In the years just after the Second World War, Japan was in turmoil. All across the country, industry was being rebuilt from scratch. Several company name changes and a merger eventually lead to the existence of the Prince Motor Company. True to their majestic name, they manufactured what was perhaps Japans most premium cars at the time. However, it didn’t last: Not every Prince becomes a King.
I have previously on these pages written about another fallen star from the Japanese automotive world: Hino Motors. Already then did I promise to tell the story of Prince – their early struggles, their rise to the top, and then their sudden demise.
Both the Tachikawa Aircraft Company and the Nakajima Aircraft Company supplied a variety of aircraft for Japan’s war efforts. Needless to say, after the war, both companies were dissolved and from those remains grew new companies in an attempt to establish profitable peacetime businesses. Tachikawa became the Tokyo Electric Car Company in 1947, which in turn became the Prince Motor Company in 1952. In the meantime, Nakajima evolved into Fuji Precision Industries who supplied the first internal combustion engines to the Prince Motor Company in 1952 when they transitioned from electrical vehicles to petrol driven. In 1954 the two officially merged to become one.
This was the beginning of a line of high quality automobiles aimed at the upper market of Japans rapid growing interest in the private car. It all started with the Prince Sedan AISH produced between 1952 and 1957. Designwise it was an evolution of the Tama Senior – the last electrical vehicle developed by Tama before the company became Prince. While not ground-breaking in any sense of the word, it was a largely up-to-date and typically early fifties saloon design, not entirely dissimilar to those seen in Europe at the time, but with an element of Russian design in there too.
The 4-cylinder OHV engine developed by Fuji Precision Industries was largely inspired by the Peugeot 202 engine, only enlarged and modified to 1.5 litres giving an output of 45hp. A 4-speed gearbox was standard. Throughout its five year lifespan the Prince Sedan saw constant minor updates and modifications to both design and drivetrain. The final incarnation offered 60hp and independent wishbone suspension on the front axle, while the rear remained a traditional live axle. Both a pick-up version and a delivery van with an estate body were also added to the line-up in 1955 to cater for the many growing businesses around Japan.
The second car to wear the Prince badge was the 1957 Skyline, which represented a huge leap forward. While its predecessor had been viewed as both a large and an accomplished vehicle on the local market, this needs to be seen in the light of the often rudimentary and small Japanese cars being manufactured at the time. However, the new Skyline was marketed as a proper luxury car, and was on the Japanese domestic market only rivalled by the first-generation Toyota Crown and eventually by the Nissan Cedric too which saw the light of day in 1960.
There had been a significant shift in design as the Skyline was now decidedly American inspired with clear influences from the period four-door Chevrolet 210. Plenty of chrome and tailfins were the new agenda. Mechanically Prince initially stuck with the 1.5 litre engine from the previous Sedan, just as a slightly reworked version of its independent front suspension was retained. While the rear axle was still not independently sprung, the traditional live rear axle was a thing of the past, as a much more sophisticated de Dion tube was to be found on the Skyline. The Skyline offered comfortable and relaxed transportation for well-off Japanese citizens on their expanding road network. Again, several improvements were made to the model during its lifespan, leading to quad headlights in 1960, and not least their newly developed 1.9-litre version of the OHV engine in 1961 bumping up the power output to 92hp. As with its predecessor, Prince also offered pick-up and delivery van variants of the Skyline, but as to protect the image of its luxury saloon, these were now given their own identity as the Skyway.
At the very other end of the line – while produced in very limited numbers – there was also the highly stylish and exclusive 1962 Prince Skyline Sport Coupé and Convertible penned by non other than Michelotti. The Italian influence was obvious creating associations with period Lancias such as the Pininfarina designed Flaminia GT and the Vignale designed Flavia Convertible. By the time the next Skyline was introduced in 1964, Prince had sold approximately 33,000 first-generation Skylines within Japan only.
Two years after the introduction of the Skyline, Prince aspired to move even further upmarket and thus introduced the Gloria. This also gave them – in theory at least – a two-model line-up. I say in theory, as the Gloria used both the same body and the same driveline as the Skyline, merely tarted up to offer more comfort and luxury. Of course it was only the bigger 1.9-litre engine which was available in the Gloria. Further to that the front grill was more opulently styled with small dagmar bumpers and all, while the chrome streaks down the side were deemed more stylish than those already on the Skyline. The cabin received a make-over too with the seats being trimmed in plush cloth fabric, and the rear seat got a fold-down arm rest. While the basic dashboard was unchanged, it now included a watch and a radio with two speakers as standard equipment. The first-generation Gloria continued as the range-topping Prince until late 1962.
Their success justified continued expansion, and this time Prince really upped their game leading to the all-new second-generation Gloria being introduced in late 1962. This time it was truly a new and independent model, just as it was a bigger, better and more luxurious car than they had ever built before. Again, the styling was distinctly American inspired, and it had grown a full 30cm (almost 12 inches) in length compared to the outgoing Gloria, much of which benefitted the interior space. The base Gloria retained the 4-cylinder OHV 1.9-litre engine, but there was a new range-topping Gloria Super 6 sporting the first Japanese mass-produced SOHC straight-6 engine. The 2-litre G7 engine was praised for being very cultivated and delivered 106hp.
By 1964 Prince took it up another notch when they bored out their straight-6 engine to 2.5-litres and fitted a 4-barrel carburettor to achieve 134hp and 144 lb. ft. of torque. It was dubbed the Prince Grand Gloria and besides the glorious (pardon the pun!) engine power, it cossetted its passengers with luxuries like an automatic gearbox and not least electric power windows. The second-generation Gloria was in fact so good that it even became the first Prince to be exported, also making it into a number of European countries in the mid-sixties.
At the 1963 Tokyo Motor Show, Prince also presented this spectacular
one-off prototype Prince 1900 Sprint designed in Italy by Scaglione.
With their flagship model seen to, Prince turned their attention to their next Skyline, which was introduced in late 1963 – only a short 11 months after the new Gloria. Again, it was a brand-new construction, which differed extensively from the first-generation car which it was replacing. Prince’s new mid-size saloon was given a much simpler, less fussy design with more of a European flavour – very unadorned and clean-cut, with quad headlights and round rear lights adding a bit of funkiness to the three-box design. Mechanically though, they stuck with the tried and tested formula. After all, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.
So once again they simply revised and further improved the 1.5-litre OHV 4-cylinder engine which they introduced in the early fifties. Initially a 3-speed column shift was the only transmission offered, though a 4-speed conventional floor shift soon became an option, as did a 2-speed automatic gearbox for the Deluxe version. The new Skyline managed to somehow look bigger than it was, but the fairly compact external dimensions also equated to a relatively low curb weight of 960 kg. This in turn meant that the 68hp was enough for reasonably spirited performance, which was easily enjoyed due to a crisp and well-balanced suspension set-up. Both on its domestic market but also on various export markets around Europe was the model widely acclaimed for its high build quality and comfortable driving experience.
Of course it was in 1964 that a true legend and icon was born when Prince introduced the Skyline GT as a homologation special, with the single-minded goal of winning the GT-II class in that years second running of the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka Circuit. However, I shall leave their illustrious motorsport history for a separate article in its own right, as I think it’s fair to say that Prince accomplished at least as much on track as they did on public roads – if not more! Suffice to say that by extending the bodywork of the Skyline by a not insignificant 20cm (8 inches) between the front axle and the front bulkhead, in order to make space for the 2-litre SOHC straight-6 engine from the big brother Gloria, the seed was sown for a long line of high performance Skylines – even if it was only that very first incarnation which bore the Prince nameplate.
Besides the first batch of 100 homologation specials, the subsequent production Skylines were available in two versions: the more potent 2000 GT-B sporting three dual-barrel 40mm Weber sidedraught carburettors punching out 125hp, and the slightly watered down GT-A version which was largely identical except for making due with a single dual-barrel downdraught Nikki carburettor and 105hp. The real pro’s will tell you that there are multiple small details which differ between the GT-A and the GT-B, thus making it possible to identify one from the other (even if a GT-A has been upgraded with the triple Weber set-up later in life). I personally find that the easiest tell-tale is the slightly wider rear arches on the GT-B, where the full length of the crease line extending backwards from the arch is pulled outward ever so slightly on the GT-B. But while the GT-B is of course the superior version, in reality it doesn’t really matter whether you are stood in front of a GT-A or a GT-B, as either way, you will be facing a true icon and a real legend in Japanese automotive culture.
It would seem that Prince could do no wrong! They were on a roll, building quality premium automobiles, expanding their model range and investing in the future. They were held in very high regard – especially within their home market, where they also provided automobiles for the Japanese Imperial family. At the other end of the spectra they had introduced a range of commercial vans and pick-up trucks with the Prince Homy and Prince Clipper. They were set to achieve great things.
And then in August 1966, Prince Motor Company merged with the Nissan Motor Company. Initially the Prince organisation remained intact within Nissan, but as an independent marque they were suddenly gone. Initially discreet Nissan badges found their way onto the Skyline and Gloria Super 6. Then in 1967 a new third-generation Gloria was introduced which was badged purely as a Nissan. That year the Prince Skyline received another updated engine as a new head transformed the 1.5-litre OHV into a SOHC engine resulting in a healthy 87hp. This was to be the last new Prince engine to see production. In 1968 the all-new third-generation Skyline was introduced and just like the new Gloria, it too was marketed purely as a Nissan. Just as the Prince had been about to take the throne, a turn of events lead to a rather different outcome. Almost 115,000 examples of the second-generation Skyline were produced, but sadly it was all over! Just imagine what could have been, if only that merger had never happened…