Dearly beloved, let us spare a moment, a thought and a (mental) funerary wreath for the eighth and final generation of Laurels, the C35. It was a brave and beautiful sporty-ish sedan, very typical of the late ‘90s Nissans. But that, it turns out, was precisely what spelled the nameplate’s doom, as Nissan were circling the proverbial drain at the time and took down a bunch of ancient legacy names with them.
I found two nearly identical cars – both white, later model Medalists (i.e. deluxe trim) with stock wheels. The above was caught in Gunma Prefecture and is the slightly better one, as it’s a Medalist 25 – that means it has the bigger engine, which I guess is a good thing. But no matter what was under the hood, these late Laurels are now fast becoming a rarity, at least in fully stock garb like these. Most of the pics I’ll be using were taken in Tokyo, as that C35 was actually parked curbside rather than in a busy lot, which makes for better photos in general.
Under the skin, the C35 Laurel is a Skyline. Essentially, the nameplate became the Skyline’s companion car back in the C130 of early ‘70s, so nothing new under the rising sun. But up to the 5th generation (C32), the Laurel had a couple of body variants at least. The C33 Laurel arrived in 1989 as a de facto Skyline hardtop saloon, and this positioning continued until the Laurel line ended.
The C33 was a genuine hardtop, but those were about to fall victim to enhanced passive safety regulations, so the body style carried on officially, but a discreet B-pillar was added. Frameless doors do not a hardtop make, I hear you cry. Yes, but that’s what the Japanese definition of a hardtop ended up being by the mid-‘90s, when the last true hardtop saloons died out.
The Laurel ended up being a faux Skyline with a faux hardtop, which became a real headache for Nissan. As long as times were good and people fancied stand-up hood ornaments, all was well. But the economy crashed and the premium car market crashed with it after 1991, leading Nissan down a very perilous path. The C33, made from 1989 to 1992, was the high point of the Laurel nameplate: Nissan sold close to 350,000 of those. By comparison, the C34 Laurel (1993-97) only convinced around 170,000 buyers.
So the next generation of Laurel was clearly going to be a sink or swim situation. The Nissan designers tried their best to give this car a sportier edge than the competition. Because sporty is good, right? People want sporty and a chrome grille. The only problem was that Nissan produced a few too many of these cars themselves. To wit: the pillared-but-quite-sporty Skyline, the luxury-sporty Leopard and several variants of Cedric/Glorias, also of the sportier variety. The Cedric/Gloria and Leopard were V6-powered, but the Skyline had the very same straight-6 found in the Laurel.
It was kind of hard to make sense of the Laurel’s very existence (not to mention the Leopard’s). Nissan‘s management seemed asleep at the switch, letting the ship go off the rails while the wheels were falling off the plane, upsetting the apple cart into a death spiral of a mixed metaphor that ended up rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Shit was about to go down, in other words, and it wouldn’t be pretty…
The C35 Laurel was launched, against the background of its maker’s impending doom, in June 1997. The famous RB series DOHC straight-6 was under the hood, either in 2-litre (155hp) or 2.5 litre (200hp) guise, the latter being also available with a turbo, which bumped power up to 280hp. Sportier trimmed cars were dubbed Club S and did not have the Medalist’s toothy smile, opting instead for a trendy mesh grille. Diesel fanatics could opt for a 2.8 litre six that only provided 100hp, but few such cars would have been ordered.
The only transmission available on this generation of Laurels was a 4-speed automatic. Some models could be delivered with AWD, as well as Nissan’s HICAS four-wheel steering, but otherwise power went to a pair of independently-sprung (and unidirectional) rear wheels.
Laurels were built at the old Prince factory in Murayama next to the Skylines, but when that was shut down (another consequence of the arrival of Carlos Ghosn) in 2001, so the final year of Laurel production was shifted to another site. And in December 2002, the last Laurel went out the door, closing the book on 34 years and eight generations of continuous production. Just over 100,000 of the final generation C35s were sold, making it the least popular of all Laurels. So perhaps nixing this nameplate was the right call…
Nowadays, these C35s are available for a song. These are probably still driven by their first owner, but when time for them comes to buy something smaller or quit driving altogether, some drifter will probably use it as a basis for a street racer. Or it will donate its precious RB to keep a more valuable Skyline on the road.
In summation, it could be argued that the C35 Laurel is the ultimate pre-Renault Nissan Q-ship. These should be available for import in the US from this year, so perhaps a few will make it across the Pacific. It would be like having a Skyline, arguably with better styling, but nobody would know what it is. Very cool, über cool or just the coolest RWD Nissan of the 2000s?