Nissan has been selling cars in England for a long time, far more than 35 years. After starting out only selling 6,000 cars in 1971, they eventually got far past 100,000 cars annually by the 1980s. Like customers in the United States, British motorists were dissatisfied with offerings from domestic car manufacturers, and that left a wide gap that Japanese manufacturers could walk right into. But, 35 years ago, it got to the point where there was too many sales to keep shipping cars from Japan.
So, Nissan built a plant in Sunderland, in Tyne and Wear county, in the northeast part of England. Since production started in 1986, Nissan has built over 10.5 million cars at the factory, and hasn’t lost a single hour of work due to labor and industrial disputes, even though they’ve moved from a few hundred to over 6,000 employees. There are even 19 employees currently working on the LEAF lines that have worked for Nissan since 1986. These employees helped build Bluebird Job 1, the first car that rolled off the production line, which sits at a local museum today.
To celebrate 35 years building cars in England, Nissan and the original employees decided to celebrate by building an electric version of the original Bluebird car that they helped build in 1986. They decided to call the electric Bluebird the “Newbird.”
Obviously, they couldn’t build a brand new 1986 car (the old tooling probably doesn’t exist, and even if it did, that would be a severely expensive undertaking). Instead, they did a conversion of an old Bluebird using Nissan LEAF components, ending up with a mix of heritage and modern electric drive.
“The ‘Newbird’ represents all that is great about our plant — past present and future — as we celebrate 35 years of manufacturing in Sunderland,” Alan Johnson, Vice President of Manufacturing at the Nissan Sunderland Plant, said. “We have a rich heritage of building great cars, right from the original Bluebird model, and our fantastic team is now leading the way as we drive towards an exciting electrified, carbon neutral, future.”
Like the Nissan LEAF, the late 80’s generation of Bluebird is front-wheel-drive, which made it a lot easier to integrate LEAF components for the conversion. The petrol engine and gearbox were removed, and replaced with LEAF drive parts using custom mounts. A 40 kWh pack, like the one in my 2018 LEAF was installed, but they couldn’t put it under the car like they do with the LEAF. Some of the battery cells went under the hood with the electric motor, and others went in the trunk. A custom suspension was built to support the extra weight of the battery cells, and other parts of the car were replaced to make sure they could run on electric, just like the LEAF.
The charging port was put in where the original fuel door/flap was located, and while it wasn’t set up for level 3 charging, it can charge at up to 6.6 kW. The original interior was kept, including the gauge cluster, so they wired it up so that the fuel gauge would show battery state of charge. Range is estimated at 130 miles, but performance is far below the Nissan LEAF, with a 0-60 time of almost 15 seconds.
Nissan doesn’t normally do electric conversions, so they hired Kinghorn Electric Vehicles to manage the project and give them advice. Not only is Kinghorn close to Nissan’s facility, but they also specialize in converting old petrol cars to electric using used Nissan LEAF parts. So, this was right up their alley already.
“Electric vehicles are not just the future, they’re the now!,” said George Kinghorn, the company’s owner. “Converting older vehicles to electric gives you everyday use of these iconic vintage models, but they’re just as enjoyable to drive, they’re more reliable and importantly don’t produce harmful emissions when driving. With this project we think we’ve created a car that captures the soul of the Nissan Bluebird, with the heart of a Nissan LEAF.”
The YouTube video gives us some clues and details that the Nissan press release didn’t.
For one, we get a peek at the overall look of the vehicle, beyond photos. The original interior appears to have been almost entirely left alone. A new color scheme keeps true to the 1980s vibe that both the video and the original car exude. Rainbow coloring, but with a prominent green that wraps to the front shows us that they’re big on the environmental factor with this build.
The battery cells were installed in custom metal enclosures under the hood, and elsewhere. We’ve seen many photos of restoration and conversion jobs where batteries are placed in thin, fragile plastic boxes or have a transparent lid of some kind. In this case, they full enclosed it in metal, which should make it safer.
The video also makes it look like Nissan’s plant didn’t really build the car, but that it was commissioned by Nissan. The car was then brought to the factory for employees that worked on both the Bluebird and LEAF to look at for a photo and video opportunity. I could be wrong on this particular point, as the factory could have supplied drive components for the conversion, or otherwise could have been more involved.
The car also appears to have a noticeable rear sag, even with a custom suspension meant to hold the extra weight. This could indicate that the trunk/boot of the vehicle is doing most of the work when it comes to carrying batteries around.
One Last Thing We Can Learn From This
While it’s cool to see an older vehicle converted to electric, but left alone in many respects, it’s pretty clear just how different EVs are from gas/petrol vehicles. Sure, they have four wheels and something makes them turn to make it go, but it just wasn’t possible to properly place the battery pack from a LEAF in the “Newbird” without compromising the vehicle’s structure. If you were to cut the bottom out of a Bluebird and rebuild it to accommodate the LEAF’s pack in a normal low-slung arrangement, you’d basically have a custom chassis with a Bluebird body bolted on top.
As much as I’ve been disappointed with the LEAF, it’s definitely a lot better than an EV conversion.
Featured image by Nissan.