This is a car that must have you scratching your heads. After all, it is a peculiar Australian-only body style of a Japanese sedan with an American badge, using an old English name. I was surprised to see one in the metal, as they are a rare sight nowadays. The subject of my photographs is a Ford Corsair ‘superhatch’, a rebadged version of the Aussie-built Nissan U12 Pintara, sold from 1989 until 1992. And there’s quite a bit more that needs to be explained…
As you may be aware, Ford, General Motors and Toyota all manufacture cars in Australia, although not for much longer. A few years ago, though, Australia had an even larger automotive industry, with both Mitsubishi and Nissan building cars domestically. Mitsubishi left in 2008, but Nissan pulled out much earlier in 1992. The Australian car industry had previously been heavily protected, with tariffs driving up the cost of imports. This would begin to change in the 1980s.
To cut a long story short, Senator John Button spearheaded a federal government plan to rationalize the industry and lower the level of protection. This plan was called the Motor Industry Development Plan, but was popularly known as the Button Plan. The government consulted with automakers and announced the plan in 1984.
Thirteen models had been assembled by various manufacturers, including the Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore, and import quotas and tariffs had been instated to protect them. The Button Plan aimed to cut that number of protected vehicles to six models and thus force the industry to consolidate and double down on a few different cars, strengthening the local automakers and their products’ competitiveness before tariffs were to be gradually reduced. Of the local automakers, only Mitsubishi didn’t participate.
The fruits of this program included oddities like the Nissan Ute and the Ford Maverick (Nissan Patrol), as well as the Toyota Lexcen (Holden Commodore), Holden Astra (Nissan Pulsar) and Holden Nova and Apollo (Toyota Corolla and Camry).
The Pintara nameplate was previously used on an Aussie-built, four-cylinder version of the R31 Nissan Skyline. Despite the wonderful RB30E engine that Holden saw fit to borrow for its VL Commodore, the Skyline and lesser Pintara never posed a major threat to the Falcon/Commodore in sales due to frumpy styling and a narrower body.
For 1989, the rear-wheel-drive Pintara sedan would be replaced by a new front-wheel-drive Pintara based on the U12 Nissan Bluebird (Stanza in the US). The R31 Pintara wagon and Skyline would linger for another year. This new, smaller Pintara was part of Project Matilda, after Waltzing Matilda, a horrendous Australian song about a thief which some people bizarrely wanted to make our national anthem.
There would be no more wagon, with the Pintara and its Ford Corsair counterpart launching only as sedans. However, 1990 would bring this practical but somewhat unusual “superhatch”, which was exported to Japan as the Bluebird Aussie, complete with a free plush kangaroo toy and some other gimmicky details of Australiana. Both Pintara and Corsair would have a choice of two fuel-injected four-cylinder engines: the CA20E 2.0, with 111hp and 118 ft-lbs; or the 2.4 KA24E engine with 128hp/139 ft-lbs, used in the US market Stanza, 240SX, Hardbody and Pathfinder. Two transmissions were offered, a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic.
The Corsair replaced the Telstar sedan in the Ford Australia line-up. Introduced in 1983, the Telstar nameplate was used for a restyled Mazda 626. The first generation had been made in Australia, but the second-generation Telstar launched in 1987 was a Japanese import.
For 1989, the sedan would be axed in favor of the cheaper Corsair range, but the TX-5 hatchback would remain as a more premium mid-size offering. Prices for the TX-5 ranged from AUD$25-32k, while the Corsair would slot in from $AUD18-27k.
The Pintara was available in a range of trim levels, priced between $AUD18-29k, with the base GLi manual and Executive auto aimed at fleet buyers and powered solely by the 2.0, and the T and luxurious Ti featuring the 2.4 and aimed at private buyers. A sporty TR.X model was launched in 1990, featuring the same 2.4 but a firmer suspension, a striking bodykit and the Ti’s viscous-coupling limited slip differential. The turbocharged engines and four-wheel-drive available in JDM U12 Bluebirds never arrived in Australia, though.
The Corsair’s lineup was simpler: sedan or hatch, 2.0 or 2.4, manual or auto, GL or Ghia. The latter continued Ford’s tradition of putting the Ghia badge on just about every model; it and the high-line Pintara Ti were available with features such as alloy wheels, fog lights, power windows, power mirrors and even rear passenger audio jacks. The price range for the Pintara and Corsair was lineball with the less powerful Camry, although you could get an imported Camry V6; the Pintara did offer a warranty twice as long as the Corsair or Camry, though, and there was no sporty variant of either.
The 2.4 was more powerful than rival four cylinders, taking the duo from 0-60 in under 10 seconds. A Modern Motor comparison test from June 1990 pitted the Corsair and Pintara against the Camry/Apollo twins and the Mitsubishi Magna (an Aussie version of the Galant sold in the US from 1985-88, cut down the middle and made just over 2 inches wider). The journos were impressed by the torquey, tractable 2.4 and handling that was more entertaining than the others. A smooth-shifting transmission and a power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering with good feel added to the duo’s dynamic qualities. However, a common criticism of the Project Matilda twins was their bumpy, unsettled ride, with a suspension that wallowed and crashed over bumps.
The biggest criticism of the Matilda twins, though, was their quality. Modern Motor panned their test vehicles for poor fit and finish, with frayed interior trim, loose trim pieces, mediocre paint and poor panel fit. Interestingly, the Mitsubishi wasn’t vastly better, but the Camry and Apollo – both manufactured in Australia – were very well screwed together. This quality criticism would be echoed by other automotive journalists, including those at the NRMA who derided the Pintara for a tinny feel, poor sealing and lackluster paint finish.
Wheels magazine’s annual quality ratings for 1991 showed that quality didn’t improve over the duo’s run. The Pintara was ranked dead last out of 20 vehicles, even being beaten by the Hyundai Excel. The assessors said the standard of quality was consistently poor, with faults going beyond the aforementioned fit and finish issues. The test Pintara was plagued with squeaks, rattles and NVH; the engine bay was “shoddy”, with corrosion beginning to appear and both the headlights and handbrake were already out of adjustment. The single positive comment listed out of the 238 characteristics assessed was that the floaty ride had acceptable bump absorption. It was likely this lack of quality that was a major factor in the duo’s poor sales, considering the better assembled Camry was priced the same. Not to mention, that locally built Camry was the highest-ranked Aussie-built car in the Wheels quality study, and was pipped only by five imported models. Obviously, there were higher assembly standards at the Toyota factory.
Poor sales of the Pintara and Corsair were a major factor in Nissan shuttering its Clayton factory in 1992. It didn’t help that the fresh new N14 Pulsar was selling slowly out the gate due to higher MSRPs vis-à-vis its incentive-laden predecessor, or that Australia was in the midst of a recession. Nissan’s Australian operations had only recorded marginal profits for two years between 1981 and 1991; by the time it released a truly competitive product (the new Pulsar was Wheels’ Car of the Year for 1991), and committed to raising their assembly standards and reduce their rampant discounting, it was too late.
The Pintara/Corsair were an anomaly in terms of Button Plan vehicles, as generally the donor vehicles (Camry, Commodore etc) sold extremely well and it was just the rebadges that were forgotten by the market. Buyers just didn’t have much of an incentive to buy a Pintara/Corsair over the more established competition beyond its torquier engine and longer warranty.
With Nissan’s Aussie factory closed, the Pintara was replaced by the imported Bluebird (Altima), and the Corsair by the return of a Telstar sedan, once again based on the Mazda 626. Despite a rising yen driving up the cost of imported models, Australian manufacturers would spend the 1990s gradually dropping the number of locally manufactured models, such as the Ford Laser and Toyota Corolla. Sadly, it would be just the beginning of the slow death of the Australian automotive industry. Not every car made here was of the calibre of, say, the Holden VF Commodore. Sometimes, we put out some duds.