The Rare, Original Nissan Silvia

Photography by John Webber unless otherwise credited

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the May 2007 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

The saga of the Silvia seems to have been launched more as a design exercise than by Nissan’s desire to sell the car. It’s been called the first luxury two-seater coupe to come from Japan, and while acclaimed for its stylish appeal, Silvia had limited success in the home market and virtually none in the export market.

Still, lessons learned from the model helped pave the way for the company’s continued sports/GT development, which eventually led to the 240Z. That milestone car’s worldwide success more than made up for the Silvia’s meager sales. 

In the early 1960s, Japan’s automakers, struggling to find ways to increase the worldwide appeal of their cars, turned to Italian and European designers for help. Nissan Motor Company was no exception, hiring Albrecht Graf von Goertz, an American-based German count who also designed cars. His early experience at Studebaker included  assisting Raymond Loewy on the 1953 Starliner, and while at BMW, Goertz sculpted the stunning, V8-powered 507 sports roadster. Later he moved to Porsche and became part of the design team for the long-lived 911.

Goertz joined Nissan in 1963 and started to make an immediate impact on the way the company conducted the entire design process, especially in viewing a car as an overall entity rather than a series of separate ideas to be fitted together. The GT Coupe project that was to become Silvia was already well underway under the guidance of Nissan designer Kazuo Kimura; a full-size clay mockup was about 60 percent complete. 

As this exercise progressed, Nissan asked Yamaha to build a Silvia prototype, which was slated to use a DOHC 2-liter Yamaha engine. While this engine was never installed, Yamaha did build the prototype based on a Nissan Fairlady chassis and inner panels. Nissan’s president reportedly was not pleased with the result, and this first Silvia was never shown.

At that point, Nissan asked Goertz for his help with the original Silvia design. Goertz teamed with Kimura and they revised virtually every line and proportion on the car. The results reflected Goertz’s previous design handiwork, including minimal bumpers, large rounded wheel openings and a distinctive front bonnet line that projects forward over the grille, each of these features reminiscent of the BMW 507. 

Yamaha built a second prototype based on this revised design, and this right-hand-drive car—powered by a Fairlady 1500cc drivetrain and called the Datsun 1500 Coupe—was a hit of the 1964 Tokyo Motor Show. Nissan decided to build the car, which received the CSP311 designation and would be powered by their new 1595cc, R16 engine. It was ready for sale in Japan in March 1965.

In the U.S., Datsun unveiled a Silvia at the 1965 New York Auto Show. Around the world, the car had garnered a lot of attention from the automotive press for its advanced design. Sports Car World called it “bold, distinctive and incredibly attractive,” and “pretty, pert and petite.” 

Legendary designer Albrecht Graf von Goertz was called in by Nissan in 1963 to craft the final shape of the first generation Silvia. The diminutive coupe was built by hand and featured several firsts for a Japanese car, including front disc brakes. The cockpit (middle) was built around the Japanese-model frame, meaning comfort drops sharply for drivers taller than 5 feet 8 inches. Underhood (bottom), the 1.6-liter R16 powerplant breathes through a pair of Hitachi SU-type carbs and pumps out an ample 96 horsepower.

With such praise, Datsun decided to explore Silvia’s potential for the North American market, passing the New York show car along to factory-supported Datsun racer and consultant Bob Sharp for evaluation. Size, or the lack of it, quickly dashed any market opportunities. The car was built around the Japanese 5-foot-8 inch drivers’ model—and was simply too small for American drivers. 

According to a 1966 article in Sports Car World, Sharp put it this way: “It was definitely a tight car. My thigh barely fit between the door panel and the seat and the steering wheel, and I’ve always been a pretty skinny guy.” Designer Goertz, along with Sharp and others, tried in vain to convince Nissan to base their designs on an American-sized drivers’ model, but that wasn’t to come until the later—and much larger—240Z.

Despite its shortcomings (pun intended), the Silvia was not cheap. This was a mostly hand-built car aimed at the upscale GT market, so production costs were high. In Japan, a new Silvia cost $4390, compared to $2690 for a Fairlady. In Europe, the car was advertised as a competitor to Alfa Romeo and Volvo, although apparently no Silvias were ever actually sent to that market. In Australia, the Silvia cost about $1800 more than a Triumph TR4. 

With its export markets severely limited, the car was an extremely slow seller. From March 1965 until September 1968, only 554 Silvias were built, most of those in 1965. Despite the marketing efforts, a relative handful were exported—49 to Australia, with the remaining 10 exports apparently shipped to Southeast Asia. 

Perhaps adding to the Silvia’s marketing woes was Nissan’s inability to settle on a model designation. In Japan and Australia, the car was called Coupe 1600, 1600 Sports Coupe, GT Coupe and 1600 Coupe, despite sporting Silvia badges. The car was also called a Datsun, even though its badges, horn button and rocker cover said Nissan.

The Silvia sat on a modified SP310 Fairlady 1500 chassis with revised bumper mounting points and relocated body mounting points. Along with a completely new body design, the car featured other advances for Nissan: It was the first to be powered by the new R engine, a 1595cc overhead valve design with a three-main-bearing crank. (This engine was later used in the Fairlady 1600 and the Bluebird.) 

The Silvia was also the first Japanese production car with front disc brakes, the first Datsun to have synchromesh on all forward gears, and the first Datsun to feature a 12-volt negative ground, alternator-powered electrical system. 

The engine breathed through two Hitachi SU-style 38mm carburetors and produced 96 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 103 lb.-ft. of torque at 4000 rpm. Power transferred though a diaphragm clutch and four-speed transmission to a 4.11:1 hypoid differential. Silvia rode on a double-wishbone suspension in the front and a leaf-sprung rear axle. Steering was via a cam and lever box. The car sat on 14-inch steel wheels. 

Virtually all Silvias were painted Silvia Gold, which actually appears more metallic green than gold. A handful of cars were purchased by the Japanese highway patrol and wore light blue or black-and-white paint and special badges that proclaimed Nissan Patrol in place of Nissan Silvia. Why would the JHP choose a tiny luxo coupe for a chase car? In the mid-’60s, the Silvia was one of the few Japanese cars capable of reaching 100 mph. Plus it offered decent handling with the added stopping power of disc brakes. Evidently the JHP thought it more than a match for whatever the bad guys were driving.

Chasing Silvia

The owner of our featured car chased the elusive Silvia—and rumors of the cars—around the world for more than two years. Florida car guy Rex Birkmire now admits that he was not really a fan of Japanese cars until he bought a new Infiniti in the early 1990s, a car that gained his respect and admiration. 

Then as he read about how Nissan of North America got started, he loved the rags-to-riches aspects of the story. (The company had started in 1960 with six people in a 300-square-foot office in Los Angeles.)

Birkmire gradually became a Japanese car fanatic, and now several reside in his collection. When he learned about the extremely rare Silvia and how Nissan struggled to bring this two-door coupe to the market, he decided he had to have one. “I thought the Silvia was a gorgeous car, even today,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I got one before they all rotted away.” 

Owner Rex Birkmire (above) searched for two years before he found a non-rusty Nissan Silvia for sale in Japan. The car had been owned by a Nissan executive since the day it was built and was in remarkable shape. The trunk (middle) hints at the Silvia’s upscale nature with quality upholstery and a cover for the spare tire. 

After two years of prowling the Internet for leads, he had traced only a couple of rusted hulks and was about to give up. Rex recalls how he closed in on his prize: “One of the only times I went to a micro-car Web site, I happened across a car broker from Japan who offered to help, although he wasn’t familiar with the Silvia. I sent him information and photos, and about four months later, he e-mailed me that he had found a car.”

Improbably, the broker had located an original, one-owner example that had belonged to a retired Nissan executive. After all his research into the Silvia, Rex knew it was critical to find an original, unmolested example since the car’s panels were fashioned by hand, meaning no two are exactly alike. 

A Silvia owner in Australia who has restored four of these cars found out the hard way that a fender or door from one car will not fit on another without extensive reworking. If that’s not bad enough, the fenders are welded, rather than bolted, to the body. 

Since this is one car that’s beyond the capabilities of the average restorer, Rex was not looking for a project. After checking out this example as carefully as he could without actually traveling to Japan, Rex bought the car. In contrast to all the horror stories out there about buying a car sight unseen, this tale turned out well. The Silvia arrived as advertised, a rare example in rare shape, with only 22,000 miles on the clock. Exactly the car he was looking for. Only the exhaust system needed to be replaced, and the parts from a 1600 roadster bolted right on.

Checking Her Out

As one would expect, most people don’t have a clue about this car, and Rex has had drivers flip a U-turn and chase him down just to find out what it is. Since it is right-hand drive, many think it is British—and even when staring right at the badges, can’t believe it’s a Nissan. Everyone comments on Silvia’s stylish, continental appeal and original design. 

The car was displayed at our 2006 Classic Motorsports Mitty historic event at Road Atlanta where, Rex reports, even the hardcore Nissan enthusiasts were impressed. “They were ecstatic,” he says. “Like me, most had never seen one. It was a huge hit.”

This car certainly doesn’t look like it came out of Japan in the 1960s. It features a long, flowing bonnet and short, compact tail. In the front, quad headlights flank the narrow bars of a horizontal grille; in the back, the horizontal taillights are set over a split rear bumper. While the Silvia does look dainty by today’s standards, its proportions work well together. 

With little accent trim, the car relies on simple lines and angles to showcase its appeal. A close examination reveals that the trunk lid, doors and hood all fit nicely, with even gaps all around, and all close with a solid thunk—evidence of the hand-built care lavished on its construction. Under the hood, the familiar 1600 engine looks right at home, with few visual changes from the 1600 roadster. 

According to Nissan’s advertising materials, the large trunk is spacious enough for two sets of golf clubs. It is also completely padded, including a cover for the spare.

Driving Silvia

To drive Silvia, one must first (literally) choose the right door. The interior is quite small for a six-footer. The foot wells are deep and narrow. Remember that 5-foot-8-inch model? He didn’t wear size 12s. Headroom also is limited. 

The driver sits behind a stylish, wood-rimmed wheel that fronts an eye-shaped instrument cluster. The cluster includes a 120 mph speedometer, a 7000-rpm tachometer with oil and electrical warning lights, a temperature gauge, a fuel gauge and a clock. 

A center console stretches along the transmission tunnel and features an angled aluminum panel that houses an AM pushbutton radio, toggle switches for the lights, wipers and map lights, and knobs for the choke, windshield washer pump and cigar lighter. A padded parcel shelf resides behind the seats. Overall, the interior trim level and extra features match the car’s upscale GT price. The trim, vinyl seats, panels and carpeting in Rex’s car have survived all these years in remarkable shape.

Twist the switch, and the OHV four starts with a familiar growl. The clutch feels light and responsive, and the gearshift moves smoothly—once you get used to shifting with your left hand, that is. 

From behind, the Silvia’s shape is simple and tidy. Because these cars were built by hand, it’s just about impossible to swap body panels from one to another. So if you go shopping, remember: It’s best to find one that’s all in one piece.

As might be expected, this car drives like a 1600, but feels more refined and certainly quieter. It pulls strongly through the gears, and the steering and brakes are light and responsive. In fact, its owner says the Silvia responds better to steering inputs than his 1600 roadster, perhaps because of the added rigidity of the top. Despite the extra 120 pounds it carries, the Silvia also feels a bit quicker than its roadster counterpart, but that may be due to the rear end ratio. 

This Silvia may also have some ignition help. Rex says that two Nissan experts who spent time studying his car believe it has a nonstandard ignition system that puts out a hotter spark. “They figured out that it was a Nissan option not available in the U.S. for the 1600,” he said. “It may have been installed since the owner in Japan was a Nissan executive.” He feels the hotter ignition makes his Silvia start and idle better than his roadster does. Overall, Silvia offers an entertaining ride, maintaining a good balance between sporty and refined.

While Rex hasn’t had any mechanical problems, he knows that virtually all the mechanical bits from the 1600 will bolt right on. The one-off body panels are another matter, however, so like others who drive a hand-built car, Rex does try to leave plenty of room between Silvia and other drivers. Look but don’t touch, indeed.

For a Nissan collector, tracking down this ultra-rare, extremely original find is the equivalent of discovering the Holy Grail. Rex believes the Silvia is well worth the trouble and expense he has invested. His goal is to enjoy and preserve this car, and he’s always on the trail of more knowledge about it. And he’s pleased that his oldest son, Jonathon, has inherited the car gene and shares his Nissan interests. 

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