By now, everyone has heard of the Toyota Century: Japan’s exclusive luxury sedan for its domestic elite, positioned above even Lexus. It’s a status symbol with no equal in Kyoto—except, perhaps, the Nissan President.
Toyota wasn’t the only Japanese carmaker to stake its image on an ultra-exclusive luxury sedan aimed at its home market, nor was it even the first. The Nissan President beat it to the punch, and it exchanged white-gloved blows with the Century into the new millennium.
In the end, while the Century outlasted it, and is today the better-known of the two, that’s no mark against this esteemed Nissan. The President is still stately, still makes a statement, though that statement has changed with time and distance from its origin. But even if its glory is a little faded, the Nissan President is still a top-notch luxury sedan, with conspicuous echoes of American land yachts that are no accident. And like so many things from the 1970s and ‘80s, Japan simply did it better than we did.
[Editor's Note: JDM Week at The Drive is brought to you by Duncan Imports, one of America's largest importers and resellers of Japanese domestic market vehicles. Big thanks to owner Gary Duncan for opening up his private collection and allowing us to take a few for a spin. If your interest is piqued, you can see the company's full inventory here.]
1989 Nissan President Specs
The President was introduced in 1965 as the flagship—no, the flagpole-topping ornament of Nissan’s lineup, beyond the Cedric Special and competing Toyota Crown Eight. At the time, it had the biggest engine displacement—4.0 liters—and the largest body of any domestic car in Japan. That’s both because it was modeled after contemporary American cars (which is why it looks like one), and because it catered to the country’s top business and government officials. It was more than insubstantial excess, of course: the President was the first Japanese passenger car to feature power mirrors and door locks, as well as early mechanical anti-lock brakes. It also got a head start on the Toyota Century, which didn’t launch for another two years.
Nissan carried that formula forward for the second-generation model in 1973, which is said to be more of a facelift than a true redesign. It looks even more explicitly like an American car, though at a smaller scale—it’s two feet shorter and six inches narrower than a 1973 Cadillac DeVille.
It didn’t go as wild with displacement either, offering either a pushrod 3.0-liter inline six or a 4.4-liter V8. Both were carbureted and linked to a three-speed automatic transmission. Neither its double-wishbone front suspension nor leaf-sprung rear trailing arms were groundbreaking, but its digital clock (added 1975, Nissan’s first) was. Also, it was still profoundly expensive. Registration fees alone supposedly equaled the annual salary of new college graduates at the time.
And so it remained until 1990, receiving minor updates but no major changes throughout the rest of its production run. You’re probably wondering why Nissan let a Malaise Era dinosaur, one aimed at its wealthiest clientele, coast along for 17 (or maybe 25) years—it was months from coexisting with the Honda NSX for chrissake.
That’s because the President (and the similarly long-toothed Century) had the same cachet that the Mercedes G-Wagen does today. Customers didn’t want them to change because their anachronistic styling was a status symbol. The general public couldn’t tell if it was looking at a ‘73 or a ‘90, all it saw was a car whose back-seat passenger was somebody. Maybe a successful businessman whose favor they’d want to curry. Maybe an important official they didn’t want to cross. Maybe a yakuza crime boss they really didn’t want to cross.
The point is, a Nissan President was much more than a nice place to chainsmoke: It was a statement. And while the passage of 50 years (half a century, heh) hasn’t changed either of those things, it has changed the reasons why the President is still special.
From first approach, the Nissan President is as familiar as it is alien. Wiped of badges, it could be almost any 1970-ish luxury sedan, but then you notice the fender mirrors, the corner markers, the touches of holdover ‘60s trends that give you pause—there’s a whole lotta Chrysler C-body in this; those taillights look like they might’ve been stolen straight from a ‘69 Plymouth Fury. All the while, its high headlights and grille elevate its nose as high in the air as its passenger’s, almost as if to say, “Please speak with my secretary.”
The disorientation only increases when you open the driver’s door (right side, of course) and expose Nissan-stamped sill plates and electric seat adjustment switches that look quintessentially ‘60s American. But the woodgrain dashboard, the switchgear, and deep, lush sofa-like cloth seats all feel ‘70s, sans the cost-cutting we associate with U.S. cars of the time. Then you come to the instruments and tech: a digital clock, cassette deck, back-seat climate controls and audio system with an AUX jack—they all ring ‘80s. These are three distinct eras of automotive design that are a little discordant, but in a way that pleasantly surprises as you notice additional details about the interior.
Like the switches that let the rear passengers adjust the front seat for their own comfort. The briefcase-sized seat back pocket, the trio of rear ashtrays, the door-mounted cigarette lighters and adjustable personal vents to really circulate that secondhand smoke. Even the front row gets a lighter and smoker windows—the interior of this particular example doesn’t quite reek, but these features sure have been used.
Because the President staked its claim as the most prestigious car in Japan, its build quality means the interior still holds up well. There’s also tons of head- and legroom, maybe not the same abundance for elbows, but it feels like a place even an insomniac could catch some Zs. In theory, you could do that in the trunk too: Presidents’ trunks could definitely fit a person, maybe two. Under yakuza ownership, I’m sure they have.
The front seat experience here is technically secondary, but by no means is it second-rate. The driving position is reclined, relaxed, the steering wheel neither too thick nor thin. Its long hood doesn’t compromise visibility, as it has obvious corner markers, low window sills, and convex fender mirrors to fill in your large blind spot. Those big C-pillars are for your passenger’s privacy, after all.
Its 4.4-liter V8 is no Hellcat, making 197 horsepower and 253 lb-ft of torque up at 3,200 rpm, but that’s not the point. Its power delivery is smoother than Michael Bublé’s voice, and there’s enough shove to haul the President away without discomforting its passengers. It keeps its voice down, too; the President is a quiet car by the standards of any era.
The example I drove had been modified with larger wheels at some point, trading ride quality for sharper handling. Even so, the President almost hovered over the road, only being disturbed by rebounds off large bumps. (I suspect the big wheels are to blame.) It braked well, too, and handled with poise you wouldn’t expect from something like a Lincoln Mark IV.
Even so, it’s not optimized for being thrown around; aggressive cornering presses you into the door, and the steering rack is slow. The turning circle however is surprisingly tight for a car of its size. As strange as it sounds, this is a full-size sedan you wouldn’t worry about maneuvering through downtown—it had to, and still could. I wager being close to the curb would make parallel parking easier, too.
What To Know Before Owning
The Nissan President is tough to beat as a cruiser, and it’d be a glorious road tripper if you get it in good enough shape to do so. That may be the hard part though, because I doubt there’s a single President that hasn’t been smoked in.
There’s also no escaping the fact that it was a top-of-the-line luxury car with parts only ever sold overseas. It and the Cedric were the only cars to use Nissan’s Y-series V8, and while its six-cylinders were shared with a couple trucks, I doubt they’re any less rare in junkyards. Fortunately, the President is supported by Nissan’s heritage parts program, so there’s less unobtainium than you might think. That said, while Presidents are often cheaper than Centurys up front, they probably aren’t any cheaper to maintain.
But if you can afford one, you’d have a ball crashing classic American car shows and befuddling the Detroit faithful. It’d also be a tempting canvas for modification, as its resemblance to American cars makes me ache for the cultural fusion of a President lowrider. (Or a donk.) You could also restomod its mechanicals by transplanting the V8 drivetrain from a Nissan Titan. There’s always the RB26DETT too, but its ethos doesn’t seem quite right for the President.
Sinking back into the driver’s seat after taking some photos, I felt something far out of character for myself. I really like the Nissan President. I’m not especially fond of old American cars, but the President combines all their best traits while tempering their worst. (Mostly. The gas mileage was appalling.) It has the highfalutin excess of full-size American cars, but at a more manageable scale, with better build quality and a bizarre design that cribs from multiple eras—and succeeds.
As a luxury car though, the Nissan President transcends eras. Dropping into its back seat is to withdraw from the world around you, in a way that a mind-numbing seat-back touchscreen can only emulate. Doomscrolling isn’t aspirational, it’s incidental. It’s for when you have nothing better to do. It’s not epicurean like true luxury experiences are, and like the President is in this day and age.
That also gives this Nissan an individuality that a car like the BMW 7 Series has arguably never achieved. Fifty years and an ocean removed from its origin, the Nissan President doesn’t register as a status symbol. Its recognizable American influence makes it appreciable by the general public, while its subtle JDM quaintness lends it an unfamiliar mystique. The President has been humbled; it’s now too offbeat to attract the kind of clout-chaser that even the Toyota Century draws these days. Nissan Presidents—and I suspect their future owners too—are just quietly themselves.
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