Datsun: We Are Driven...again?

Is Nissan ready to revive the once-familiar Datsun nameplate?

That’s the word on the web, where various sources, including Japan’s Nikkei, and U.S. site, have been chattering about the possibility that the once-popular brand name will be brought back.  But don’t expect to see it on your next Z-car, it seems.  If the rumors prove accurate, the reborn Datsun will serve as a low-cost, entry-level brand in emerging markets like China or India.

The name dates back to 1931, when the old DAT Motorcar Co. first used Datson to designate its low-end products, since “son” referred to small in Japanese.  When DAT was taken over by Nissan, in 1933, the name was maintained, albeit rewritten as Datsun, the more familiar spelling, since “son” also meant, “loss.”

With that spelling it became familiar as the export name for Japan’s second-largest automaker until 1982, when Nissan began phasing Datsun out and switching to its own badge.  The move was controversial and challenging, many analysts suggesting that consumer confusion led to years of decline for Nissan, which until recently slipped to the #3 spot behind its rival Honda.

According to various reports from the 1980s, Nissan spent more than $200 million – a massive sum at the time – to advertise the name change in the U.S., which ultimately proved a three-year effort, yet even then, according to the book, “Managing Brand Equity,” by David Aaker, the name, Datsun, was still more familiar than that of Nissan five years after the changeover was completed.

Well-placed inside sources tell that Nissan recently took steps to “protect” the Datsun name. ensuring it remained an active trademark still owned by the Japanese maker.  The official word from the maker is that, “As a normal business practice to manage our brand-related activities, Nissan regularly applies for registration of trademarks in certain countries.”

That would make it easier for the Datsun badge to be brought back — but not in the U.S. or other major market, it appears.  Apparently, Nissan is looking at the old brand in a manner similar to what DAT originally conceived.

Datsun would serve as a distinguishing brand identity for a line of low-priced small cars – apparently limited to vehicles costing less than $5,000.  Considering the cost of modern automobiles, that would likely limit its presence to a few markets, such as India, possibly China and Brazil, where it would go up against other models aimed at first-time buyers.  In China, GM recently launched the Baojun brand with a similar goal of attracting buyers in second and third-tier cities.

This isn’t the first time rumors about a Datsun revival have surfaced, it must be noted.  A quick Google search shows reports dating back at least a half decade or more.  One even set a hard date for the news, which it forecast would occur at the NY Auto Show on April 6, 2007.  But, like reports of the apocalypse, it appears those authors misread the tea leaves.  Whether the latest rumors prove more accurate remains to be seen.

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