Curbside Classic: 1998 Nissan President Royal Limousine by Autech – The Overstretched Underperformer

The Japanese often abbreviate “Nissan” with the numeral 23, as in the vernacular, the number two is pronounced ni and three is san. But it also kind of relegates the carmaker as the perennial number two or three behind Toyota and whoever else (typically Honda or Mitsubishi) is nipping at Nissan’s heels at that moment in time. The number four, shi, is considered unlucky, as that syllable also means “death.” This limousine represents 23’s shi era, i.e. when Nissan were in dire peril, pretty blatantly. And luxuriously, too.

The President Royal Limousine became a massive stretched albatross hung around the carmaker’s metaphorical neck, chiefly because nobody wanted one – particularly the folks for whom the initial cars were built. Royal Limousines were proudly made by Autech, the specialist shop Nissan set up in 1986. Autech was headed by Shinichiro “Skyline-sensei” Sakurai, and their initial remit was more oriented towards performance, like a sort of Alpina or AMG, than luxury. But it was the ‘80s and both vitamin supplements and extra cheese were the name of the game, so Autech had to do its parent company’s bidding.

This started with the 1987-90 Cedric Royal Limousine. Based on the Y31 Cedric / Gloria saloon, this stretch was aimed at the (tiny) market of CEOs who wanted to have something with a bit more legroom than the regular Toyota Century or Nissan President. Interior fittings were plush – this was no Mercedes W123 Diesel airport taxi. But the base car was fundamentally a trumped-up taxi in any case, so sales were minimal. Production numbers are unclear, but it’s safe to assume less than 100 were made with a separation, as one could option the car without it; the number of cars made without a separation was smaller still.

The Cedric limo actually came out at the exact same time as the new Mitsubishi Debonair V stretch limo. So there was something in the zeitgeist, with the country’s wealth inflating to hitherto unknown levels and foreign imports flooding the top-end of the market, though both of these cars ported modestly-sized V6s.

Toyota were sucked into this little game of one-upmanship and responded with the gargantuan V8-powered Century limousine in 1989, a rather definite answer to the question “who’s got the biggest.” Nissan weren’t about to take it lying down, though.

For in 1990, a completely new Nissan President was launched, signaling an end to the 60’s era for the Nissan flagship (but not for Toyota, whose own ‘60s era Century lasted until 1997). In terms of engine, the President was level-pegging with the Toyota in terms of size, both V8s weighing in at 4.5 litres. But the Nissan mill was much more modern, with DOHC, multipoint EFI and all that cutting-edge stuff.

However, the way to really get under Toyota’s skin was for Nissan to score the most exclusive of niche markets in the country: the Chrysanthemum Throne. Back in the mid-‘60s, Prince had won that particular battle royale by manufacturing a handful of completely bespoke limousines for Hirohito, powered by a 6.3 litre V8 made specifically for this extremely limited-production car. It was the first time a Japanese carmaker had been so honoured, and the selection of Prince was probably influenced by the carmaker being favoured by Crown Prince Akihito. Nissan and Prince merged even as the cars were being delivered to the Palace in 1966-67, so Nissan managed to capture some of the glory by hastily tagging their name on the cars, which were known as “Nissan Prince Royal.” It seems five chassis (four limos and a hearse) were made in total.

Here is where the President Royal Limousine story really starts – and where the narrative will require a dose of conjecture to move forward, as sources are few, translations unreliable and lines must be read in-between. So please take the rest of this post with a grain of salt and, if available, a glass of sake. Here goes.

Now that Akihito had succeeded his father (in 1989), Nissan were poised to repeat their ‘60s PR masterstroke. After all, the imperial limos were getting on it years and were emblematic of the previous reign, so perhaps the new monarch could be made to see the value in getting a brand new fleet of limousines. The all-new President was deemed more than adequate for the task by its maker, though the car needed something a little bit extra to satisfy such a unique clientele.

Autech set about transforming a handful of Presidents to Nissan’s specifications. The cars were to be strict four-seaters, like the Cedrics: all the imperial house needed was to be seen by the people as they wafted by, so there were only ever two rear passengers in the Prince Royals, or any imperial car. Sometime in 1993, Nissan presented the finished item to the Palace, and the answer was something to the effect of “Meh. We’re good.”

In 2006, the old Prince limos were finally replaced. The contract and the glory went to the V12-powered Toyota Century. Nissan weren’t even considered, it seems. Was “President Royal” deemed a contraction in terms, perhaps? (I jest, but still, it’s a tortuous name.) In a further affront to Nissan, the Proudia-derived Mitsubishi Dignity, another spectacularly ill-fated attempt at a luxury limo, is at least used by the Palace – the Crown Prince rides in one, usually; other parade cars include drop-top Cadillacs and the like, for lower-tier dignitaries.

But the Nissan President limo was never accepted in this rarefied circle. Was is because it was felt Nissan had already had a bite at the apple with the Prince Royal, or just because Nissan assuming they’d be given the job of imperial limo-maker, if true, was seen as a more than a little presumptuous?

That snub must have left Nissan royally pissed off, but there was nothing they could really do – except displaying a limo at the 1993 Tokyo Motor Show and slap a price tag of ¥25m (roughly US$225,000, but those are 1993 dollars) on it to see if anybody else might be interested. For that amount of money, you could, if you preferred, purchase five fully-optioned R32 Skyline GT-Rs.

But assuming you were a corporation or some kind of government branch (the only entities that were really allowed to purchase anything like a President anyway), what did you get for your money? A metric shit ton of luxury, that’s what. Fit for an Emperor, don’tcha know. The tinted glass foisted my attempts at capturing the rear compartment, but it looked pretty much like this factory photo.

The amount of toys included in the rear cabin was astounding, and included a fax machine, a full refrigerated bar, an electric kettle (for a crafty cup of green tea), TV and VCR, reclining seats and so on. Optional extras included Connolly leather upholstery (priced at ¥2m for the whole car) and Persian rugs instead of the standard floor mats.

How much of a stretch are we talking about, by the way? Autech added 50cm to the President’s 303cm wheelbase, giving us a car of 5.72 meters long – or 225 inches. This is Japan’s Electra 225! So in effect, Nissan just re-created the ‘70s American land yacht – albeit for the price of a Rolls-Royce. Weight was around 2.3 tons, so we’re definitely in full-fat Buick territory.

Whoever ordered this particular car wanted to stand out of the crowd. No fender mirrors? Interesting. The white paint, if original, is also unusual for this type of car. Black seems like it was the default setting for these, judging by what one sees from the paucity of photographic evidence that can be gathered on the web. I was only able to find one full article (in Japanese) with actual detailed photos of a (black) car. There is also a set of pictures of a 1998 car (also black) that was sold in Aichi for ¥2.85m sometime in the past couple of years and… that’s about it. Other articles reference Nissan’s brochure and factory photos like the one above, but no actual cars.

According to one Japanese source, only 11 of these limos were ever completed by Autech before the President switched over to being a gussied-up bug-eyed Cima in 2002. Another article, about a guy who got his hands on a spare limousine grille (they are pretty unique to the car) talks of “20 units,” but it’s unclear whether he’s talking about the car or just the grille. Several (most?) Royal Limousines would have probably been built in ’93, to pressure the Palace into using them, and subsequently sold off. Our CC has the modernized front end of the post-1997 cars, but if production numbers really were as low as rumoured, it’s possible that some limos went back to Autech to get a modernized front bumper and xenon headlights later on.

When I found a VG40 Century limo back in Rangoon, I was elated at almost literally unearthing such a rare gem, right from under the tower block where I lived. But I reckon those are almost common compared to this Nissan President Royal Limousine, so I’m pretty psyched about this find – which occurred again very close to home, strangely enough.

So next on my list is an unobtainium-plated Mitsubishi Dignity, if possible in my living room.

Nah, it wouldn’t fit.


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