Nineteen eighty-nine was quite a year for the Japanese automotive industry. INFINITI and Lexus put established luxury automotive brands on notice with their V8-powered performance luxury sedans, while Mazda single-handedly rekindled the world’s love affair with affordable roadsters.
Thirty years later, the second annual Japanese Automotive Invitational, held in conjunction with the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, celebrates these legendary achievements with the theme of Progenitors and Icons: 30 Years of Japanese Luxury.
Along with the groundbreaking INFINITI Q45, Lexus LS400 and Mazda MX-5, more than 50 other historically significant luxury, sport and race cars will be shown at the Japanese Automotive Invitational.
One of the most significant vehicles at the event that most people may not have heard of – but once seen will probably never forget — is the 1963 Prince Skyline Sport Coupe.
The Origins of The Prince Motor Company
Prince Motor Company, arguably the first Japanese luxury automotive manufacturer, was born out of the Tachikawa Aircraft Company, itself founded in Japan in the early 1920s. After producing military and civilian transport planes for several decades, Tachikawa eventually used its engineering expertise to establish an electric car division, which over time began to build internal combustion-powered luxury and performance automobiles. It became the Prince Motor Company in 1952.
The first Prince-badged vehicle, simply called Sedan, was a modest executive car. The Sedan’s successor, however, was the one that set the company on a new path.
Introduced in 1957, the Prince Skyline was available as a four-door premium sedan and five-door wagon. Prince engineers used their aeronautic background to make the Skyline lightweight, allowing it to reach higher top speeds – even with its 60-horsepower, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine – and equipped it with a sophisticated de Dion rear suspension. A luxury sedan version of the Skyline, called Prince Gloria, joined the line in 1959.
The 1962-1963 Prince Skyline Sport Coupe
In early 1960, Prince product planners and engineers hired famed Italian sports car designer Giovianni Michelotti to design and build a luxury coupe unlike any other at the time. One of the most prolific mid-century sports car designers, Michelotti was a quite appropriate selection.
After working for several Italian coachbuilders, including Stabilimenti Farina, Vignale and Ghia-Aigle, Michelotti started his own studio and carrozzeria in the late 1950s. His work included several Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo sports cars, as well as those from British automaker Triumph.
Using the chassis and engine from the Skyline and Gloria, Michelotti penned the coupe with a large, confident front grille and canted dual headlamps, popular design characteristics for American and Italian cars at the time, but rare for period vehicles of Japanese origin. The car’s hood was long and elegant, with a tall windsplit down the middle. Its sides were highly sculpted, flowing into vestigial rear fins that housed the coupe’s taillights.
Yet perhaps the most intriguing feature of the design was the slight kick up, or “crescent cut,” in the coupe’s rear quarter windows, providing a greenhouse unlike any other vehicle on the road.
The Prince Skyline’s interior was crafted of fine leather, the instrument panel – which housed a series of aluminum-ringed instruments – bore a two-tone effect with the addition of black accents, and the large steering wheel would have been appropriate in any Italian sports car of the day.
The design bore the name of “Skyline Sport,” making it a part of the highly successful family of Prince sedans and wagons, and it was a hit at the 1960 Torino International Motor Show.
A decision was soon made to put the car into production, with bodies handmade at Michelotti’s studio. A convertible version soon followed,. Over a two-year model run, fewer than 60 Skyline Sports were built.
At the time, the Skyline Sport may have perceived as slightly more popular, as Prince Motor Company’s marketing department placed their new sport coupe in several movies from Toho Films in the early 1960s.
Prince Motor Company Success and Merger
Soon after the introduction of the Skyline Sport, Prince introduced the first Japanese single overhead cam (SOHC) six-cylinder engine, which was available in the Gloria luxury sedan.
In 1964, the company’s management decided a racing pedigree would help further establish its performance image, and their engineers took a Skyline, extended the car a few inches from the front cowl, and installed the new, 127-horsepower, six-cylinder engine from the Gloria.
The result was called Skyline GT, which was entered into the first Japanese Grand Prix and narrowly lost the overall race, coming in second to the Porsche 904. Several hundred Skyline GT performance sedans were built to homologate the cars for Prince’s racing aspirations.
Propelled by their success in the 1964 race, Prince engineers developed the R380, considered one of the first purpose-built Japanese race cars. The R380 campaigned in the second Japanese Grand Prix in 1966, taking the first two positions against the Porsche 906.
That year also marked the merger between Prince Motor Company and Nissan Motor Company and the former Prince-branded models were integrated into Nissan’s line. The Skyline and Gloria then had a second chapter of successes and have created legacies of their own.
The Spirit of Prince and the Road to INFINITI
In the mid-1980s Nissan Motor Company began to formulate plans for an all-new premium automotive company. The mission of this endeavor was a simple one: to create automobiles that one would want to “take on an endless drive.”
The name of this automotive marque therefore became INFINITI Motor Company, and the logo affixed to each of the brand’s vehicles represents a road without end.
The first INFINITI, the Q45 luxury performance sedan, went on sale in 1989. Over the years, INFINITI’s line of premium automobiles has expanded into a series of coupes, sports and luxury sedans, crossovers and sport utility vehicles.
The heritage of many INFINITI vehicles can be directly traced to Prince Motor Company. The Prince Gloria evolved over many years until it became the original INFINITI M45, which two generations later is represented by today’s INFINITI Q70 luxury performance sedan.
INFINITI has always had a legacy of sport coupes, such as the 1990 M30, which was part of the original INFINITI showroom. In addition, the INFINITI G-line of coupes, sedans and convertibles from 2002 through 2014 are descendants of the Prince Skyline, as are today’s Q50 sports sedan and Q60 coupe.
In fact, some say that if you look closely, the contemporary INFINITI double-arch grille is reminiscent of the Prince Skyline Coupe, and its “crescent cut” rear quarter treatment is certainly evident on the INFINITI Q50, Q60, QX50 and QX60. Plus, the Coupe’s hood windsplit may have just been the inspiration for a similar mark on the Q60’s front fascia.