When the Nissan Silvia is mentioned today, it’s typically in the same breath as drifting. And while sideways-sliding feats of driving skill will be its legacy, its roots go back 25 years before the tire-shredding Nissan 240SX.
The Fairlady Sports 1500 was an instant sensation and gave Nissan the idea to create what the Japanese call a “specialty car,” a sporty, personal coupe built on top of an existing platform with an emphasis on beautiful styling.
The origins of the Silvia are yet another chapter of Japanese automotive history shrouded in controversy and myth. Most English-language sources credit German-American Count Albrecht Goertz, the renowned stylist of the BMW 507, for the design. However, the timing of Goertz’ arrival at Nissan in 1963 would have made it impossible for him to have penned the car, and in fact the body design had already been largely completed by Nissan in-house designer Kazuo Kimura.
Nissan teamed up with Yamaha, known for both motorcycles and freelance coachbuilding, to come up with a hardtop coupe based on the Fairlady. The car was to be shown at the Tokyo Motor Show in October 1963 and was indeed completed in time for the event, but an eleventh-hour decision by management pulled it from display. Instead, the car was unveiled a year later at the 1964 show as the Datsun Coupe 1500. Its crisp-cut lines elicited high marks from spectators, making it one of the major hits of the show.
The Silvia was a coupe body built on a Fairlady chassis. Many of its sporting features, such as a fully synchromeshed 4-speed and front disc brakes, were shared with the Fairlady roadster. (©, 2010 Nissan)
The production version went on sale in 1965, with a 96-horsepower R16 engine borrowed from the Fairlady Sports 1600. To test export waters, it was displayed at the New York Auto Show in April of that year, called the Datsun 1600 Coupe. Albrecht Goertz accompanied the car, an appearance that probably helped fuel myths of its origin. However, American showgoers didn’t share the Japanese audience’s enthusiastic response, and it was deemed unfit for import to the United States. As
a result, all were built as right-hand-drive vehicles.
Nissan had a penchant for naming cars after stage shows, and back home it dropped the Coupe 1500 name in favor of “Silvia,” inspired by the 1876 Leo Delibes ballet Sylvia, about a beautiful nymph from Greek mythology. Fittingly, the car was assigned CSP311 as its chassis code (C for coupe and SP311 from the Fairlady roadster’s chassis code).
Yamaha built each Silvia by hand, a painstaking process that necessitated a 60-percent premium over the Fairlady’s price. As a result, it was decided that the car would be sold as a Nissan rather than a Datsun. Despite its lofty sticker, when the Daisan Keihin Expressway connecting Tokyo and Yokohama opened in December 1965, Kanagawa Prefecture police chose the Silvia as their highway patrol car. That’s because the Silvia wasn’t just one of the most expensive cars for sale in Japan at the time, it was also one of the fastest. Officially, catalogs claim a top speed of 103 mph, but trials at Yatabe Test Circuit showed it reaching as fast as 111.
The CSP311 Silvia is a highly regarded car in Japanese automotive history, so it’s sad that it’s also one of the rarest. By the time production ended in 1968, Yamaha had built just 554. Forty-nine were officially sold in Australia where it was called the Nissan 1600 Coupe. Ten went to other export markets, and the rest stayed in Japan. Only three or four are known to exist in the United States today, and once in a blue moon an Australian finds one in a barn Down Under.
The Silvia nameplate did not appear again until 1975. In the intervening seven years, the Toyota Celica became Japan’s first mass-produced specialty car, which saw huge success in export markets, particularly the United States. Nissan wanted a piece of that action, and went to work on a sharply styled two-door coupe that could outshine the Celica.
This time around, it was an affordable Celica competitor rather than a premium- range topper. To keep costs down, Nissan based it on the B210 Sunny platform, which employed MacPherson struts in front, but a traditional solid rear axle with leaf springs in the rear. Although it didn’t get the benefit of the Bluebird’s independent rear, it did get the 610’s drivetrain, a 1.8-liter L-series mated to a 4-speed manual, with slightly less power coming from a single carb. Since the Silvia now had little to do with the CSP311, Nissan gave it a brand-new chassis code, S10, and touted it as the “New Silvia” in advertising.
Nissan had the US market in its sights from the start, and gave Americans an even higher-grade version, powered by the same drivetrain found in US-spec Datsun 610s—a 2.0-liter L20B and 5-speed manual. Few Americans would recognize the Silvia name, so Nissan called it the Datsun 200SX. Just as it was ready to come to market, US safety regulations mandated 5-mph safety bumpers on all cars. Ungainly steel beams were quickly slapped on, creating what many consider the ugliest Datsun ever sold in the United States. The tragedy is, Japanese-spec S10s have thin, form-fitting bumpers that conform to the overall body lines. It looks quite sleek, beautifully retro-futuristic by today’s standards.
Sales of the S10 never quite matched those of the sportier Celica in either market. The styling was simply too far ahead of its time and, following the oil crisis, Nissan put the focus on clean-air and fuel-economy models rather than performance.
In 1979, Nissan debuted the S110 Silvia, adding a notchback coupe to the existing three-door fastback body style. In the spirit of spreading one model across multiple dealer networks, Nissan also debuted the Gazelle, which was basically an S110 Silvia with more luxurious options. The S10’s out-of-this-world styling gave way to a conservative design that heralded 1980s boxiness, and it was a hit in both Japan and the United States.
The front suspension continued from the S10, but Nissan upgraded the rear suspension to a four-link and coil setup. Under the hood, things became a lot more confusing. It was a period of technological change, and Nissan threw every engine option available into the car. Japanese S110s can have both L-series or crossflow-head Z-series engines ranging from 1.8 to 2.0 liters, carburetion or fuel injection, natural aspiration or turbocharging. Americans were presented with a far less complex checklist from the dealer. North American buyers of the S110 were only offered the 100-horsepower 2.0-liter Z20E in 1979–1981 models, or the 102- horsepower Z22E available from 1982 to 1983. Both were fuel injected and, in spite of the increase in engine displacement, called the 200SX.
The most desirable S110 Silvia came toward the end of its run, when the Japan market received a version powered by the FJ20 twin-cam turbo that powered the R30 Skyline. Nissan had developed the FJ20 for the R30 Skyline, and beancounters in the accounting department wanted its cost spread out among many different models. Nissan chose to offer it in the S110, but only in the notchback Silvia RS Coupe.
There’s one more S110 that needs mention, but wasn’t called a Silvia. The Nissan 240RS was built from 1983 to 1986 for Nissan’s entry into Group B rallying. The FJ24 engine that powered it was based on the FJ20 design, but shared few internal parts and produced anywhere from 235 to 300 horsepower. The program was short lived, however, because soon the World Rally Championship (WRC) changed the rules to favor AWD cars. The FJ24 and 240RS were only used in Group B, but as the rules stated, Nissan had to sell 200 units for homologation. They are identified by a BS110 serial number (“B” for Group B), with an estimated 150 LHD (left-hand-drive) and 50 RHD (right-hand-drive) models. On the rare occasion they come up for sale, the asking price is about $50,000.
Around the time the S110 came to an end in 1983, a wave of front-wheel-drive mania was sweeping over Japan. Perhaps it was forgivable in economy cars such as the Sunny and Bluebird, but over at Toyota even sports coupes such as the Silvia’s old competitor, the Celica, soon made the switch.
Nissan believed that a market for an affordable, sporty coupe still existed and the Silvia/Gazelle line pressed forward with the S12. The new model’s styling went full-blown 1980s high-tech, with retractable headlights that gave it an angular wedge profile. Nissan upgraded the suspension on turbocharged models to an independent rear semi-trailing arm and coil setup with rear disc brakes (post-facelift, all models received the IRS).
Initially, the US-market 200SX received a 115 horsepower 2.0-liter CA20E, and only the fastback could be had with an optional 135-horsepower turbocharged CA18ET. While Japanese cars later received a twin-cam RS-X, some say Nissan did the US market one better by giving us the 160-horsepower VG30E and a bunch of other suspension goodies from the 300ZX. The so-called 200SX SE was available only in the fastback body and in “SE” trim level. For those in the know, it was the ultimate Z-car-in-a-sheep’s-clothing sleeper and was available from 1987 until 1988 when the S12 line came to a close.
Despite the S12’s popularity, many felt it had become more of a high-tech highway cruiser and less of a canyon carver. For the next generation, Nissan refocused the Silvia as a driver’s car, giving us the seminal S13 Silvia. The goal was to woo young buyers living a performance-minded lifestyle with a driver-oriented cockpit and sleek styling. But even in its wildest dreams, Nissan could not have predicted the success of the S13. Unbeknownst to the product planners, the S13 arrived in perfect sync with the drifting boom.
By the time the Silvia was released in May 1988, kids across Japan were sneaking into the mountains at night to slide their cars across hairpin curves as if they had a collective death wish. The front-wheel-drive wave had started, but cars used in these feats of driving skill were typically second-hand FR coupes such as the AE86 Corolla Levin. A few years later, drifting went mainstream, and the S13 was the perfect car for the sport.
Lighter and more powerful than the S12, the S13’s ergonomic cockpit was aimed at one thing—driving. Its new multi-link rear suspension gave it sharp handling and excellent feedback. Exterior-wise, it eschewed the tech-heavy design of its predecessor for a minimalist shape with hints of the original CSP311, especially in the roofline. The sports coupe even won a Good Design Award from MITI and in commercials Nissan dubbed it the “Art Force Silvia.”
Technically, the Silvia name applied only to the fixed-headlight notchback coupe, while the retractable-headlight fastback was called the 180SX, a nod to its CA18DET engine. Even when both models were upgraded to the 202-horsepower SR20DET in 1991, the latter’s 180SX name remained. In fact, the model was so popular, Nissan continued to manufacture the 180SX until 1988, long after the Silvia had evolved to the S14 platform.
In America, the S13 went on sale for the 1989 model year as the Nissan 240SX. The same name graced both coupe and hatchback, and both had the retractable headlights found on the 180SX. Believing Americans wanted more torque, Nissan powered the 240SX with a single-cam 140-horsepower KA24E, often referred to as the “truck engine” because of its use in the Hardbody pickup and Pathfinder SUV. However, Japan’s high-revving SR engines have been flooding into the United States at the hands of tuners for years. Nissan nuts call the 1989–1990 cars the “pignose” because of its twin-opening grille, a corporate face that graced Nissans well into the twenty-first century. The facelifted version of 1991 gave the 240SX a more aggressive but busier nose and a 155-horsepower twin-cam KA24DE.
In response to the Mazda Miata, Nissan began offering a 240SX convertible in 1992, but in an odd misreading of the market Nissan equipped all of them with standard automatic transmissions. Be careful not to confuse USDM droptops with the Japanese-market ones, which were built by Nissan specialty arm Autech. The two convertible models are completely different, as US examples arrived as fixed roof coupes and were converted by American Sunroof Corporation. Due to US “passive restraint” safety laws, seat belts had to be mounted on the doors, resulting in unappealing half-pillars for the shoulder belt and cheap imitation door panels made by ASC. This added about 30 pounds of steel per door, causing them to sag over time. Silvia production ended in 1993, but in the US market the convertible carried on as the sole 240SX offered for the 1994 model year.
Few Americans knew about the existence of drifting at that time, and 240SXs were relegated in popular culture to “secretary’s cars.” If anything, they were front- wheel-drive sport compacts that were gaining traction among American Japanese car enthusiasts. In Japan, however, drifting was reaching a fever pitch and used S13s were rapidly becoming the pastime’s default chariot.
On paper, the S14 appeared to carry on the S13 tradition with handsome styling, a turbo SR20 in Japan, and a torquier KA24 in the United States. Unfortunately, thanks to the SUV craze of the 1990s, sales dropped off sharply and the SX name came to an end in 1998. However, just as the SX line seemed dead and buried, drifting hit the United States in a big way. In Japan, the sport had gotten so popular that a sanctioned series was established. That caught the eye of those in the American tuning scene. Suddenly, used S13s and S14s were being snatched up for conversion into drift machines and SR engines began flowing across the Pacific with regularity.
The Silvia name continued in Japan with the strikingly beautiful S15, a car that seemed tailor made for the D1 Grand Prix. Eventually, emissions regulations and Nissan’s restructuring with Renault killed further development of the line, and the last Silvia rolled off the assembly line in 2002.