Legend 04: The real face of Mr. Skyline, Shinichiro Sakurai
Shinichiro Sakurai
Shinichiro Sakurai
Shin’ichiro Sakurai lived from 1929 until 2011. He was born on 3 April 1929 in the city of Totsuka in Kanagawa Prefecture, near Tokyo. He grew up in an academic family. His father was a scholar specialising in Chinese classics (Sinology), while his mother was a former schoolteacher. During his childhood he secretly nurtured the dream of working in the auto industry at a time when all children like him were expected to say that they wanted to dedicate themselves to serving their country when they got older.

He made his dream come true and was involved in the development of the first Skyline and then made the head of the development team for the third generation of this iconic model,which is nicknamed “Hako-Ska” (the Boxy Skyline). He remained at the helm throughout each succeeding model overhaul, overseeing all aspects of the development of the third generation, the fourth generation, known as Ken and Mary’s Skyline, the fifth generation (Japan), the sixth generation (Newman Skyline), and the seventh generation (7th). He fell ill during the final stages of the development of the seventh-generation model and had to call on Naganori Ito to replace him. By then, Sakurai had indelibly stamped his imprint on the company and established himself as one of the towering figures in the history of Nissan. His stature in the industry was acknowledged when he was named the first president of Autech Japan and with his induction into the Japan Automobile Hall of Fame in 2005. He died at the age of 81 on 17 January 2011.

Read More

Mediocre work was unacceptable

Story teller: Naganori Itou
Naganori Ito was named by Shin’ichiro Sakurai to be his successor during the final stages of the development of the seventh-generation Skyline. Ito joined the company in 1959 and was assigned to the suspension group in Design Section 4, which was in charge of chassis design. Chassis design was unfamiliar territory for Ito, who had studied combustion at university and wanted to work on engine design. When he started to work in his newly assigned field, his boss was Shin’ichiro Sakurai.

I joined the company in 1959. What was my first impression of Mr. Sakurai? He had a confident, cock-of-the-walk attitude (laughter). He radiated an exceptional aura that would make people detour around him and he looked older and more dignified than his direct superior. But I didn’t really think about him at the time.

Rookies were not given jobs right away. I remember sitting at my desk feeling bored and puffing on a cigarette when I first started at the company. Then Mr. Sakurai came in and yelled at me, ‘Freshmen should not even think about smoking during work hours.’ That was my first real contact with Shin’ichiro Sakurai. I thought I’d been assigned to a very unpleasant workplace (laughter).

Mr. Sakurai who gives instructions to the modeler of the clay model while opening a drawing. This is the one of photograph which shows his contemplation for Skyline (1981).
Mr. Sakurai gripping the steering wheel (1981).
My first task was to practice drawing lines and letters by tracing examples. I was made to practice from morning till evening for a whole week. I wasn’t happy about this because I’d studied technical drawing at university and I wasn’t necessarily a perfectionist when it came to drawings. I thought that a drawing should be considered good enough if it didn’t have any mistakes in it. On top of that, Mr. Sakurai was very demanding and wouldn’t approve my work readily. Later he told me why he had that attitude. He said that if an employee who had studied technical drawing was given the simple task of drawing lines for a full week and wanted to give up on the job because he didn’t think there was any point to it, he would never be a good designer. Without strong motivation and the guts and capacity to keep at it even when you’re given an unreasonable assignment, you can’t deliver as a designer. That’s why Mr. Sakurai adopted that approach with me. He also used to say, ‘I’m like the chief carpenter. If you’re in charge, you don’t let a rookie carpenter shave wood with a plane on his first day. You make him sharpen the plane, don’t you? That’s exactly what I’m doing with you.’
My first real assignment was to design an engine mount. But I didn’t even know what an engine mount was. Mr. Sakurai gave me some very basic data, like engine weight, but he didn’t teach me a thing. And he told me to finish it in a week. I went out looking for books on oscillation design at book stores and studied them while I worked on my design, but I couldn’t finish it in just one week. He really chewed me out, ‘When someone gives you an assignment and a deadline, he expects the work to be done on time. He trusts you and depends on you. Do you understand what kind of impact it could have if you don’t finish your work on time?’ Then he told me that he would give me another week and that I had to finish it by then at all costs. I desperately worked day and night and managed to meet the deadline. That was when he finally accepted me. He must have decided that here’s a guy who will be able to handle the situation even when the circumstances are really tough and even if he drove me really hard in training.

The first Skyline (ALSI-S1). One of the suspension engineers was Mr. Sakurai at this time (1957-1963).

5th Skyline, which is commonly known as “Japan”. A catch phrase of “The Skyline Japan” was used with the meaning called the car by Japanese climate. It was changed from 4 lights of round shaped headlights to 2 lights of corner type at 1979 (1977-1981).
Mr. Sakurai didn’t spoon-feed his subordinates or teach them how to do things step by step. He would give me the necessary information and then leave everything else up to me. Whenever I finished a task, he would bombard me with questions. If I couldn’t answer him thoroughly and correctly, he wouldn’t accept the results. You could never say, ‘Somebody said so,’ or ‘I read it in a book.’ That was taboo. Even if it was true, you had to study the issue at hand, be able to prove the validity of your response, and master the whole thing. If you hadn’t completed this process, he saw through you right away when you tried to answer his questions. He knew everything, even about production techniques, and I had enormous respect for him because it was obvious that he studied very hard and worked very hard. But once you had won his trust, working for him was easy. After that, whenever I drew a design and took it to him, he would sign off on it without really scrutinising it (laughter).
Mr. Sakurai was very good with language and at speaking to groups. Today we’d say that he had outstanding presentation skills. Let me give an example of how he would go about expressing himself. He would say something like, ‘The basic philosophy of the Skyline is to deliver reliability and an outstanding driving performance. The ideal is a car that is absolutely true to the driver’s intentions. It’s the same as a horse and rider becoming one when the rider is on the horse’s back and the horse is in motion. A horse generates propulsion by pushing off with its back legs and applying torque to move itself forward. It’s quite natural. This is a good example of the rear-wheel-drive system in cars. But if you observe the movement of a horse more closely, you see that it also pushes off the ground with its front legs and it also controls the direction of its movement with its back legs. To duplicate this, cars need four-wheel-drive and four-wheel-steering systems. These are the functions of the ATTESA* and HICAS** systems.’ That’s how he would explain our products. That kind of approach is pretty persuasive, don’t you think?
6th Skyline, which is commonly known as “Newman” or “Iron Mask”. Because of an origin TVCF which Paul Newman was promoted and a front face without radiator grill. 5 door hatchback existed, too (1981-1985).
  • * ATTESA E-TS stands for Advanced Total Traction Engineering System for All Electronic-Torque Split, an electronically controlled torque split four-wheel-drive system developed by Nissan Motor.
  • ** HICAS stands for High Capacity Actively Controlled Suspension, an electronically controlled four-wheel-steering system (4WS) developed by Nissan Motor.
The Skyline is my alter ego
7th Skyline, which is commonly known as “7th”. At the launch, It was two types of body which is four-door hard top without B pillar and the four-door sedan. A wagon and a two-door coupe were added later (1985-1990).
I never thought that Mr. Sakurai would give up the development of the Skyline. He was involved with the project from the very first generation and even though he supervised other models as well along the way, he basically developed and lived with the Skyline throughout his career at Nissan. He would say things like, ‘The Skyline is my alter ego.’ As a result, when he became ill and entrusted me with continuing his work, I always believed that I was just a pinch hitter. Still, when he came back, he told me that he would leave it to me. I honestly didn’t want to do it (laughter). It meant succeeding Shin’ichiro Sakurai, this larger-than-life figure who had developed the car, and on top of that, the Skyline was a difficult car in many respects. But at the same time, I thought that it would be terrible if somebody else took on the job and made the Skyline a car that was no longer worthy of its name.

If I was going to take the job, I wanted to make sure that the car remained entirely true to the Skyline name and fully retained its historic personality. But that was when front-engine, front-wheel-drive cars were the becoming the dominant trend and it was difficult to stick to a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive configuration. To make it all the more difficult, the Skyline was a product that generated extremely high expectations on the part of customers. It was taken for granted that the new version of the car would be an excellent product. Once I took over and had to make all the final decisions regarding the car, I came to fully appreciate all of the difficulties that Mr. Sakurai had had to cope with over the years.
The fact that the Skyline is such an iconic model and generates such high expectations among our customers is down entirely to Mr. Sakurai. It was his achievement. He was a great engineer who nurtured a number of engineers through the various Skyline development projects and contributed greatly to the development of automotive technologies in Japan.

8th Skyline. The first model that full power was entrusted Mr. Ito from Mr. Sakurai, and was developed from the beginning. It was the revival of “GT-R” after a long absence.

A dedicated engineer

Story teller : Kyoichi Yamaguchi (Automobile Journalist)
‘The first time I really talked to Mr. Sakurai was when Nissan unveiled the R380 at the Fuji Speedway,’ says Kyoichi Yamaguchi, a pioneering automotive journalist who knew Shin’ichiro Sakurai from fairly early in his career in the industry and shared many a conversation with him on a variety of subjects, including technical aspects of cars and car manufacturing. He gives us a look at Shin’ichiro Sakurai as seen from a journalist’s perspective.

I believe that the first time I met Mr. Sakurai was in 1964 at test-drive sessions for the second-generation Skyline (the S50) GT-B (the S54). But on that occasion we only exchanged greetings and it was only soon after, at the unveiling of the R380, that I really had a chance to speak with him properly.
Mr. Sakurai in the anechoic chamber (1981).

2nd Skyline.
Mr. Sakurai acts as the chief of development team for the machine aiming at championship of Japan Grand Prix. “2000GT” equipped with six cylinders engine was called later as “A wolf covered with the skin of sheep”.

What are my impressions of Mr. Sakurai? I was surprised at his personality because he would answer all my questions very thoroughly and truthfully. In those days, automotive engineers in general didn’t seem to care very much for journalists, whose profession was not really held in much esteem (laughter). You could tell that they didn’t want us to approach them or talk to them and when I did manage to get their attention and ask them questions, they would never give me full and honest answers. But Mr. Sakurai was quite different and he was the only one who was. He always gave honest and easy-to-understand answers to my questions, even when I was asking for really detailed information. When the R381 was introduced, I asked him about the variable wings on the car and he told me that he’d been inspired by the flaps on airplanes. That was great. He was always ready to share the kind of information that you’ll never find in the official documents that carmakers put out. In my experience, great engineers of the sort who win a place in history often have that kind of personality.

I once had an opportunity to conduct a long interview with him and he talked to me in detail about his childhood and his experiences in all the years since then, up to the time of our conversation. He was a sickly child and to help make him feel better, his parents got him various different animals, including the likes of goats as well as dogs and cats, to keep him company and he became quite attached to them. During the time he spent playing with these animals as a child, he developed his interest in ‘things that move’ and in time that interest extended to automobiles, which of course are things that move that are made by people. His father was a well-known scholar specialising in Chinese classics and he wanted his son to follow him into the same profession. But Mr. Sakurai had already made up his mind to go into the auto industry and he instinctively knew that the job would require a good knowledge of mathematics, so in essence that was all he studied. However, when it was time for him to start working, there were no jobs being advertised in the auto industry, so instead he went to work for Shimizu Corporation, a major construction company. After only one year at the company, he’d already been promoted to the position of section chief, but his desire to work in the auto industry was as strong as ever and in 1952 he was able to leave Shimizu and go to work for Prince Motors (now Nissan Motor).

The racing car that Mr. Sakurai, who still worked for Prince Motors, played a key role for development. After Prince Motors and Nissan jointed management, the name of the car became “Nissan Prince R380″. The first car was completed in 1965.

He told me that he was given a wide range of assignments because Prince Motor only had 10 engineers on its payroll back then. He didn’t really know anything about cars, so he started to study on his own day and night. The effort he put into his studies back then contributed to his vast and detailed knowledge of a whole range of fields related to car-making, including even production technologies and material engineering. And, in fact, you have to have a really good understanding of even peripheral fields if you want to be able to explain things to another person. I understood then that the effort he had put into acquiring knowledge back at the beginning of his automotive career had established a very solid foundation for the capabilities and achievements that made him such a great figure in Japanese automotive history.
Skyline of love
R381 was participated Japan Grand Prix in 1968. The greatest characteristic is equipped with the variable rear wing which Sakurai devised. The rear wing divided into right and left operated depending on the degree of leaning of the body and stabilized a posture. Also, both wing put up at braking and carried out the duty of the air brake.
Mr. Sakurai was a man who always thought logically but who was also inspired by passion and pursued his objectives quite passionately. I remember that back in 1962 he travelled to Europe to watch the Formula One Belgian Grand Prix. He was inspired by the world of car racing and soon after his return to Japan, Prince Motor put him in charge of designing a race car for the company. At the second Japanese Grand Prix, he and his team entered cars based on two models, the Gloria and the Skyline, and their goal was to secure the top three positions in the race with these cars. Mr. Sakurai realised that the 1.5-litre Skyline (the S50) would be left far behind by its rivals by the time the cars were exiting the Spoon Curve of the Suzuka Circuit, so he extended the S50’s chassis by 200mm and squeezed a 6-cylinder Gloria engine into the enlarged space. His boss told him that all they really had to do was prepare the required number of cars to secure homologation so that the company would have a presence in the race, but Mr. Sakurai disagreed saying, ‘The time is sure to come when this kind of car will sell well.’ That was the moment when that great car, the Skyline 2000GT, was born. I think that this episode really captures the essence of Shin’ichiro Sakurai in a nutshell. He was a man who was both logical and passionate at the same time.
As I said, he was always logical, or rather, he didn’t like to talk about something without having first thought it through logically. He told me during that long interview that ‘I like to think about things using logic first. In case of cars, I like to analyse down to the last detail everything that can be analysed and only then do I start to think about what I should do or how I should proceed.’ I think it must have been because he had this kind of personality that many of his subordinates were said to be afraid of him. But he was not a totally square engineer who only dealt in logic and rationality. He was very cultured and very much in tune with what was happening in the world around him and very aware of the latest trends.

3rd Skyline, which is commonly known as “Hako-Ska”. The skyline that Mr. Sakurai was engaged in as a chief engineer for the first time. It is the skyline that came up just after Prince Motors merges with Nissan.

4th Skyline, which is commonly known as “Ken-Mere”. From this model, tail lamp becomes round shape (four lamps).
For example, the company shifted the main selling point of the Skyline from being a ‘serious’ car that boasted outstanding driving performance to being a trendy, fashionable car. This happened when the ‘Ken and Mary’s Skyline’ advertising campaign was launched. That ad copy became a big hit. It persuaded prospective buyers that the car had what it took to be a ‘date car.’ That was an unusual notion at the time but in fact it was just what young people were waiting for. Of course, the handling wasn’t bad, but what really counted was that everybody thought driving a Skyline would lead to success in dating and pave the way for a happy relationship. If you heard the line ‘Skyline of Love’ in a TV ad, then of course you started to get into it (laughter). I heard that Mr. Sakurai was not the person who actually created the advertising copy, but he was the one who decided on that direction. For me, this shows that he excelled not only in producing the car called the Skyline but also in producing the world surrounding it.
And maybe that catch copy, ’Skyline of Love,’ also stood for the love that Mr. Sakurai himself undoubtedly felt for the Skyline.

Profile of the writer

Naganori Ito
Naganori Ito graduated from the Engineering Department of Hiroshima University in 1959 and joined Fuji Precision Machinery, the predecessor of Prince Motors, which later merged with Nissan Motor. He worked on the development of the Skyline, the Laurel, and the Leopard. He worked alongside Shin’ichiro Sakurai from the time he joined the company and after winning his boss’s absolute trust, he became known as ‘the first apprentice of Shin’ichiro Sakurai.’ When he replaced Sakurai in leading the development of the seventh-generation Skyline (the R31), the project was already in the completion phase. The R32 was actually the first model that Ito worked on as design chief from the outset of the project.

Kyoichi Yamaguchi
Kyoichi Yamaguchi has been working as an automotive journalist since the 1960s. He has contributed articles to various Japanese car magazines, including Car Graphic, and to a wide range of international automotive magazines, including Motor (UK), Road & Track (US), and Wheels (Australia). Since the 1980s he has been an editor covering Asia for Automobile Engineering International, published by the Automobile Engineering Association, reporting to the world on the latest Japanese automotive technologies. He is the only Japanese journalist who is on a first-name basis with board members of automakers all around the world.