Curbside Classic: 1990 Nissan Laurel (C33) – The Last True Hardtop Sedan

It’s going to take a lot of effort for me to find something to criticize here. I really like this car. It’s a real hardtop. It has (most probably) a straight-6 that powers its independently-suspended rear wheels. And despite it being a late ‘80s design, I even like the styling. This Laurel, the Pao and the R32 Skyline are proof that Nissan were kings of automotive styling circa 1990 – the polar opposite of where they were circa 1975, in other words.

The only possible fly in the ointment would be the name, a perennial problem with the Datsun legacies. As everybody knows, the Japanese language only has one sound for “r” and “l” that sort of sounds like a mix of both. So there are a number of foreign words that are very hard for them to pronounce – including words that contain both the “r” and “l” sound alternatively. Usually, Japanese companies avoid these. Pity nobody told Nissan.

Laurel can thus turn into “Raulel,” “Laulel” or “Rauler” – the difference is almost indiscernible to Japanese ears. The Laurel got its bizarre moniker because Nissan thought English would ensure international success. That’s what Toyota did, so why not emulate them (as per usual)? This cargo cult thinking resulted in cars called Cedric, Violet, Fairlady and Silvia – almost poetic, but also somewhat effeminate and decidedly not very apt appellations for vehicles in English-speaking countries.

Many of these oddly-named Nissans (which were usually Datsuns anyway) were therefore re-christened when they went abroad, usually with some mindless alphanumeric. That’s if they were destined to be peddled overseas at all, which depended on the Nissan’s market penetration, the value of the Yen and how local tastes and laws would accommodate a particular model.

The Laurel, launched in 1968 as a sort of tarted-up Bluebird with an independent suspension at the back and a Prince engine in the front, initially existed as a coupé and saloon. The Laurel was part of Nissan’s international lineup throughout the ‘70s, though it was sometimes known as the Datsun 200L. It’s unclear to me why they felt the Laurel ought to be renamed, because unlike other Nissans, this one actually had a rather good name, albeit an unpronounceable one in its home market.

Engine choices mirrored the Skyline: 4- and 6-cyl. options, roughly in the 2-litre range, with a Diesel tagging on from the late ‘70s onward. The fifth generation (C32, 1984-88) was the odd one out, as Nissan decided to switch to their new V6 (in 2- and 3-litre form, as used on the Cedric / Gloria) instead of the usual RB in-line six. They evidently saw the error of their ways and reverted back to the Skyline format for the C33 we are looking into here.

Body variant-wise, the early generations of the Laurel were limited to a coupé and a saloon. Then, in the late ‘70s, a hardtop sedan joined the range. The coupé then left the scene (and was reborn under the Leopard name), leaving only four-doors in the ‘80s range. By January 1989, when the C33 was launched, the hardtop was the last Laurel standing.

And a hardtop it remained until the very end, otherwise known as the 8th gen (C35), bowed out in 2002. But the C33 we’re seeing here was the last true hardtop that Nissan ever designed. There are no B-pillars on this car. Nissan kept the pillarless design going as long as they could, but by the mid-‘90s, Japanese safety standards were tightened and JDM hardtops got thin B-pillars – a trend that actually started in the mid-‘80s with Toyota and Honda “pillared hardtop” sedans. That was probably seen as pointless by the buying public and ultimately caused the death of the breed, as it had evolved in Japan, early in the new millennium. I’m not aware of any four-door hardtop being produced later than this car – if anyone knows better, the CComments section is wide open.

Name aside, the only problem with this particular Laurel, or rather the problem with this particular photographer, is that it’s tricky to capture this hardtop’s genuine pillarlessness (is that a word? It is now!) in photos when the windows are up. It’s plain to see when you’re physically there, but for some reason it doesn’t come out that well in stills. The roof-mounted seat belts might have something to do with it.

Only one solution: factory photos. Those show this Laurel’s hardtoptitude (definitely not a word, but I’m on a roll) with more clarity than I ever managed when faced with the C33 in the metal. This is the Medalist version, i.e. the sportier / swankier trim. Tacked on spoilers don’t do anything for me, though – I prefer the feature car’s smooth behind over this one.

Perhaps because of its styling, its drivetrain, its RB-series straight-6, its pillarless body or all of the above, the C33 Laurel has now become a firm favourite of the drift crowd. Many have been modified as street racers – lowered suspension, fart can tail pipe, huge tyres and the like – and unmolested ones are getting mighty scarce, which makes this survivor all the more delectable.

Aside from the drifters, this generation Laurel is also favoured by at least two CContributors, namely fellow Japan-based gaijin Jim “Lincolnman” Brophy-san, who wrote the seminal CC post on the Laurel (see link below) and Scott “NZ Skyliner” McPherson, who actually owned one. We should defer to this latter gentleman in particular, as nothing can top for actual experience.

I understand that Scott had the 93hp 2.8 litre Diesel in his C33 Laurel. I would be very surprised if this one were similarly powered, though a lack of any badges means the truth will likely elude us forever. Is it a base model with the 91hp 1.8 litre 4-cyl., or does this car sport the legendary 212hp turbocharged RB20DET straight-6?

Whatever powers it, this C33 Laurel is still in daily use and, though obviously well cared for, it is starting to look a little weathered. Those wheels could do with a bit of a clean, for starters. Nothing out of the ordinary for a car that is pushing 30 and sleeps outdoors. At least, it’s aging gracefully.

They sold about 345,000 of these (a pretty impressive number) until the C34 generation took over in January 1993. That’s when the hardtop sedan died for good. With all due respect to the ’78 Chrysler New Yorker, that was the last American-made hardtop sedan, but the JDM took the baton and ran with it solo for a while yet. Nissan in particular carried on with that fine tradition for another 15 years.


Related posts:


Curbside Classic: 1982 Nissan Laurel “Special Edition” – It Has a Continental Connection, by Jim Brophy

Car Show Outtakes: 1974 Datsun 200L Coupe – Laurel C130 Series, by Johannes Dutch