for a Japanese car in a national event, as privateer Genichiro Tawara drove his Datsun Fairlady 1500 to victory in the 1300-2500cc Touring Class.

Genichiro Tawara's 1963 Japan Grand Prix winning Datsun Fairlady 1500.

Genichiro Tawara's 1963 Japan Grand Prix winning Datsun Fairlady 1500.

Tawara-san had asked Datsun’s parent company Nissan for help with his project, but the company had to decline in relative shame. Motorsport was still so new to Japan that Nissan had absolutely no experience with it. The firm was keen to help Genichiro Tawara, but they hadn’t the faintest idea how to do it.

Despite this embarrassing moment, Nissan saw the significance of racing following Tawara’s win. The added publicity elevated the Fairlady he drove to near-legendary status. Additionally, the Fairlady’s good named rubbed off quite well on the brand itself, and increased sales.

A year later, Nissan witnessed the rise of Prince on the Japanese racing scene. The 2nd Japan Grand Prix featured an intense battle between an imported Porsche 904 and one of Prince’s many Skyline GT-B’s, with the little sedan even managing to lead a great deal of the race in front of the dedicated German sports racer.

The advanced Prince R380 set the bar for Japanese racing cars in 1965.

The advanced Prince R380 set the bar for Japanese racing cars in 1965.

Prince narrowly lost the fight in 1964, but the glorious fight with the Porsche electrified the country. The incredible performance sent a shockwave through all of Japan, as everyone realized domestic vehicles actually had a fighting chance against the European establishment. Because of Prince’s shining example, Hino, Toyota and Daihatsu all frantically started designing their own mobile marketing tools to make their name on the track. With all their rivals dipping their toes in the pool, Nissan just had to follow.

To their shock and horror, Prince introduced the space-age R380 the following year. The mid-engined, six cylinder, 200 horsepower rocketship was unlike anything Japan had ever seen. In truth the car had been reverse-engineered from a Brabham BT8 sportscar, as Prince hadn’t been confident of their ability to design a competitive chassis. Unfortunately for Prince, the car was relegated to speed runs at Yatabe test track. Management issues prevented the 3rd Japan Grand Prix being held that year, and it was postponed to 1966.

Nissan was forced to base its racer on the Fairlady chassis.

Nissan was forced to base its racer on the Fairlady chassis.

The delay was unfortunate for Japan’s ever-growing contingent of racing fans, but it gave Nissan a bit of a breather. With no major events on the calendar to distract them, engineer Noguchi Takashi and designer Kazuo Kimura could better focus on the task at hand. However, little had changed since their decision to start a racing program in 1964. Nissan as a company still had little to no experience designing anything close to a racing car.

The L20 provided the base for the new racer's heart.

The L20 provided the base for the new racer's heart.

With this in mind, Nissan reached out to engineering firm Yamaha for arguably the most vital part of the car: the engine. As luck would have it Yamaha was already working on a project for Nissan which would be perfect for the fight against Prince’s R380 and the incoming Toyota 2000GT. Racing regulations at the time limited top level cars to two liters in capacity, which presented a golden opportunity for Nissan.

Yamaha’s prototype L20 engine was a 2.0L six-cylinder just like those used by its competitors, but it was never intended as a racing engine. In order to make it one, Yamaha substantially revised the humble unit. Strengthened internals, three Weber 42DCOE carburetors, dual coils and a twin-cam, 24-valve, twin spark cylinder head helped the L20 morph into the hulking 190 horsepower B680X.

The Yamaha-designed B680X delivered very competitive performance.

The Yamaha-designed B680X delivered very competitive performance.

With the crucial engine work taken care of, Nissan could fully focus on developing a competitive chassis to put it in. Nissan decided to avoid reverse-engineering a foreign machine like Prince had done.

Instead, they would stick to what they knew: the Fairlady. Takashi-san set about trying to improve the already substantial stiffness of the Fairlady chassis, while Kimura-san tried to figure out a way to make the car more aerodynamic.

Kazuo Kimura rose to prominence after designing the first Nissan Silvia.

Kazuo Kimura rose to prominence after designing the first Nissan Silvia.

Kazuo Kimura had previously drawn the very first Silvia, a small two-seater sports coupe. Hardtops had become mandatory for all Japanese racing cars by this time, so Kimura decided it would be best for the new car to properly integrate its roof.

To test out which shape would be the most efficient, he and his team commenced a series of hydraulic scale tests. As wind tunnels didn’t exist yet, Kimura’s team would simply push scale models through tanks of water and try to gauge the differences in resistance.

The end result looked like an awkward fusion of a Jaguar E-Type and a Ferrari 250 GTO, but Nissan’s new weapon proved perform rather well. During testing at the newly-built Fuji Speedway, the A680X turned a fastest lap of 2:08. On the one hand this was very encouraging, as Toyota’s 2000GT had been a full two seconds slower. Prince’s R380 however, had been a demoralizing three seconds faster than the Nissan had managed.

The finished A680X.

The finished A680X.

Sadly then, the A680X didn’t look like it would break any records on track. Despite the early setbacks Nissan kept refining the car, until it took control of Prince Motor Company in August 1966. While Nissan executives were rummaging around Prince’s premises for a bit, they found something which would doom the A680X project for good.

The Prince R380-II killed the A680X's chances of ever racing in anger.

The Prince R380-II killed the A680X's chances of ever racing in anger.

In total secrecy, Prince had been developing a refined version of the R380. The new machine possessed a gorgeous, sleek body far more aerodynamic than Kazuo Kimura could have dreamed of, and an improved fuel-injected GR-8 straight six with 220 horsepower.

Upon laying eyes on the Prince, Nissan’s board realized it was lightyears ahead of their own design. As a result, the A680X was canned in favor of a rebadged version of the R380-II. All was not lost however, as the lessons learned from the stillborn racer would later be put to good use in one of the most legendary Japanese cars of all time: the Datsun 240Z.

1966's Datsun Z-car prototype bore some similarities to the ill-fated A680X.

1966's Datsun Z-car prototype bore some similarities to the ill-fated A680X.

The Nissan A680X represented the illustrious company’s first ever foray into the frantic world of motorsport. With little in the way of experience or expertise, Nissan tried to develop a world-beating racer from scratch. Basing their new weapon on a familiar chassis with a state of the art Yamaha engine, the firm hoped to take a slice of the by then very lucrative racing pie.

Unfortunately the cobbled-together car was lacking in overall pace against its main rival, as the Prince R380 easily trumped it. Shortly after the test Nissan merged with Prince, and found out the small outfit had already created an even faster version of their fearsome machine. Seeing no logic in continuing the A680X-program, Nissan cancelled work on it. The car disappeared into a Nissan storage facility and was never seen again.