In the eternal struggle between the two Japanese automotive giants that are Toyota and Nissan, few cases of oneupmanship were as symbolic and as the protracted Battle of the Barges – a five-decade-long war of attrition between the Century and the President. Today, we will see how Nissan lost this momentous battle and left the field, so far without return.
It was always Chicago rules between Toyota and Nissan. I’ll see your Patrol and raise you a Land Cruiser. One yelled out Crown, the other bellowed Cedric in retort. Flocks of Bluebirds were set upon herds of Coronas. It was non-stop. In the luxury car war, Toyota fired the first shot with the 1964 Crown V8, but Nissan were ready and launched the President a year later.
Nissan’s move had been a deft one. The Crown V8 was wider and fancier, but it was still pretty similar to a common Crown S40. The President 150, on the other hand, was entirely new – the chassis, the 4-litre V8 (the Crown only had a 3-litre), the body and the nameplate were all created specially for the new flagship. Toyota had to scramble and launched the Century in 1967. Score: Nissan 1 – Toyota 0.
Nissan Presidents could be ordered with a 3-litre 6-cyl. alongside the V8. The Japanese Prime Minister rode in a President, which should have raised constitutionality issues. The Imperial family wisely avoided to partake in the Century vs. President conflict and kept their bespoke Prince Royals going for decades. In 1973, the President 250 arrived. It was essentially just a new body to fit the existing chassis, plus a V8 bumped up to 4.4 litres to keep ahead of Toyota. The score by then was Nissan 2 – Toyota 0.
However, by keeping their model pretty much unchanged year after year and by careful image management, Toyota started to unnerve Nissan. The Century got a 4-litre V8 and a facelift, but essentially remained the same it always was – classy and discreet, gliding effortlessly through the ‘80s. The President, by contrast, got a square-quad facelift in 1983 that really uglified it. By the end of the decade, Toyota had scored a point.
Nissan’s answer was to completely re-engineer the President for the ‘90s. It so happened that the Infiniti programme was getting off the ground at the same time, so Nissan made it easy for themselves: the new President would share the Q45’s platform, with the same all-alloy DOHC 4.5 litre V8 and IRS – a welcome infusion of modernity. The two cars would also share plenty of sheetmetal, which is where the story went awry.
The main difference was the wheelbase, which was 15cm longer in the President, and the many interior refinements one could specify. Styling was naturally another differentiator – the Q45’s infamously grille-less snout would not have been appropriate for a CEO-mobile. The President piled on the bling like its life depended on it – which, in a very real way, it did.
Slathered in chrome and filled with gadgets, the new President was shown at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show, happily coinciding with the start of the Heisei era (i.e. a new emperor on the Chrysanthemum Throne – these things matter for some people here); the first cars actually hitting the streets only in late 1990, after all of the previous generation’s stocks were put in circulation.
So did Nissan score another point in the Battle of the Barges? Well, not really. The Toyota Century did seem more antiquated, but given the super-conservative clientele these exclusive automobiles were aimed at, that was not a bad thing. And try as it might, the new President did look like it was based on a car that mere mortals could purchase at will. Centuries and Presidents were not available for the general public: they were company cars, strictly chauffeur-driven and sold by invitation only. A certain level of bespoke-ness was to be expected, and it seems the Nissan was a bit short on that.
The Century had started to stretch, too. The Toyota flagship was now available with two choices of extended wheelbase. Nissan had to follow suit and created the slightly oxymoronic President Royal. They even tried peddling it to the Imperial palace, who (politely) replied that they were still good with their 1967 Prince limos.
Not that interior space and appointments were anything to criticize for the standard-wheelbase President. Rear seats could be reclined (at least until they had to fit side airbags in there in the mid-‘90s), legroom was more than ample, TV and refrigerated drinks compartment came as standard… Everything the busy government minister could possible want was there. Persian carpets could even be ordered for a reasonable ¥300,000 extra, which our feature car’s owners did not deem essential, much to my chagrin.
One thing the President did that the Century did not was to offer a short-wheelbase “owner-driver” version, the President JS. The car’s size was identical to the Infiniti Q45. In fact, it was a Q45 in all but name and trim. (The “normal” President was the Sovereign.) And there is where the plot was lost.
Nissan cheapened the President’s image too much. It was still exclusive and expensive, impossible to buy and incredibly luxurious, but the JS was a variant too far. In a highly class-conscious society like Japan, driving your own limo was definitely not done. Which is not to say the Nissan did not sell any JSs – they did, but in doing so drove the snootier and most conservative part of their clientele towards Toyota, who delivered the final blow in 1997.
The first all-new Century in 30 years landed on the Nissan President and crushed it. It was 100% bespoke, down to its 5-litre V12. There was no way Nissan could answer that. Instantly, the President looked like the older and inferior car it was. Toyota scored 10 points in one go. Game over.
Well, they did have their pride, so they persevered with the nameplate for yet another generation, launched in 2001 and based on the latest Cima. But it was clearly no longer in the same league as the Century. Even the Imperial palace had to concede that the V12 Century would make for an acceptable conveyance – the new President was not even considered.
Besides, by this point in time, Nissan had tied the knot with Renault – an unacceptably foreign influence was being brought to bear on the perennial number two Japanese automaker. They could justifiably still call their flagship “President,” but “Sovereign” no longer (though they still used that trim name, of course).
The Battle of the Barges mirrors the story of the two marques that fought it. Toyota were a bit complacent at the beginning, though they replied in kind to the upstart Nissan’s challenges. Nissan tried hard and scored early, only to fumble badly in the second half and ultimately withdraw from the battlefield, chastised by an opponent whose means were impossible to match.