A visit to Nissan's 450+ private car collection in Zama, Japan

There is a stereotype that can accurately describe most museums in the world.

Museum buildings are usually done by a world-class architect and situated amidst an area known for culture, trade, or history. Their walls are perfectly painted, the floors are all lined with carpets while the temperature and humidity are all managed to OC levels of precision. The artifacts are usually cordoned off, just beyond arm's length and even if they're not, you can't touch the exhibits because they're priceless fragile artifacts. And they're usually quiet and smell like, well, nothing.

Such is not the case for the Nissan Heritage Collection, a massive collection of Nissan's greats in Japan.

We haven't even gone inside yet and already I can tell that the Nissan Heritage Collection is different. Instead of the sound of jetliners landing at an airport, you'll hear the screams F-18 Super Hornet fighters from the nearby U.S. Naval Air Station. Look around from their parking lot and you won't see any skyscrapers or office towers, instead, you'll see the smokestacks of industry because, after all, we are inside Nissan's Oppama factory. The building itself is made up of concrete, steel I-beams and sheet metal roofing, but what's inside will make any car enthusiast and any JDM fanatic giddy with joy.

Bluebirds and Sunny Skylines: Nissan Heritage Collection Zama Garage image

The Nissan Heritage Collection is actually the private gallery of Nissan; unlike most museums, this collection isn't fully open to the public in the sense that you can't just arrive and view the cars. Visitors from the general public who wish to see the collection have to apply online for a slot and, once approved, can make the trip to Oppama.

Once you do get to go, be prepared for a unique automotive buffet. Once they open that door, the first cars that greet you at the lobby are two of their proudest: the second-generation Nissan Skyline GT-R (KPGC110) along with the Nissan Fairlady Z (S30). Walk a bit more into the main garage and you'll realize why this place is special.

Lined up neatly, row upon row and column upon column are hundreds of Nissan cars from every decade of the company: from the 1930s up to the present day. There were no audio guides as most museums do, but being that this is a factory garage, Nissan brought out their curators to take us through the story of their company.

Much like a grandfather imparting knowledge on us “younglings”, our curator told us about the very earliest beginnings of Nissan, particularly how the company started out as DAT; an abbreviation for the surnames three founders namely Kenjiro Den, Rokuro Aoyama, and Meitaro Takeuchi. The company first made trucks and military vehicles, but in 1930 they came out with their first car and called it the “Datson” or “Son of DAT”. This was later changed to Datsun because “son” in Japanese means loss.

The first Datsun and the models that followed in its wake are on the left of the museum. An interesting tidbit is the hood emblem of these cars in the image of a rabbit; the reason for that is the word “Datto”... it means fleeing rabbit. The emblem protrudes outward like the logo of Jaguar. The curator tells us that it's used by the driver as a handle to stabilize himself when hand-cranking the engine.

Bluebirds and Sunny Skylines: The Nissan Heritage Collection Zama Garage image

Eventually, Datsun was acquired by Nissan. What's interesting is that if the company followed the trend of most of the Japanese automotive companies that have their names derived from the family name of their founder (Toyota – Kiichiro Toyoda, Honda – Soichiro Honda, etc.), then Nissan would be called Aikawa Motors. But such is not the case, as Yoshisuke Aikawa founded the company as Nihon Sangyo (literally: Japan Industries) or Nissan for short.

Look around and you can see the results of that effort, as the Zama garage will literally take you through the decades. From production cars that were made in the early 1930s to the '90s — from Datsun to the Sunny and the Skyline — to priceless examples such as the very car that their current Emperor drove when he was still a Prince. These can all be found in the collection. Incidentally, Nissan also marketed the Prince brand as their more premium tiered models, Skyline included.

The curators and specialists of the museum are actually retired career employees of Nissan, handling various aspects of the brand from engineering, testing, planning and more. The one assigned to our group used to be a product specialist for past Z cars; here they're called Fairlady Z, but overseas we know them as the 240Z, 280Z, 300ZX, so on and so forth. One interesting tidbit he shared with us is the origin of the Fairlady name. Nissan used this because they intended the car to have such good handling and balance that you, the driver, can dance with her like you would a fair lady, so to speak.

Bluebirds and Sunny Skylines: The Nissan Heritage Collection Zama Garage image

The orange Fairlady Z (240Z), above, is actually a rare example called the Z 432. This Z has the straight-six engine of the “Hakosuka” 1970 Nissan Skyline GT-R (PGC10), an example of the latter was also in the garage. With only 420 examples ever made of the Z 432, it is the holy grail of all Nissan Z cars. One of these went under the hammer at Sotheby's and sold for USD 253,000.

They tell us that most of the vehicles in their collection are maintained in good working order; 70%, I believe, was the correct percentage of operable cars in their 450+ roster. Ideally, the curators want to keep 100% of the cars in their collection in working order, but it's a tall task for their small but dedicated crew. Even for them — essentially a factory-backed team of sorts — the parts are getting challenging to acquire.

Bluebirds and Sunny Skylines: The Nissan Heritage Collection Zama Garage image

Really, though, what I was personally looking forward to was seeing the collection of race cars from Nismo. Founded in 1984, Nismo or Nissan Motorsport is the tuning arm of the company tasked with building parts and entire cars for racing. Incidentally, as the Nismo Festival at Fuji Speedway concluded just a day prior, many of the race cars were being brought back into the Zama garage, and most of these are Skyline GT-R's of various generations that competed and won in the All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship (JGTC) and the Super GT.

All of Nissan's most legendary racing cars are here. Over on one side are the Datsuns and Bluebirds that the company brought to the Australian Cross-country Rally and the East Africa Safari Rally, most of which are from the 50's to the late '60s. Most of these early rally cars are preserved in “goal” condition, meaning they have all the battle scars from the Aussie outback and the African wild, such as smashed fenders, body panels, rust, and the like when they crossed the finish line.

As the '70s came in, Nissan started doing more circuit racing, as evidenced by numerous Super Silhouettes (wedge-shaped aerodynamic kits for racing) for the Skyline, the March, the Bluebird, and Fairlady.

There were also plenty of sports prototype cars to see, including some of Nissan's earliest competition cars like the maroon R380, the white R381, and the yellow R382. In the '80s, Nissan competed very actively in various sports prototype championships such as IMSA GT, JSPC and WSPC with the R85V, R86V, R88C, and R89C in their signature blue, white and red colors. In the '90s, Nissan continued their sports prototype activities, claiming the World Endurance Championship title at the 1992 Daytona 24 Hours. What was quite interesting in this collection was the R390 GT1 that took a podium spot at the 1998 24 Hours of Le Mans, as well as the R390 GT1 road version.

Bluebirds and Sunny Skylines: The Nissan Heritage Collection Zama Garage image

Mostly, however, we couldn't help but get up close with their collection of Skyline GT-R race cars. Most of the early ones raced in the '70s in Super Silhouette guise, but what really drew our attention were the R32s, R33s, and R34s that competed in JTCC, JGTC, and Super GT. The Taisan R32 GT-R, driven by Keiichi Tsuchiya and Kunimitsu Takahashi was there, along with the Xanavi Nismo R34 GT-R, the Xanavi Nismo Z, the Pennzoil R33 GT-R and R34 GT-R, and many other incredible machines. A unique R33 GT-R was the one entered in the 1996 Le Mans 24 Hours, and it was paired up with the one-off road-legal version: the 1996 Skyline R33 GT-R LM Nismo. If you ever played Gran Turismo on the Sony Playstation, then Nissan's Zama garage is candy land.

Our time inside this garage, however, was limited. With another group scheduled to come in, it was time for us to head back out and bid farewell to this incredible collection that represents one brand's heritage spanning over eight decades. From road cars to racing cars, to scarred rally machines and even a car that carried the Olympic torch, all can be seen at Nissan's (semi) private garage.

Nissan's Heritage Collection may be out of the way for most tourists in Japan, but if you're a serious gearhead and a Nissan and Nismo enthusiast, applying for a slot online and making the trip to Oppama is so worth the trouble. Just make sure you charge your camera well beforehand.