The mysterious A550X was the prototype for a joint venture between Yamaha and Nissan in which Albrecht Graf von Goertz was involved as a consultant. The A550X also resembles the Datsun Z. But was von Goertz really the ancestor to the Z – as the myth suggests?
No. At least not if the answer to that question has to be either a clear yes or no. In reality, the matter is a rather more complex than that. Also, the answer inevitably depends on how much you put into the term “ancestor”. The projects are related and even have a connection to the Toyota 2000GT, but to view Goertz as a primary force behind the Datsun Z as we know it today, is plain wrong.
Goertz had worked for BMW in the fifties, and by the early sixties he wanted to expand the horizons of his New York-based business towards Japan. He made contact with various large Japanese companies, not solely in the car industry but also with the aim of landing other jobs in the broad field of industrial design. Attempting to get a foothold in this up and coming market made perfect sense, as Japanese companies were keen to export to America and as a designer based in America, Goertz was one of the first to recognize this opportunity.
In 1962 he did indeed land a contract with Nissan, and with a job title of design consultant he was to cooperate with Nissan’s own designers. At this time Japanese cars were not renowned for their design qualities, and generally the Japanese cars catered for the lowest ranks in the automotive hierachy. But Nissan did have the sporty 1600 Roadster, and Goertz joined a project with the task of transforming the open car into a coupé – which eventually became the Silvia 1600 Sports Coupé.
Nissan had recognized that time was running out for the traditional arch-sportscar – open, impractical and rough-edged. They sensed that especially the Americans wanted something more usable and felt that the inclusion of a sports car would boost the image of the Nissan programme as a whole. As it turned out, the little Silvia could not quite lift the task, though: It debuted in Tokyo in 1964, and a couple of cars were flown to New York for the Motor Show of 1965 as well. The reception was less than enthusiastic. Even Nissan’s own dealers estimated very slim chances for the elegant little coupé, all of which lead to the svelte Silvia in the end never being exported out of Japan at all. Still, Goertz did keep one of the exhibition cars to use as his own personal transport i New York – even though his contract with Nissan was finished by 1964.
In parallel with the Silvia, Nissan had begun work on a more modern GT – still on the basis of the 1600 Roadster and therefore a rather small car. This project was done in cooperation with Yamaha who would supply the engines as well as build the prototypes. The task of designing the car was handed to four of Nissan’s own designers and Goertz was assigned to them as a consultant. His primary role here was the design process itself, however – most notably the use of modern visualization techniques and the use of full scale clay models to show the designer’s ideas.
Half a century after the teamwork which lead to the creation of the A550X prototype, it is quite unclear just how large a role Goertz had concerning the actual design: His primary task in the team was not design as such – but they were a team. Which ideas went where and by whom they were aired first is impossible to distinguish. Anyway, the Yamaha prototype was rejected and the project in the end shelved by Nissan.
Entrez Toyota, which had also seen the possibilities in American market, and in parallel with Nissan were working on a very similar concept: A two-litre sports/GT-car to elevate the marque in the market. The Toyota project had begun early in 1964, and with Nissan now out, Yamaha was free to change partner regarding the sports car project – and they did want to make automobile engines. So Yamaha suggested Toyota they build them an engine. The two entered a contract in January 1965 and by the final agreement the cooperation was not just about developing and building an engine, but also on finalizing the development towards productionready prototypes.
Just as happened at Nissan, the Toyota was sketched out by a team within the company, and as this design was finished in 1965 it is quite clear that Goertz did not have any influence on it at all. It is also very doubtful whether there was any other input (i.e. technical) from the A550X, since this was based on the Nissan 1600 Roadster – at least at the beginning of the project. Note also that the first A550X had glassfibre bodywork while the 2000GT was always metal. However they are clearly very similar and Yamaha did build the prototypes of both. And as we know, Yamaha ended up building the production 2000GT as well.
So, in the light of all the above: Can the A550X be considered the ancestor to the 2000GT? No, not really, can it?
But what about the 240Z, then? Even though Nissan ditched the A550X in 1964, the sketches for the prototype were still decorating the walls of the design studio – to no avail? Well, yes and no: After Toyota had showed the 2000 GT in 1965 – to a combination of wonder and appraisal from the press – Nissan resumed work on their own sports car. In 1966 their new design team was fully operational, and now had the advantage of being able to see how Toyotas bid was coming along – which was very badly. From a commercial point of view, the 2000GT was no less than a disaster. It was not a bad car, on the contrary, but it was more expensive than the period Porsche 911 and the Jaguar E-type too – and thus, did not sell. One reason was that the focus on sport was still too pronounced.
That caused the Nissan design team to adjust their design brief late in 1966 where they decided to make the Z a little larger and more practical. It grew taller, heavier and even gained a hatchback, so in the end the team arrived at the Z we know today. In 1967 the engine size was determined: It had to have six cylinders and more than two liters of displacement in order to gain the highway superiority the American customers would expect. This meant some changes to the low bonnetline – which was minor work compared to later in 1967 when the biggest change occured: The width grew a couple of inches. While it might sound quite simple to merely “add two inches in the middle”, it meant a lot of detail work to maintain visual harmony and coherent proportions.
The final prototype was ready in 1968, and after productionalizing the car in its entity, the Z was introduced in 1969 as a 1970-model where it – as we all know today – truly took the world by storm. While it does superficially resemble the A550X prototype a fair bit, the Z is in reality an entirely different car, both physically as well as conceptually.
Does that make Albrecht Graf von Goertz the ancestor to the Z? Well, it very much depends on definitions and your general view on the subject. Broadly speaking you could say that the Nissan Z and the Yamaha A550X do share of lot a visual cues. On the other hand, the Z is very much more than an upscaled version of a former design – it is an entirely different concept as well. On that account, I conclude as in the introduction that the most correct answer is: No. Goertz did not directly contribute as much as a single brushstroke to the final Z. Perhaps then as the spiritual contribution to the Z, whether as a concept or as a design? Well, again: Even if you do consider the A550X as a sort of predecessor to the Z, you must remember that even his contribution to that design is rather unclear, as mentioned above.
Tracing the roots of the above becomes even more clouded by the fact that Goertz himself was very unclear in his statements about the process. As a designer he needed to have his name associated with succes – while Nissan as (an upcoming) car producer needed to be recognized for their own achievements. In 1978 Goertz was interviewed by Car&Driver magazine, and in the article he was credited as the man behind the Z. That line really caught on, and since then innoumerous articles – and even books – have repeated that statement. So that article is really the origin of the Goertz and Z-myth.
After mutual repetitions of the myth, Nissan sent a letter to Autoweek Magazine in 1980: Among other things they wrote that it was completely unthinkable that Goertz had contributed to the design of the Z, and that he should not be associated with the car. This made Goertz’s lawyer write Nissan a letter, which their legal departmant answered as such:
At your request, we have examined the relevant evidence pertaining to the development of the highly successful Datsun 240Z which was first introduced in 1969.
You were retained by Nissan during the period from 1963 to 1965 as an automotive design consultant. During that period, you consulted with Nissan on the basic methods of styling a general sports car. You were also the sole design consultant on a two-liter sports car which Nissan was trying to develop as part of a joint venture with Yamaha. This car was not produced.
While it is our view that the design of the 240Z was the product of Nissan’s design staff, Nissan agrees that the personnel who designed that automobile were influenced by your fine work for Nissan and had the benefit of your designs.
NISSAN MOTOR CO., LTD.
Signed Toshikuni Nyui
Interesting, isn’t it? The official answer is again neither a yes or a no. In fact it is not even a “maybe”. Which makes me conlude the following on the road from Albrect to Z: Firstly, that road is not a straight line. Secondly, there is a very lovely Japanese classic at the end of it.