It’s not every day that we host a marque for the first time on CC, especially one that made great cars on an industrial scale, as opposed to some obscure artisan-type outfit (don’t get me wrong, I love those too.) Let’s look at one of Japanese automobile history’s milestones: the very last Prince model that was still badged as such, the S57 Skyline.
We don’t talk much about religion on this website, which is a good thing. But assuming you are of a monotheistic background like a good many English-speakers, Japanese religious beliefs are about as exotic as they come. They mix three belief systems that don’t quite intersect but co-exist alongside each other: take a form of State religion (Shinto), add a healthy dose of Buddhism and spice it up with a cornucopia of ancient animist gods (the God of rice, the God of the river, etc.). Important things need to be appeased and thanked for their bounty. Is there a God of classic cars? If there is, I need to make a donation. Finding a pristine ‘60s Skyline – the last and best of its kind, as I now understand – sitting alone in a parking lot felt like some sort of divine intervention.
OK, I may be pushing it a bit. Maybe I should set a higher bar for “divine intervention” than a 50-year-old Skyline. Still, that car was just planted there in the open, making it an exceptionally easy subject to photograph. That in itself is not half remarkable – how many times were my efforts thwarted by boxed-in beauties in poorly-lit surroundings, or spotted too late driving away? CC hunting can be a frustrating sport. In this case, there were no chain-link fences or hedges to contend with, no blinding sun or pouring rain to ruin the occasion, no suspicious onlooker wondering what this foreigner I was up to. Guess I got really lucky…
It would take me a little while to untangle the mysteries of the whole Prince saga, so here’s the deal about just the Skyline. We’ll get to the bigger picture some other time – perhaps in a Japanese edition of the Deadly Sins, if I find the energy to plough through that much terra incognita. The Skyline saloon was launched in April 1957. This first iteration had a 1.5 litre 4-cyl. engine producing 60 PS and a rather sophisticated suspension: double wishbones and coils at the front, leaf-sprung De Dion at the rear. In 1959, the Skyway wagon variant appeared; in 1960, the Skyline was given quad headlamps and big rear fins (top right), as well as the Gloria’s 1862cc 4-cyl. The headlamps were lowered into the grille for the first generation’s final facelift (bottom left) in 1962. That year, a Michelotti-designed Skyline Sport coupé and cabriolet was briefly (hand-)made by Allemano in Turin, but it was soon abandoned for being a bit too pricey for the JDM.
In November 1963, a completely new Skyline arrived. Known as the S50, it kept its predecessor’s suspension, but was a full monocoque (Japan’s first), thanks to which it shed over 300 kg. The 1.5 litre engine returned (producing 70 PS) and a 1.9 litre Diesel became available. In mid-‘60s Japan’s burgeoning 1.5 litre mid-sized saloon market, the Prince Skyline rapidly became the car to beat. One of the S50’s most celebrated aspects was its low maintenance cost: a contemporary Corona or a Bluebird chassis had to be greased every 3-4000 km, whereas the Prince only needed that service every 30,000 km. The engine was also under a 40,000 km / 2-year warranty, more than double the competition. The Skyline was also the quickest, had the best ride and was the darling of the Japanese film and TV directors, thanks to Prince’s appetite for free publicity.
But Prince wanted even more recognition for their cars – something like racing cred, for instance. To that end, they lengthened the Skyline’s nose by 20cm (8 in.) and shoved the Gloria’s OHC 6-cyl. in there, along with disc brakes, thereby creating the S54 Skyline 2000GT. The long nose really didn’t do much for the car’s esthetics, but the point was to make sure the longer engine would be (mostly) within the wheelbase for better handling. Prince entered a clutch of souped-up S54s into the 1964 Japan Grand Prix, where they performed beautifully, taking 2nd to 6th place behind a Porsche 904.
The 6-cyl. Skyline was quite successful within Japan, but was also exported, just like the S50, though sometimes under a different name. Australia and New Zealand got the bigger Skyline as the PMC A200 GT, while Europe got the smaller one as the PMC-Mikado A150. Another mystery of Japanese automotive branding. On the JDM, the 6-cyl. model was available in two rates of tune – the 2000GT-A and 2000GT-B. The latter, which arrived in late 1965, got a triple-carbureted 125 hp engine, a 5-speed gearbox and a limited-slip diff. Even as Nissan assumed control of Prince in late 1966, the S54 got a slight facelift with a new grille, revised taillights and C-pillar vents.
Although Prince Motor Co. were being digested by Nissan, there were new designs in the pipeline that still got the green light. After all, Nissan were just fine with adding the Skyline and Gloria to their expanding empire, though major technical changes would come in due course. In September 1967, the S57 Skyline was launched. The 4-cyl. engine had been completely revised with an overhead camshaft and a host of other modifications, pushing the output to 88 PS (87 hp), making this ultimate iteration of the “small” Skyline the fastest of the breed – and of its class on the JDM. A red “88” badge was installed on the front grille, as well as a small “OHC” script on the rear panel. Revised front fascia and taillights, as well as discreet Nissan badges, completed the look.
Armed with this plethora of insignia and its peppy engine, the Skyline was ready to become Japan’s answer to BMW and Alfa Romeo, its real competitors on the global market. But I’m not sure the global market took any notice, as I do not think these were widely exported. I did find one recently at the Jesada Technik Museum in Thailand, so some of these late 4-cyl. Princes did go abroad. But I doubt they went as far as Milan or Munich.
If there is one aspect where the Prince shows its age, it’s the interior. The design of this cabin looks far more 1958 than 1968, certainly compared to the aforementioned BMW or Alfa saloons. The long floor-mounted gearstick entails a 4-speed manual – the only transmission available on this model, I believe. The lesser S50 could get that too, but it came standard with a 3-speed or could be provided with a 2-speed auto, both mounted on the steering column.
The Skyway wagon was discontinued in 1967, so the S57 was only available as a saloon. I’m not sure who penned the car’s lines, but it was a fine job. Chrome accents are plentiful but not overwrought, the greenhouse is still slightly tinged with wraparound glass, the proportions are pretty much sport on. The front grille has a bit of a ’64 Impala feel to it, but the (much) narrower Prince body only makes that a fleeting resemblance. For some reason, as I photographed it, I kept thinking it had some ’64-’65 Studebaker as well.
Although it’s a very good design, in my view, there is something off about the Skyline’s wheels and overall height. Good ground clearance was still pretty important in Japan in those days, when paved roads were still not universal. I get that. But the fact remains that this car looks like it’s sitting up on stilts. It’s just perched up on those tyres, looking ever so slightly gangly and awkward. I’m not a fan of lowered suspensions in general, but in this case and in my personal opinion, reducing the gap between the body and the wheels would work wonders for this car’s stance.
The Skyline is still with us today and it has continued being Nissan’s a sporty little number, just as it was for Prince before it – an admirable and rare example of longevity. One of the only durable styling features of the bloodline are the round taillights. And the 2nd generation had them, at least in the beginning. For some reason, i.e. because it was a facelift year, the 1967-68 Skylines do not have that distinctive trait. In a way, this is a shame. In another way, it just makes this Skyline all the more unique.
Another unusual feature of the Skyline – and an important factor in the nameplate’s survival – is that they were overseen for decades by the same person. Automotive engineer Shinichiro Sakurai (1929-2011) was put in charge of the Skyline project from the beginning, in the mid-‘50s, and remained the model’s “showrunner” well into the present century, even after he was made president of Nissan subsidiary Autech in the mid-‘80s. It was Sakurai who pushed for dropping the 6-cyl. into the Prince Skyline to create a hot car, creating an enduring subculture of Japanese RWD sports saloons.
In August 1968, the last S57 Skylines left Prince’s Murayama factory in Western Tokyo. The model had barely lasted a year. The A30 Gloria had already been re-baptized as a Nissan in mid-1967; now a new generation Skyline was to enter production, without Prince badges. Just like the A30 Gloria, the C10 Skyline was a 90% Prince design – the Nissan influence was chiefly limited to the suspension, which reverted to a live rear axle, but the brilliant 1.5 litre OHC engine was carried over. Subsequent generations merged with the Nissan Laurel and lost the Prince heritage, which was probably inevitable, but managed to keep some of the original model’s spirit.
The C10 Skyline is a more attractive car in many ways. It has a lot going for it esthetically and was a tremendous success on the JDM. Hopefully, I’ll catch one of those and feature it here one day. But the S57 Skyline’s very short production life, unique styling and last-of-the-Mohicans nature makes it a more important car, historically. I’m struggling to find detailed production data for the 2nd generation Skyline, but it seems Prince made about 115,000 of them – whether that’s all models together or just the S50 is unclear. Still, the 1st generation (1957-63) barely broke 30,000 units, so it looks like the S50/S54/S57 was something of a hit. The name Prince survived in the “Prince Store” network of Nissan dealerships, where Skylines are still sold. Prince is dead, long live the Skyline!
Car Show Capsule: 1973 Nissan Skyline C110 GT-R – Delectable, Rare Wagyu, by William Stopford
Curbside Capsule: 1986-90 Nissan Pintara/Skyline – The Boxes Enter The Ring, by William Stopford