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Nissan: Truck History

Nissan, the Company that Created the Compact Truck, Looks to the Past to Learn for the Future

Nearly 40 years ago, a small Japanese automobile manufacturer imported a new model to the United States. The Datsun Pickup was not just a new vehicle, it represented an entirely new concept and market - the compact truck. Today, compact trucks are among the best-selling vehicles in the United States and the world.

With the introduction of the newest Nissan pickups - the 2001 Frontier, in 14 different models featuring an available factory-installed supercharged V6 - Nissan continues its proud role as an industry innovator and leader.


1960 Datsun 1200 Pickup
The Datsun pickup, originally offered in 1959 with a 1000cc, 37-horsepower engine, was the first official Datsun model imported to the U.S. With a one-quarter ton payload the 1200 pickup quickly became popular with Japanese gardeners in Southern California, while planting the seeds of Nissan's U.S. sales arm.

"Over the past four decades, Nissan has shaped and reshaped the American truck market," said Bill Kirrane, vice president and general manager, Nissan Division, Nissan North America, Inc. "We plan to do the same through the next century and beyond."

First Out of the Box

On the highways and byways of America in 1959, the landscape consisted of big, gas-guzzling behemoths from domestic manufacturers. Powerful V8 engines were the norm and the worth of a car was often measured by the size of its tailfins.

Onto this scene emerged the Datsun 1000 compact pickup truck - the first truck of its kind. Although the Datsun 1000 only featured a 1000cc, 37-horsepower four-cylinder engine and a quarter-ton load capacity, it was the precursor of better things to come. In immediate iterations, the engine size increased to 1200cc and horsepower to 60.

The revised Datsun 320 pickup hit the American shores in 1961, but it was the introduction of the Datsun 520 pickup in 1965 that caused a sales jump of then-historic proportions from a few hundred units per year to more than 15,000. In its first year, the Datsun 520 pickup became the top selling imported pickup in the United States - a title the company held onto for more than a decade.

Continued Innovations

The success of the Datsun compact pickup drew the attention of other import manufacturers - and following the gas crises of the early 1970s - the domestic manufacturers as well. To stay ahead of entries like the Ford Courier and Chevy LUV, Datsun trucks continued to improve in handling, ruggedness, comfort and safety.

The company also developed a series of breakthrough innovations that have become standard in today's marketplace. In 1969, the Datsun truck became the first half-ton compact pickup; in 1975, Datsun trucks offered the first long beds; and in 1977, the first King Cabâ extended-cab compact truck became available. These latter two options became available during the lifecycle of the Datsun 620 pickup - the fourth generation of Datsun truck - which was in production from 1972 to 1979.

On to Tennessee

An all-new pickup - the last to carry the Datsun name - appeared in 1979, and sales continued to soar. Thanks to this success, Nissan made a corporate decision to become the first importer to manufacture pickups in the United States.

After an extensive search, Nissan chose Smyrna, Tennessee, southeast of Nashville, as the site of the Nissan North America Manufacturing Smyrna & Decherd Tennessee Plant. In the past two decades, Nissan has invested more than one billion dollars into the plant and region, becoming a significant member of the Middle Tennessee business environment. Since the first Nissan pickup rolled off the Smyrna assembly line in 1983, more than 1.8 million trucks have been built at Nissan North America Smyrna & Decherd Tennessee Plant.

The sixth-generation truck, called the Hardbody, was unveiled in 1987 and was one of the company's best selling products, averaging 100,000-plus units annually.

The Frontier, introduced in 1997 as a 1998 model, continued this trend of innovation and ruggedness. Frontier features the largest standard bed of any compact pickup, a full array of features and options, including a powerful 6-cylinder engine, 4-wheel drive and an available King Cab cabin.

The 1998 Frontier took home the J.D. Power and Associates 1998 Initial Quality Study award for the fewest quality problems in its segment.

1998 was also a big year for Nissan's Tennessee Plant, which was awarded the most productive automobile plant title in North America for the fifth straight year by Harbour and Associates, a manufacturing management consulting and automotive research firm.

For the 2000 model year, two new versions of the Frontier were unveiled - the rugged 2-wheel drive Desert Runner and the groundbreaking Frontier Crew Cab, the first true 4-door compact pickup introduced to the U.S. market. Both vehicles have been huge hits at Nissan retailers since they went on sale in May of 1999.

Also making its debut in 1999 was the SUTÔ Concept Vehicle, a combination between a sport utility vehicle and pickup truck built on the Frontier chassis, which demonstrated to consumers what is possible in a truck to make their lives easier through design innovation.

2001, A New Frontier

"Nissan has led the way in the compact pickup market for the last 40 years," said Kirrane, "and we don't plan on stopping anytime soon."

For 2001, the Frontier has received major enhancements, giving the vehicle a bold "industrial" appearance with all-new front-end sheet metal, new fascia, bumper, headlights and fog lights, as well as new fender flares, tailgate cover, wheels and tires and use of unique divot holes outlining the wheel arches.

Nissan's compact truck innovations will continue into the 2001 model year with a variety of firsts - including the first factory-installed supercharged engine offered on a compact truck. The supercharged V6, available in King Cab and Frontier Crew Cab models, produces 210 horsepower.

The 2001 Frontier went on sale in early August, with the supercharged model on sale in November.

Photos: Nissan

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