The Nissan Silvia is more than just a drift missile, meet its less popular generations
CY Foong · Sep 25, 2021 12:00 PM
Mention Nissan Silvia to car enthusiasts and it’s very likely they’re imagining the S13 or the S15 generations. After all, these two generations are commonly seen at drifting and other motorsports events.
The S13 sparked a wave of drift enthusiasts in the nineties with its front-engine and rear-wheel-drive (FR) combo. Prices for these in the used car market were relatively affordable at the time and many were used in amateur and professional drift tournaments.
The S15 continued the Silvia’s appeal among drifters as the S14’s heavier body made it a poor successor to the S13. Nissan would discontinue the Silvia in 2002 to the dismay of fans and in the nearly 20 years since its discontinuation, Nissan has gone through some tumultuous times that we might never see an “S16” in the near future.
But that wasn’t the first time Nissan cut the Silvia nameplate short. The very first Silvia wasn’t even built on the S platform but was rather a bespoke coupe.
CSP311 Silvia – Handbuilt in Japan with a European design
Japanese car manufacturers in the 1960s were at a stage of experimentation in design and engineering. In an attempt to show the world that their cars can be as good as the West, carmakers from the Land of the Rising Sun hired Western designers, particularly from Italy, to help pen some of their flagship cars.
The result was some of the prettiest and rarest cars ever made. The very first Nissan Silvia was one of those. It was designed by German designer, Albrecht von Goertz, formerly at BMW. Goertz saw the potential of Japanese manufacturers and decided to collaborate with a few manufacturers including Nissan.
Though Goertz would eventually leave the project to help design the Toyota 2000GT, he was still credited as the designer of the CSP311 Silvia. It made its debut at the 1964 Tokyo Motor Show as the Datsun Coupe 1500 but it would be given the Silvia name instead in 1965.
The name was derived from the Latin word for forest and in Roman mythology, it was a name for the goddess of the forest.
The first-gen Silvia is especially rare and valuable even when it was new. Around 554 units were handbuilt at the Nissan Shatai plant between 1965 and 1968. Most of them remained in Japan with a small handful exported overseas.
It was built on a platform shared with the Nissan Fairlady Roadster and was powered by a 1.6-litre R Series 4-cylinder engine that only produced 90 PS and 140 Nm. This was paired to a 4-speed manual transmission.
S10 Silvia – Interesting-looking clam
After a 7-year hiatus, Nissan would reintroduce the Silvia as a more mainstream sports car. It was the first Silvia to be built on the S platform which would be a trademark for the sports car.
The S10 Silvia had a very unique and interesting design that fans dubbed “The Clam”. Perhaps it was due to the controversial design that the S10 Silvia wasn’t that well-received. Overseas, it was sold as the Datsun 180SX or 200SX depending on the engine.
The 180SX was powered by a 1.8-litre L18 inline-4 (93 PS/135 Nm) while the 200SX was powered by a 2.0-litre L20B inline-four (97 PS/138 Nm). The 200SX was mainly only sold in North America while overseas markets including Malaysia received the 180SX.
Besides the two 4-pots, a rotary engine was considered too but that project was shelved when the oil crisis hit Japan and a few Western countries. Nissan wouldn't give up on this engine though.
S110 Silvia – A rallying S chassis
For the third-gen Silvia, Nissan decided to expand its body design to feature a 2-door hardtop coupe as well as 3-door hatchback. There was even a more upmarket variant called the Nissan Gazelle and this was sold exclusively at the Nissan Bluebird Store in Japan alongside the Fairlady Z.
Compared to its predecessor, the S110 Silvia looked more conservative with a boxy design that was fairly popular in the late seventies and early eighties. The hardtop coupe was especially popular in Japan and was featured in a well-known Japanese police drama series called Seibu Keisatsu.
Aside from the body styles, engine options were also expanded including another take on fitting a rotary engine. However, there was no oil crisis to blame this time around as Nissan’s own Wankel engine turned out to be unreliable.
The S110 also kicked off the Silvia’s motorsport pedigree by competing in the Japanese Super Silhouette Formula and in the infamous and challenging Group B rally.
While other rally cars embraced turbocharged, supercharged, or even twin-charged monsters with all-wheel-drive, the Nissan 240RS was powered by a carburetted 2.3-litre FJ24 four-cylinder engine (250 PS/250 Nm) with rear-wheel-drive.
That being said, the 240RS wasn’t a slouch in rallying. Competition was tense and with most fans remembering the Lancia Delta S4, the Audi Quattro, or the Peugeot 205 T16, the 240RS was relegated to being underappreciated and forgotten with a second-place finish at Rally New Zealand in 1983 being its best result.
S12 Silvia – Super Silhouette
Produced from 1983 to 1989, the S12 Silvia incorporated some eighties design elements with the most obvious being the pop-up headlights. Nissan continued to offer the 3-door hatchback and 2-door coupe body styles on the S12 with the hatchback having some resemblance to the AE86 Trueno.
The S12 would be the first Silvia to come with a 6-cylinder engine option in the form of a 3.0-litre VG30E V6 engine that was also offered in the larger Fairlady Z.
Interestingly, most European markets at the time badged the S12 as the Nissan Silvia with the exception of Sweden. There, it was called the 180ZX as the Queen of Sweden is also named Silvia. The reason for the 180ZX being given this unique name was to act as a partial replacement for the Z car even if it was technically unrelated.
Just like its predecessor, the S12 also competed in rallying though, in another unusual case of standing out from the competition, the rally-spec S12 would be competing with a V6 engine instead. The Silvia 200SX would turn out to be quite successful, winning the 1988 Ivory Coast Rally and taking two consecutive runner-up finishes in the Safari Rally in 1988 and 1989.
Aside from rallying, the S12 also competed in circuit races by taking part in the Japanese Super Silhouette Formula competition which gave rise to the bosozoku-style cars. Overseas, the S12 Silvia coupe took part in the Australian Touring Car Championship and won in 1987.
S13 Silvia – A futuristic work of art
The S13 Silvia represented “peak” Silvia as it was sold at a period where Japanese buyers can easily afford something bigger and unique. It became the best-selling Silvia model with around 300,000 units sold between 1988 and 1994.
The appeal of the Silvia went mainstream during this generation and most buyers were mainly fixated on how cool it looked. The timeless design certainly worked in Nissan’s favour but it was also infamously known in Japan as a “dating car”.
Initially, the S13 was only available with 1.8-litre CA18 engines that were carried over from the S12 but later on, the true heart of the S13 would be introduced in the guise of the 2.0-litre SR20 units.
The most sought after engine was the turbocharged SR20DET powerplant which made 205 PS and 275 Nm. There were two variations of the SR20DET which were known by the colour of the engine covers – early models were known as “redtops” while later ones were known as “blacktops”.
The S13 would also introduce the 180SX which was essentially a Silvia with a 3-door hatchback and pop-up lights. Though it would be infamously hooned around corners, the S13 was quite advanced when launched as it featured Nissan’s own proprietary four-wheel steering system called HICAS-II.
Many cars that followed suit after a successful period during the Japanese Bubble Era turned out to be unspectacular. The S14 Silvia is one of those in which fans felt was not quite deserving of replacing the S13.
The S14 was lower and wider with the latter giving the impression of a porky-looking successor. Though reviewers noted at the time the S14’s slightly improved handling, it wasn’t enough to attract buyers.
As a result of the S14’s wider dimensions, it was given a much higher road tax and many buyers simply couldn’t afford it. However, there were a couple of interesting performance variants of the S14.
The first was the Nismo 270R, of which, only 30 were ever built in 1994. As the number suggested, the 270R produced 270 PS from the tuned 2.0-litre SR20DET. All 30 units were painted black with Nismo decals, a Nismo Edge Aero bodykit, and 17-inch Nismo five-spokes.
Next was the Autech Version K’s MF-T which came with a wild Autech bodykit, a large Ferrari F40-style wing, and a tuned SR20DET that made 250 PS. Inside, the Autech S14 came with white instrument gauges, a Momo steering wheel, and a leather gear knob.
Just like the R34 being the better successor of the R32 than the R33, the same applies to the S15 as the true successor to the S13. The dimensions for the S15 was even reduced to make sure it complied with the Japanese compact class, thus giving it a more affordable road tax.
By the time the S15 was launched in 1999, the sports car would see its choice as a recreational or weekend car slowly being overtaken by SUVs. Nissan reduced the Silvia’s model line-up to just two – Spec-S and Spec-R – replacing the J, Q, and K variants.
Unlike the previous generations, the S15 was mainly only available in Japan, with a few units sold officially in Australia and New Zealand. The SR20 units remain the only available engines in the S15 along with the traditional FR layout.
Aside from the coupe, Nissan also sold a convertible version of the S15, called the Silvia Varietta. Built by Autech, it is particularly rare with only 1,143 units ever made.
In August 2002, the final units of the S15 Silvia left Nissan Shatai’s plant and with it the end of the Silvia name.
Though its legend lives on as being a favourite in drift competitions all over the world (especially for the last three generations), it’s hard to believe that the Silvia, a name associated with the tuning and motorsports crowd actually started off as a handbuilt luxury coupe of sorts.