Nissan’s AD-1 concept could have beaten the Toyota MR2 in its own game

The mid-engine 914 from Porsche failed in 1969. Fiat had the X1 / 9 in 1974. A decade later, Toyota had the MR2. Nissan? Nada. While some automakers have had success with affordable mid-engined sports cars, Nissan never pulled the trigger. And that’s despite the fact that the AD-1 concept car was built for the 1975 Tokyo Auto Show. It was some kind of affordable, sporty car that Toyota would have three generations of success with. Did Nissan screw it up?

Maybe not if the AD-1 made it into production relatively unchanged. As you can see in these photos from that period (Nissan tells us the AD-1 sadly no longer exists) the AD-1 was a bit cozy from some angles. The front end screams for a ’70s micro-car with oversized glazed headlights that make the AD-1 bulb narrower than it really is. If you’ve seen anything about the Dale latelyThen you will find that this Nissan has a similar vibe.

In contrast to the Dale, the AD-1 had four honest wheels and also an actual styling department and the power of a major automaker behind it. So from other angles there are some promises. The wraparound windshield looks cool and expensive. The large sail panels that shade the rear window have something of the flying pillar look that made the Ferrari Dino famous. The accordions on the bumper and the fluted texture on the taillights are pure ’70s futurism. And in some places there is a pleasant contrast between angularity (snout) and curvature (the surprisingly large fender flares, the deep hood scallop).

Was it a perfect design? Not at all, but it’s the kind of thing that could have been refined for production. The basic proportions look producible, with a small trunk and a smaller frunk. The well-appointed interior featured an ’80s-style steering wheel and a nice, simple instrument cluster with sporty looking white-faced gauges. The clean curve of the dashboard on the passenger side is reminiscent of later Nissan sports cars such as the S13 Silvia / 240SX and the Z32 300ZX.

The engine under the rear deck of the AD-1 was modest, like all cars of this type. The fuel-injected A14 I-4 in the AD-1 was a version of an engine that produced up to 90 hp in some production models. This corresponds to the contemporary offers and is not much less than the later MR2. Weighing in at just 1,600 pounds curb (the US-specified MR2 weighed comparatively elephantine 2,400 pounds), the AD-1 would have been pretty bubbly too. And its wheelbase was roughly the same as the MR2’s, which means the Nissan would likely have had nimble handling too. It was also slippery with a drag coefficient of 0.26 compared to about 0.35 on the later MR2.

Sounds promising enough. Obviously the AD-1 went nowhere, but a few years later the somewhat similar-looking (but more angular and front-wheel drive) Pulsar EXA (Pulsar NX) popped up. The Pulsar NX appeared to be a stylistic reinterpretation of the AD-1 concept, although there is no clear link between the two. Had the Pulsar NX appeared as a mid-engined car, it would have been more memorable (and a lot more fun). In terms of cars that were actually sporty, Nissan ended up doubling down on its rear-wheel drive coupes like the S12 Silvia / 200SX and the Z31 300ZX.

The AD-1 wasn’t perfect, but it was a nice idea that could have turned out something excellent. And it’s a piece of Nissan history that deserves to be remembered.

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