Curbside Classic: ’74-’77 Datsun 100a (Cherry E10) – Cherry Picking

I’ll come out in the open, this was no casual CC find. Chances played no part in this ‘find,’ instead this ’77 Cherry was hunted and pursued by yours truly. Discovered while perusing the Marketplace, I sought and chased it, moved by a childish-curiosity that could use some kitchen-sink therapy. Therapy? Why yes! Without the Cherry E10 there would be no Cherry F10, one of the ugliest cars ever, and culprit behind some not-so-fondly remembered moments of my youth.

This being CC, a Cherry E10 hunt would also provide a chance to tie some Nissan-history loose ends, by covering this ambitious and star-crossed first foray of theirs into FWD.

Allow me to explain. In recent months I’ve developed a habit of browsing the local Marketplace, both to scan old vehicles and spare VW parts. The remnants of this ’77 Cherry appeared one evening; first as spare parts donor, then to be sold whole as a ‘restoration project.’ Asking price? $600. Steep, but not that bad against childhood-trauma therapy’s real costs.

Childhood traumas? Sort of. As my first COAL explained, back in 1979 Mother was bludgeon-talked into purchasing an eye-searing lime-green Datsun 120A F10 sedan (coupe in the photo). Often finding a spot in ‘ugliest cars’ recounts, ours was saddled with a color that did it even less favors. The car -and its hue- was a matter of much talk in the ensuing years, with Mom regretting the purchase from day one. I wholeheartedly shared her feelings.

Color issues aside, the F10 -unsurprisingly- sold in dismal numbers locally. It absolutely paled against Nissan’s own Sunny (120Y), and fared even worse against Toyota’s Corolla and Publica.

F10s were so rare in traffic that I had always assumed it was the first Cherry sold in the region. Now the Marketplace was showing me otherwise; and Nissan’s original E10 must have sold just as dismally, as I had no recollection of ever seeing one.

So, was it time to face my inner demons? Was I ready to go cold turkey and meet the genesis of my family’s travails?

The Cherry E10 was Nissan’s first FWD model, and launched at a time the company was pushing way-too-hard to regain what it considered its rightful place as Japan’s #1. The Cherry was as ambitious a launch as Nissan knew how to do, embodying all the quirky traits the brand would become associated with in the following years.

Not that the Cherry was a long-in-the-oven Nissan project. Instead, it had been so for Prince Motors, which had been working on a FWD proposal since the late ’50s, long before its merger with Nissan in ’66.

Prince Motors had made its fame as Japan’s provider of premium ‘upscale’ motoring, considering itself ‘Japan’s-Mercedes-equal.’ Coming from an aeronautical-military origin, the company veered into car production after WWII, possessing an impressive pool of engineering talent. After a short stint building electric vehicles, the company moved onto upscale offerings with the Gloria, Skyline, and Laurel. Nameplates that resound to this day. Parallel to this, Prince’s engineers delved into FWD hoping to develop a ‘popular car,’ though their efforts staled under a management fixated on ‘high-profit’ models.

As BMW could tell you, upscale models in a postwar economy are the surest way towards insolvency. Accustomed to ‘safe’ government contracts, Prince’s practices were proving costly and burdensome in real free-market conditions. Enter Nissan into the picture.

Nissan had been Japan’s #1 car maker before WWII, and remaining so in the early postwar years. The brand had also caused a good impression abroad; driven by feedback provided by their US operations, their products were first commended on their dependability, and then on their above-average/good driving dynamics.

The company’s auspicious start hid some troublesome habits, mainly the result of a revolving-door of managers prioritizing short-term earnings over long-term planning. The company was also burdened by a too-spread-out industrial complex (legacy of Nissan’s dealings before WWII) which made operations costly and prone to cronyism.

Thus, Nissan’s management pushed for models that provided higher profit margins, staying away from the razor-thin earnings at the low end of the market. They also preferred ‘locked-in’ clients, attending diligently to taxi and corporate fleets; incidentally where most business occurred in those postwar years.

Meanwhile, a kei car market took off, being tended to by Japan’s smaller -yet quickly rising- carmakers. Toyota decided to take a bite at the segment, launching the subcompact Publica in ’61. In spite of evidence of a steadily increasing market, Nissan eschewed the ‘popular car’ segment for some time to come. Tellingly, Nissan’s president Katsuji Kawamata argued that lower income groups could just drive second-hand Bluebirds.

To be fair, one can see the reasoning behind Nissan’s actions; in the decades before WWII, only corporations and the well-heeled could afford a vehicle. That conditions would improve that quickly in Japan to justify a ‘car for the masses’ was beyond the grasp of Nissan’s greying managers. It was also true that no company in Japan could expand so quickly as to cover all market segments á la GM. Each company hedged a bit its bets in a complicated and quickly changing postwar market.

By the mid ’60s Toyota had made better bets and surpassed Nissan in sales figures. Wounded in pride, Nissan’s management found itself in search of quick solutions. That Prince was ailing, and that Japan’s MITI was looking into consolidating the automotive industry was just a lucky happenstance. Nissan had found their bride-to-be in their expedient effort to leapfrog Toyota. In the deal? Factory facilities and an outstanding engineering department. Not in the deal? A sensible vehicle lineup, as most of Prince’s models either had a Nissan equivalent or pushed further upmarket.

Not that Nissan was totally oblivious to market trends, as in ’66 the compact Sunny was launched to face the Corolla. What was now needed was a subcompact. Time to dust off Prince’s ‘popular car’ proposal. Retaking previous work, Prince’s team (now Nissan Design Center 3) was allocated the Cherry E10 mission. Launched in 1970 to much fanfare by Nissan, the Cherry was positioned as a ‘premium-compact’ for a youthful and affluent lifestyle, with the ‘feel and amenities of a large car.’

So here was a chance to see this little piece of automotive history, Nissan’s first FWD car. Setting ethical qualms aside, I contacted the seller: Could I take a look at the car? Sure! It was in a salvage yard 30 minutes away from the city, and… way out in the boonies? Not the expected scenario, though I was now ‘invested.’

Was I being completely insincere on my Cherry interest? Not quite. While researching my COAL piece last year, I found out the E10 has a devoted following in Europe, especially in the UK and Scandinavia. Being mechanically inclined, could I picture a scenario where I salvaged a few parts to sell online? Maybe, maybe not.

A few miles into the countryside, it was taking longer than I cared for to locate the yard around solitary and muddy dirt tracks. Finally, after driving through a few more bits of mud and tall grass, a bunch of junked vehicles appeared. The yard’s caretaker passed by, already tending to another client and paying little attention to me. No matter, the ’77 Cherry was easy to spot, almost caressing with its butt cheeks a sunbaked Chevy Lumina APV. Incidentally, the APV was another model conceived to leapfrog the competition in an already established market, failing just as splendidly.

Not much of that ‘youthful affluent lifestyle’ to be seen on this Cherry, and hard to picture the car’s real demeanor with what was left. Better look at the mechanical innards, which hopefully would be more interesting.

Here’s the piéce de résistance, Prince’s FWD traverse engine layout. No Giacosa on this one, instead it’s a reworking of Issigonis’ Mini setup, with Nissan’s A10 engine sitting on top of the transmission, and the 2-story layout being canted a slight 5 degrees. A key difference? Prince’s Team kept engine and tranny lubrication separate by relocating some components.

In spite of its sad condition, I was mildly inclined to take the engine and transmission home, just to have a historical piece of Nissan’s transitioning-odd bird into FWD. Better thoughts prevailed though, as my wife loves her garden, and I’m certain idle Nissan engines on our lawn are nowhere in her landscaping plans.

Sans central console the Cherry’s á la Toronado flat floor can be seen, even if looking rather rusty and ready to crumble under one’s feet. Needless to say, the interior’s current condition is a long way from the ‘upscale’ ambiance it was meant to evoke.

Period brochure photos better show the Cherry’s original intent to provide the ‘feel and amenities of a large car.’

With trendy reclining seats, full instrumentation, swanky ventilation system, and multiple amenities; Nissan was ready to show Toyota ‘how’s done’ with the Cherry’s launch.

Going into promotional overdrive, Nissan took on the symptoms of a ‘fallen in hard times’ pop star; going for outré styling and attention-grabbing stunts in search of market dominance. Named after Japan’s national tree, Nissan’s hopes were for the Cherry to ‘prosper and find the favor’ of the Japanese public. A teaser campaign announced the coming of the model, first releasing styling sketches, then a newsprint ad where a partially covered Cherry sped up valiantly ahead. Finally, variants in multiple trim options were to be offered in the appropriately named Cherry dealer network.

Two door and four door sedans were to be the model’s mainstay, powered by the A10 mill. Like a good number of Nissans at the time, the Cherry had sprightly driving dynamics, with full IRS, front disc brakes, and rack and pinion steering. A hotter sporty variant was offered, the X-1, carrying Nissan’s A12 engine.

Styling wise the Cherry carried a reinterpretation of the 240Z’s rear flanks, probably its best angle. The rest is debatable, with the tall engine setup having the car looking a bit tall and narrow, and not as lean as could be. An issue that would also plague Toyota’s first FWD offering, the 1979 Tercel.

That said, the Tercel sold a lot better than the Cherry, which probably has a lot to do with the ever-important styling-matter of ‘detailing.’ Anyone can make an OK beef stew, but to make a great or awful one depends on those final spices added to the mix. And with the Cherry, Nissan definitely went for tangy flavors, none more so than on the coupe; a harbinger of Nissan’s soon-to-come ’70s obsession with attention-grabbing outré styling.

The unfortunate lovechild of a Lotus Europa with Japanese sci-fi props and a Sanyo tape deck, the Cherry coupe enjoys additional genes courtesy of Chrysler brochures from the Exner era. Or so my theory goes.

The model must be quite a blast to drive though, for the coupe enjoys a tiny but devoted following that can go beyond the little critter’s looks.

There’s evidence of that lively performance. On a 1971 comparison against a Renault 6, a Simca 100, and a Hillman Avenger 1250, UK’s Autocar declared the Cherry E10 as ‘the best handling of the bunch’ and that it had ‘light steering – almost like the legendary Mark One Sprite, which was feather light.’ It ultimately proclaimed it ‘the most formidable Japanese challenger yet.’

If Nissan was swinging for the fences, it did so in an empty stadium; with the little Cherry struggling to meet sales expectations. While Toyota sold over a million Corollas from 1966 to 1970, the Cherry barely passed the 350K mark during its eight-year run from 1970 to ’77. (Other sources go as low as 270K).

Worse, the E10’s run was extended as the ’74-’78 F10 fared even worse. To keep a poor-selling model in order to sustain sales against its worse-selling replacement does not a successful business model make.

Japanese sites elaborate little on the Cherry’s sales struggles, mainly claiming the ‘advanced’ FWD format couldn’t overcome ‘buyers’ reluctance.’ Other culprits mentioned are a dislike to the model’s ‘innovative’ styling and questionable packaging decisions.

The FWD point seems moot to me, as Honda’s contemporary FWD N260 sold like hotcakes. I have no qualms about the Cherry’s styling, which probably had a lot to do with sales, or lack thereof. Now, the packaging issue is an interesting one, as the Cherry’s ‘sporty’ fastback forced tight rear quarters and a narrow trunk. Nissan’s curious decisions almost defeated the whole FWD purpose.

It wasn’t always meant to be so. Word is Prince’s Team originally pushed for a 2-box design, while Nissan’s management insisted on a 3-box format claiming it was the ‘popular’ option in Japan. Luckily, Prince’s Team wasn’t completely ignored; along with the rest of the lineup, a ‘Van’ version was released (‘Van’ was Nissan-speak for the wagon). Still, in typical Nissan thinking the ‘Van’ was pushed towards commercial needs.

In the end, I left our post’s ’77 Cherry not finding the will to even take a memento with me. My last shot of the car seemed rather fitting though, as Japanese sites claim the Cherry’s C-pillar is meant to evoke Mount Fuji’s silhouette. What better way to remember this Cherry’s remains than against the profile of San Salvador’s volcano?

Bidding adieu to the ’77, and rather pleased with my hunt, I was ready to put the Cherry chapter to rest. And then…

Wait, what’s that in the distance? Another Cherry?

Full CC effect! What are the chances? Technically lots. I should have seen this sample MUCH before, as it’s located in a projects-building I pass by on a weekly basis. Then again, have you noticed how familiarity is needed to start telling certain models apart from the distance?

This being a low-class building complex, it would be reckless to casually walk in to start taking pics. El Salvador’s fame for gang violence is -sadly- very true, and to enter the grounds would require being chaperoned by a local. I decided to approach a middle-aged neighbor sitting idly by the complex’s entrance:

  • You know the owner of that car? The little black one?
  • Yes, it’s the barber shop’s owner. You wanna buy it? I think it’s on sale!

Of course! How could it not be for sale? Ask about a worthless object in this nation and they’ll always see a chance to make a quick buck!

I was led to the barber shop and stood outside in wait for the Cherry’s owner. The shop was oddly christened EL RABI (Yes, the Rabbi), which even in this nation obsessed with Israeli history was a curious choice. Of course, while in wait I took a chance to capture a mid-’80s Piaggio and a 2nd gen. Tercel sitting around the grounds.

The Cherry’s owner was amiable and honest, rather willing to talk about his car in a not-pushy manner. Bespectacled, thin and middle-aged, he spoke with candor on the car’s details: It was a ’74 model, which he had owned for over a decade and had been in ‘working order’ until recently. Unable to upkeep it, he was sorry to ‘see it go.’

‘Working order’ often being Salvadorian-speak for ‘barely ran,’ I dug deeper:

  • Really? How long has it been sitting here?
  • Not long, it still runs! Just some brake lines need replacement!

True to form, without much hesitation, after a couple of cranks the engine fired up. It ran eagerly and strongly.

Lights and electrics were pretty much all in running order as well. The ’74 also had more of a face than the out-in-the-boonies ’77, though not without the help of some homemade bits.

I’m at a lost as to what material was used in place of the original grille, but it more or less evokes the original.

I did take issue with the oversized front bumper, which butchered some of the front fenders. The add-on violet graphics show this Cherry has gotten lots of love, even if somewhat misguided. Talking about graphic elements, see those ‘eyeline-inspired’ side windows right next to the ‘Mt. Fuji-inspired-C Pillar’?

If you can’t, get some help from this funky-oh-so-fun Nissan brochure, where the ‘eyeline’ inspired windows are better seen right over the ‘Ideal-Cherry’ text on the exploding head.

On the ’74 it was easier to see the car’s stance, which apparently intended an ‘exciting’ image that just doesn’t come across. Not unattractive, but great-looking isn’t what comes to mind. Neither does the term ‘cute’ seem to apply, the salvo of many small cars.

No upscale ambiance on this ’74 either, though the sprayed-painted instrument cluster shows more misguided love.

More Cherry details for your viewing pleasure. Don’t be fooled by the screwed-on badges, they’re original. It’s a local practice to keep them from being stolen, a common petty crime.

Plastic gills were a Japanese styling gimmick of the time. On our ’74, in full Exner mode, some asymmetry was pursued; with gills on the driver’s side, and a -missing- Datsun logo on the passenger’s.

So, was I ready for a bite of this Cherry? Even though more presentable than the ’77, to restore this baby would be quite an undertaking. After all, I was just looking for some kitchen-sink therapy, not full-psychiatric reclusion.

Therapy concluded, it was time to leave the whole Cherry affair behind. For real, this time.

But wait, another Cherry in the Marketplace? Did they all decide to come out in the open just in time to appear in this long-delayed CC post of mine?

And where’s this one? In the small town of my dad’s widowed wife? Well, that’s a 2 street town! (Literally.) I could just drive around until… finally! A true curbside for this post! Although that’s if you count those tires by the roadside as a curb.

Looks like this one sees fairly regular use, though sitting rather tall to meet rural needs? It also seems to have a sawed-in-place Pathfinder grille to provide it with a ‘Nissan face.’ (Is it so? Am I reading my Nissans right?).

Further mods include a shark fin, fared plastic fenders, Publica (or VW?) pickup taillights, and a Goofy sticker in lieu of the C-pillar Datsun badge. The intrinsic human need to ‘personalize’ can certainly create awesomely startling outcomes.

CC readers know Nissan was to embark into a dark search of its soul throughout the ’70s, only to eventually capitulate and fully commit to chasing Toyota’s tail. In hindsight, some therapy might have been advisable for the company, kitchen-sink or otherwise.

As for myself, I’m done with the Cherry saga for now. For real, real. No ill will on my part, little Cherry, just wish you never had any offspring. Uh-oh, such hard lingering feelings! Maybe I should stay away from any further cherry-pickings; it’s obviously doing nothing to improve my condition.

More on the Cherry:

Curbside Classic: 1977 Datsun F10 – It Got an F In Beauty School

COAL Datsun F10: Colors And The Perils Of Being Number 2