If people keep buying something, why not keep selling it? That’s what Japanese automakers figured from the Australian automotive market in the 1980s. Conservative, rear-wheel-drive, locally-built, four-cylinder cars wearing Toyota, Mitsubishi and Nissan badges were dominating the mid-size segment, long after their counterparts overseas had been replaced with more modern front-wheel-drive sedans and wagons. Ford and Holden had bigger rear-wheel-drive sedans available, so for their mid-size offerings they were happy to embrace the FWD layout. The three locally-manufacturing Japanese automakers milked their Corona, Sigma and Bluebird for as long as possible but by the mid-late 1980s, they each had developed different approaches on how to replace their breadwinners. Nissan, uniquely, used local engineering know-how to create their own mid-size, rear-wheel-drive offering from the corporate à la carte menu: the 1986 Pintara. To sit above this, they offered the six-cylinder Skyline. Together, high hopes were pinned on these new Nissans.
Toyota had offered the first FWD Camry in a single, well-specified hatchback trim as their premium mid-size offering, and continued with their stodgy RWD Corona until 1987. Eschewing the FWD Carina/Corona offered in Europe and Japan, they instead chose to build the ’87 Camry in Australia. Mitsubishi had widened and modified their FWD Galant of 1983 to create the four-cylinder 1985 Magna, an immediate hit offering four-cylinder economy with a spacious interior and even a unique wagon not offered outside of the Asia-Pacific region. To hedge their bets, though, their aging RWD Sigma overlapped the Magna by 2 years.
Then there was Nissan. Even though their FWD compact Pulsar had been successful, they chose RWD for their Bluebird replacement. What sounds like a conservative choice actually betrays their ambition: Nissan wanted a piece of not only the mid-size pie, but also the full-size Falcon and Commodore market that had been down to just two entrants since the demise of the Chrysler Valiant in 1981. They also sought to score some market share from imported Japanese sixes like the Toyota Cressida and Mazda 929. The Skyline had been offered since 1973 as a premium, imported offering but for 1986, the R31-series would be built locally, albeit with an imported Nissan inline six shared with the Holden VL Commodore. The four-cylinder Pintara would rival the smaller Ford Telstar, GM J-Body Holden Camira and Toyota Camry.
With such ambitious plans to tackle three discrete markets with variations of the same car, one wonders why Nissan chose to style the Pintara/Skyline to look almost identical to the outgoing, 1981-vintage Skyline. The Pintara and Skyline were to be Nissan’s bread-and-butter models next to the Pulsar, helping to maintain Nissan’s decent share of the market until replacements would come at the dawn of the next decade. And they made it look like this, like a clip art car drawing from a Yellow Pages ad for a mechanic. Even the interior looked dated.
The (lack of) beauty was only skin-deep. These were well-built, solid cars with well-sorted dynamics and relatively spacious interiors. The mechanicals were conventional, with a live rear axle out back and McPherson struts up front. The Skyline’s smooth inline six produced 157 hp and 185 ft-lbs, competitive numbers for the time. The six-cylinder Nissan was impressive enough all-round to be crowned Car of the Year by Modern Motor. But the less powerful Pintara was unsurprisingly less impressive: its fuel-injected CA20E four-cylinder engine struggled to move 2900 pounds of Nissan and produced just 104 hp and 118 ft-lbs. That was the problem with offering more metal for the money: you needed an engine that could adequately move said metal around. The Pintara, even in wagon form, wasn’t dramatically bigger than the Camry inside but it was noticeably heavier and slower.
The price spread of the ranges from base Pintara to loaded Skyline was over $AUD10,000, with the former keenly priced against the Camry and Holden Camira and the latter priced model-for-model just below Falcon and Commodore. The Skyline lineup was topped by the luxurious Ti, which undercut key rivals by up to $9000 despite boasting a heady feature list that included power windows and crushed velour upholstery. Those seeking something less conservative could opt for the sporty Silhouette, with a standard limited slip differential albeit no changes to the engine. Two-tone paint and a rear spoiler helped visually enhance the Skyline, but they could only do so much.
While the Skyline and Pintara were consistently in the sales top 10, that was generally because their sales were combined. It must have stung Nissan to see rivals like the Mitsubishi Magna, available only with a four-cylinder engine, outsell their mid-size and “full-size” offerings combined, sometimes by almost double. Even the more compact Camry outsold both the Nissans combined.
’88 Skyline taillights on a Pintara
Nissan believed slow sales of the Skyline could be attributed to its too-close resemblance to the Pintara. In 1988, the Skyline was facelifted (Pintara was unchanged) although the visual changes were subtle at best but for cool new, CD-shaped taillights and a slightly canted-back front fascia; mechanical changes included a new automatic transmission.
A sporty, limited-run Silhouette GTS topped the Skyline range in an attempt to boost Nissan’s image; its suspension had been fettled by the fledgling Nissan Special Vehicles Division. Nissan saw an uptick in sales for 1988. By this time, though, they were well under way on Project Matilda, their new mid-size sedan.
The Skyline was replaced by the imported Maxima for 1990, while the Pintara was replaced by another vehicle named Pintara, the Project Matilda car, that was utterly different (the R31 wagon lingered for a year longer). The new Pintara was simply an Australianized and locally-built version of the U12 Bluebird/Stanza, shared with Ford, and it was not particularly well-received. Australian Nissan build quality and reliability seemed to have declined over the years, and the new Pintara was dated at launch and nowhere near class leader status. Nissan Australia started bleeding red ink, and by 1992 they closed their Australian factory in Clayton, Victoria.
Could Nissan have toppled Ford and Holden with a more attractive Pintara and Skyline? It seems unlikely, as Australian automotive history is filled with cars that tried and failed to topple the big Aussies, like the Toyota Avalon and Leyland P76. Toyota has traditionally done exceptionally well in the four-cylinder mid-size market but remained fairly irrelevant in the six-cylinder segment. Mitsubishi has come the closest, particularly with the 1996 Magna, an Australianized version of the near-luxury Diamante. But even their good fortune came to an end and the Falcon and Commodore stood tall. Kudos to Nissan for trying and for producing a capable and dependable car with a wide range of variants. But, umm, maybe they should have styled it.