Last year was very profitable for Nissan. The Rogue was one of 2022’s best-selling SUVs, the Altima was one of the best-selling sedans, and the Frontier and Kicks weren't far from being top in their segments. Nissan's total revenue was a whopping $78 billion – that's billion a "B."
Decades before the Rogue and Altima were even a thought, Nissan took risks that weren't necessarily successful on a mass scale but paid off tenfold to the enthusiast. Some of the most recognizable sports cars of all time wear a Nissan badge.
The Nissan Heritage Collection is where you'll discover the brand's roots. Located in Zama, which sits less than an hour outside of Tokyo, the museum was once part of a factory that produced 300,000 cars annually. Now the nondescript warehouse on the backside of a battery plant feels like a hidden gem.
Although Zama is technically open to the public, you can’t just waltz in unless you have a reservation. And only about 15,000 people have done so since the museum opened its doors in 2018. Prior to that, most of the vehicles housed inside the facility were part of a private collection. Nissan took over the collection and has grown it to about 280 models. Per museum standards, all of them are in working order.
Our tour guide is a former Nissan engineer of over 40 years who is semi-retired but still does museum tours for fun. He and his two colleagues – each of whom worked for Nissan for over 50 years – had a direct hand in the development of some of Nissan's most iconic cars. They know a thing or two about the collection.
From the moment you walk into the museum, you're reminded of what the "Nissan" badge once represented. A pristine 300ZX (or Fairlady Z in the Japanese market) and a 2023 Nissan Z with a bright orange paint job are parked in the lobby, an interesting representation of how far the brand has come.
Step around the corner and into the main showroom and it's like wandering back in time. The first cars on display are pint-sized; these are some of the first Datsun and Prince vehicles ever produced, the roots of the Nissan brand. In fact, the original Datsun – a 12 Phaeton – is the first thing in the showroom. And it’s adorable.
Parked near that Datsun is an electric car from the 1940s. The tiny Tama was Nissan's first EV, built under the Tokyo Electro Automobile Co. name, and it debuted in 1947 amid the Japanese oil crisis. It was popular with taxi and mini-truck drivers until the Korean War, which spurred the revival of gas vehicles in the region.
Further down the first row is another eye-catching little thing; the Datsun Baby. Restored in 2015, the Baby was built in 1965 and designed specifically for kids to drive at the popular "Kodomo no Kuni” park – also known as "Children’s Land," complete with a dairy farm and zoo. It had a tiny 200cc engine and, very interestingly, a four-wheel independent suspension with a double wishbone setup in front. Only 100 were built.
As you move deeper into the facility, the cars get larger and more recognizable. The first-ever Skyline wears a baby blue paint job and a Prince badge, joined by a line of silver and red GT-Rs, which were among the first examples to ever wear the three-letter logo.
A gorgeous 1969 Fairlady Z432 offers some reprieve from the boxy (but still beautiful) styling of the earlier Nissans across from it, and it's the first and most recognizable piece of the brand's performance heritage on display. More Zs wrap around the next aisle; rally cars, police cars, and safety cars. And there's one exceptionally pretty 200ZG from 1985, the first Nissan sports car with a turbocharged engine.
As the collection dips into the 1990s, more recognizable Nissan icons – at least for me, a millennial – make their presence known. A mint green S13 Silvia sits pretty between two 180SX models. If you were to ask me my definitive top five, this Silvia would be somewhere on that list.
More icons show up in the 2000s-era section, with two impeccable Skyline GT-Rs parked next to each other. The first is a beautiful blue GT-R V-Spec II from 2000 and the second is an even prettier V-Spec Nur from 2001 in a subtle shade of Pale Gold.
And then there's all kinds of weird and wonderful stuff beyond that: race cars, electric prototypes, the first Murano SUV, and of course, an ultra-rare Nissan R390 GT1. If you ever played Gran Turismo, you probably recognize this car. It's one of only two built to satisfy Le Mans homologation rules.
Zama really is an enthusiast's dream. Regardless of what the brand has become, some of the coolest, most iconic sports cars throughout history have worn a Nissan badge. And it's quite a sight to see them all together under one roof. If you're ever in Japan, make sure you book a tour – it's well worth the trip.