This is the fourth part of a multi-post series about the (hi)story of Datsun, Prince and Nissan in switzerland.
Check out the other parts HERE
In this part of the story, we’re having a closer look at the inside of Datsun (Suisse) SA, starting from 1978 until it became the Nissan it is known today. The times between 1978 and the early nineties were quite a bit hectic and sometimes hilariously comical to say the least, but lets dive straight into it where part three ended.
1. The unfriendly british takeover, Octav Botnar & Silvio Cereghetti
In the late 1977, a certain Mr. Octav O. Botnar, a german with romanian roots, which lived in the UK and was the owner of Datsun UK Ltd. at that time, started to show up in switzerland and showing his interrest in the Datsun (Suisse) SA. The Swiss were of course not impressed with a foreigner wanting to take over the business (again).
Depending on the official documents, or other documents from the dealership association, the story goes either that O. Botnar forced the dutch owners to sell Datsun (Suisse) SA to him, or the Dutch were looking to sell it anyway. There were two options on the table at the time: Nissan Motor Co. in Japan buying and operating it themselves, or finding another company to do it for them. Since Mr. Botnar already had a broad experience with Datsun Sales in Europe (UK) and promised to double the sales-figures, he got the deal at the end, thanks to a push from NMC. Since Botnar had managed to sell around 100’000 Datsun per Year in the UK and made it the No. 1 Car import brand over there, NMC must have been quite confident that he was a great choice. Why Botnar wanted to expand particulary in a small market like switzerland remains unclear.
Picture left shows Octav Botnar in an interview (LieferantenRevue, May 1982)
This was when the drama began. First of all i think the takeover all happened very fast, so most of the people where taken by surprise, and of course this didn’t leave a good impression. It seemed like Mr. Botnar had silently prepared the takeover since a few months. Secondly, Mr. Botnar somehow was a mysterious person with unknown roots for most of the people. Some Datsun dealers even stated that nobody knew his full name. The fact that he was from a foreign country probably even made it worse in the conservative 1970ies switzerland. Due to his travelling and UK business he also wasn’t at the office a lot, compared to previous owners. And last but not least, he had a big Villa built at the lake Geneva, and the architect who built it, Mr. Silvio Cereghetti, became his right hand in the Automive business and was involved in many of the datsun related companies in Switzerland. An architect responsible for car sales? That surely raised a few eyebrows…
But what irritated most of the people was Botnars harsh tone and his very strict reorganisation plans compared to the familiar atmosphere under Christian Habermann. Mr. Botnar was said to have no interest in people and only looked for business. I got confirmed this fact by previous Datsun dealership owners meanwhile. And this view was probably amplified by the cultural clash and the fact that Botnar reportedly often changed his mind.
During the time of 1977 to April 1978 when Botnar planned to take over, Habermann got to learn his person and strictly refused to work with him in the future due to Botnars behaviour. He silently resigned, only writing a good-bye letter 4 months later to the 70 big swiss datsun direct-dealers, where the whole situation was politely explained. It also includes the name of four of his closest (and long-time datsun) employees who decided to leave the company together with him: D. Hausherr, W. Bösiger, and A. Egloff. However Bösiger and Egloff got to stay as directors of the Company until May 1978. (See picture to the right)
The first thing Mr. Botnar did, was to Take the Datsun (Suisse) SA out from the Fehlman Motor AG Holding in May 1978, and put it into his (and Mr. Cereghetti’s) “Bazel AG” Holding in Basel. A lot of the management in Urdorf got fired immediately, and while the Headquarter was still in Urdorf, the owners from August 1978 on operated out of Basel, separated from the employees and headoffice. This left the workers in Urdorf with some uncomfortable feelings. In the first months, Botnar fired additionally many of the long-time employees and management personnel from the previous team. Over the following years and due to Botnar’s always changing restructuration plans, a few more rounds of mass-firings happened, which of course set up the emplyees which worked hard to establish the brand in switzerland. It is reported that in 1977 (before Botnar) 126 Employees worked in Urdorf, until 1982 when only 70 were left, while at the same time sales had massively increased during that time.
But not all of them got fired, many of them decided to leave by themselves due to the massive reorganization plans and their personal disagreement with the new situation and leadership. Here’s a part of a list with 22 people that left the company between 1981 and 1982, including their name, position, address and phone number. Plus it mentions at least 12 additional unnamed people in lower positions, which left as well (see picture to the right):
In fact so many people got fired or left the company, that they associated under the name “Club 78” (named after the year when Botnar came) and held a first meeting in Februar 1979. These are the “meeting notes” sent to all members after the first meeting:
2.1 The management changes
But not only employees changed a lot, also the directors changed continuously in a very short time. Nobody was fine with the pressure put on by O. Botnar and his ever-changing, but very strict, plans.
On the 1st of May 1978, Hanspeter Miescher came as the replacement for Mr. Habermann, and as the first general manager under the ownership of Botnar. as below press release states:
But Miescher decided to leave the company only three months later, due to the chaos and the fact that he could not personally identify with the ideas and mainly the behaviour of the owners. They didn’t give hime enough time to thoroughly plan the changes and analyze the current situation as he states in the letter below. He also mentioned that sometimes the old and new owners where not certain about responsiblities. Due to the notice period (usually 3 months in switzerland) i guess he had to stay until october. According to the Datsun dealership association he got fired at DSSA, but himself wrote in below statement that he decided to leave himself.
But also he left shortly thereafter (end of may 1979). It is said because Mr. Cereghetti (from the board of leaders) and he had a really bad relationship and Cereghetti made special contracts with new dealerships without his agreement, and without letting him know.
Then, on 1. June 1979, Josef Steinegger became the DSSA General director. He previously worked at AVIS (Car rental) Switzerland where he became the Manager for german speaking Switzerland and the Board of leader for their doughter company Garep AG.
I guess at this point the reputation at the DSSA got so bad, that they had to do something about it, and decided to catch a “big fish” in the industry. They got the American Martin “Marty” K. Parsons, which was previously in the Management at Ford switzerland and was pretty well known in the business.
He started on the 19. April 1982 and this was quite a bit of a bang in the industry and there were a lot of interviews with him, why he switched from big Ford to little, chaotic Datsun. He stated that Ford had a massive reorganization going on where he probably would have lost his position, and was forced to move to germany, but also the fact that he had more freedom of desicions at DSSA, which motivated him.
Here’s a picture and an interview from the “Info” Magazine from April 1982, where he states his motivation and plans:
But also Parsons resigned only 1,5 years later in september 1983. Due to notice period he stayed in the company until January 1984, when he took another opportunity in the european automotive business as the press release below states.
After that, P. Eugster and A. Kleiner took over the position ad interim in february 1984 until the end of the remaining year, when Datsun eventuelly became Nissan (See below)
4. New Dealer contracts
Before the Botnar ownership, Christian Habermann was said to have known that the brand is only as good as it’s network of privately owned dealerships. Mr. Botnar however seemed to have a different view. Therefore on the 30. August 1978, Datsun Switzerland (written by technical director Hermann Roost) wrote a letter to all 70 A-class dealers, to let them know that from the 1st of January 1979, all of them get a new (lower) margin on their sales and that therefore all dealer-contracts with DSSA get cancelled and in november negotiations for the new contracts will start. The man who also signed the letter (Marketing head Paul Augsburger) had left his resignation letter at the Magaement two days earlier and only was said to have signed the contract to not get fired immediately.
These new conditions where officially announced to the dealers one week before (22nd of August 1978) at the Launch event of the new Datsun Sunny model. When Rud. Heusler (at that time head of the swiss datsun Dealership association, see below) protested against the new conditions, Mr. Cereghetti was said to answer really rude in front of the dealers.
Additionally, the Dealerships now had to partially prepare the cars for the customers themselves, which was previously done by DSSA in their provisioning lines at the headquarter. They got to pay additional markups for metallic-painting, and much more. I got told by a former Datsun-dealer family, that previously the Cars came for free from Datsun, and the dealers only had to pay them, once they sold them to a customer. Now they had to buy them in advance and beared the risk until the car was sold to a customer. Overall, this ment more work and a lower margin on the cars and worse payment conditions too.
In this (part of a bigger) letter to the dealerships, the new situaiton was explained.
In October 1978 DSSA and the Datsun dealership association made a compromise in some of the contract points points, an the Dastun Dealership association finally agreed.
Some dealers however did still not agree on the new terms and conditions, with marigins which were said to have been already below the average before. The big Citroen dealer Schlotterbeck in Zürich (another story worth a read itself, see here & here), who also sold Datsuns at thas time, therefore simply decided to quit their deal with Datsun and focus on other brands. So what they did was selling their complete remaining stock for 20% below the average price to get rid of them. That again upset other datsun dealers in the Zürich area (see names at the bottom of below picture) and forced them to publish an explanation in the Tagesanzeiger newspaper from the 16.12.1978, to tell the readers that in fact this was only a very limited sell-out and that dealeship would, in fact, stop selling Datsuns by the end of the year.
The cars that didn’t sell went up for acution on 10. February 1979. This event was widely advertized by the auction company and the dealership itself in various newspapers, as seen in the ad on the left.
In the press release shown above, from the auctioning company “Steinfels & Partners AG”, it is stated that within two hours, 57 Cars have been successfully auctioned off for 470’000.- CHF, which was only 68% of the estimated value of the cars.
From the 57 cars were 28 New datsun cars, 7 Datsun branded company and demo cars and 16 various used cars.
Since with Schlotterbeck one flagship dealership in the center of zürich got lost, DSSA decided to found their subsidiary “Datsun Autohandels AG” where they opened up own dealerships in the centers of big swiss cities. Two in Zürich, one in Berne, one in Basel and one in Geneva. This of course again upset the privately owned dealerships. Now they got competition from their own suppliers, which of course could offer conditinos they never could. DSSA themselves stated that they only did this to “monitor” the market in the field…
Also DSSA proactively started to look for new dealers to reach their sales goals instead of settling new deals with the (not so cooperative anymore) long time dealerships. They widely advertized this, as shown here in an 1979 AR-Zeitung ad below. Naturally this upset the existing dealerships again and shed some existencial fears there.
4.1. The revolt of the Datsun dealers (and the Datsun dealership association)
With the various firings, constant changes in the DSSA organisation, the countless rumors spread regarding Mr. Botnar and their obscure policies in the headquarter, which regulary changed, and the increased pressure from the market and HQ, many datsun dealers were already in a quite unhappy state.
They tried to cope with the situation, but the displeasure grew with every action and word from mr. Botnar. The Datsun dealership association (a loose group of swiss datsun dealers, formed earlier) started to fight back against the Policy of Mr. Botnar. In a letter written at the 29. May 1979 to him, which was signed by at least 39 dealers, they asked for a good partnership, a dialog and how they believed in the datsun brand. They also warned the DSSA that they would not continue to accept this one-sided desiscion making withthout the inclusion of them, the dealers.
Mr. Botnar however agreed to only acknowledge the Association if they refused to get political and instead only existed to sponsor things like football games or music groups. The dealer association however wanted to have an influence at DSSA. At last they knew they were the one that made the success or not of the Datsun brand in switzerland. Botnar was never interested in a collaborative approach and wanted to force the dealerships to do what he insisted, so he didn’t accept the association.
In 1981 Botnar also decided to cancel “additional agreement contracts” between DSSA and some of the 13 bigger Dealerships. (See picture below). They got additional payments and privileges from DSSA from special “additional” contracts with the previous Datsun Suisse SA owners. According to Mr. Botnar the rules were not clear and he therefore decided to cancel all these additional contracts, so all dealership were paid on the same base. This of course set up the big long-term dealerships. Below a picture of such additional payments:
They once again came together under the “Datsun Dealer association” to fight against the decisions of DSSA.
Poletely as the japanese were, they refused to involve themselves.
The story created a lot of noise in the Swiss automotive industry and peaked in February 1982, when the dealership organization held a big press information event to tell their point of view. which of course ended up in many newspaper articles about it. Like the one shown here from the Tages Anzeiger of the 20. January 1982
The whole situation went on until around 1985. Overall only two Dealerships (albeit the two biggest ones) lost the datsun dealer contract, During the same period of the fight between the dealerships and Datsun Suisse SA, the sales increased a lot. Therefore none of the dealerships really wanted to leave the difficult, but at the same time successfull situation.
From todays point if view it all seems really a bit hilarious and think both sides had a pretty big share of the damage made. I have countless of documents which show the letters written between the two parties. Also many internal documents of the dealerships, which show their point of view regarding the DSSA. Many of them are not exectly politically correct (aka rude). Some of the Documents, which were never thought to end up in public, are especially funny. Like this one where they write about a “Poem” about Mr. Cereghetti, which an unknown person wrote on the wall at the DSSA headquarter showroom:
5. Lawsuit Eurotax
I think DSSA didn’t like the many negative press releases regarding their brand, so another episode of the story goes that Eurotax, an european data supplier in the automotive business (they, for example, rate the average price of used cars, etc..), which back then also issued a regular Automotive industry newsletter, got a letter from the DSSA lawyer in April 1983. Ther reason was, they wrote about some rumors that DSSA should get sold, and also wrote about the communicatino issues and the troubles between DSSA and the dealerships. Unfortunately i don’t have any information how the story ended, I guess they just politely excused themselves as i can see they had a pretty good relation and positive press about DSSA only a few months later in their newsletter again. But it shows how upset DSSA was about a negative press at that point.
6. Datsun Stanza vs Opel Ascona
Another interesting episode, which was widely covered by the newspapers, was the fact that Datsun made a comparative advertising in 1982. Which means they publicly compared the Datsun stanza vs the Opel Ascona in a broad advertizing campaign. Such cumperative advertizing is usually not allowed and not very common in europe. The below fold-out flyer was only part of the campaign, which included large size ads in daily newspapers, etc.
The “Touring” magazine investigated and figured out that the financial “advantages” of datsun were in fact much smaller than shown, as the calculation was not really correct. The District court of Zürich therefore judged on the 25. August 1982 and forced them to change the advertizing. In an internal newsletter Datsun states they had checked the ad beforehand with various lawyers to make sure it is allright. but admitted they had made a mistake in the calculations and therefore adjusted all the advertizing.
Hilariously that happened a bit too late, so many of the newspapers already printed the “wrong” advertizing again and had to excuse themselves later to the readers. (see right picture)
7. Becoming Nissan Schweiz SA
While first “Nissan” branded cars were already sold by Datsun switzerland from around 1981, The Company was officially renamed to Nissan (Suisse) SA on the 15th May 1984.
8. Becoming Nissan Motor (Schweiz) AG / Japanese takeover / Hans Schulze
On the first January of 1985, Mr Botnar sold all his shares of Nissan (Suisse) SA to the Nissan Motor Co. While Nissan Switzerland states this, of course, as an act of Mr. Botnar to further improve the business, i personally think he was forced to do so, or at least asked, by the Management in Japan. After 6 General Managers had left the Company within 6 years, and all the negative press, i guess the Patience at the HQ in tokyo was over. The statement in a Nissan brochure is that “this structure allows an intensive relationship between the import company in switzerland and the manufacturer, which shows especially in the great flexibility in the adjustment to the market development.” They shortly thereafter installed the german Hans-Adolf “Hans” Schulze as general director of the Nissan Motors (Schweiz) AG in March 1986. Since Mr. Botnar was gone and the control was no by NMC in Japan, things calmed down again and Nissan Motor Schweiz AG was able to settle things a bit and focus on business rather than internal tension.
9. Some figures
In these figures from an internal 1982 Datsun switzerland brochure, you can see the increase of sales (left) and dealerships in switzerland (right). The colour change is when Botnar took over. He probably wasn’t very much liked by the dealers but he definitely was sucessfull. However i’m not really sure how this is directly related to his business strategies or also might be related due to general automotive market economics back in these days.
in 1982, just before the transition to Nissan, Datsun Suisse SA was on Position no 10 of the Import brands and on Position 7, when it came to the most registered new cars by brand in in Switzerland
10. The rest of the story
Since the rest of the story is not too interresting for most enthusiasts anymore i won’t cover it in too much detail, but here’s a brief overview after what happened next:
In June 2001 Nissan Switzerland became “Renault Nissan Suisse SA” after the merger of the Renault and Nissan parent companies. When the Parent companies split up again, also Renault and Nissan switzerland split up again. Allthough they still both are located at the Bergmoosstrasse 4 in Urdorf today, as i write this (2022).
Today Nissan Switzerland is a subsidiary of the “Nissan Center Europe” (in Brühl, Germany).
Over all it was a quite hectic time back than and very much fun to cover the story. There are so many more details i would have liked to show you here but it would just have been a too large story. I might try to cover these details in later parts of the series.
As with all my knowledge posts, i tried my best to get all information from trustworthy and official sources. However i can not guarantee that above information is 100% correct. If you have any correction, input or additional information, i appreciate if you let me know. I’ll update this post whenever i find something to add or change.
Also i put countless unpaid hours of research and work into this post and spent quite a bit of money to buy a lot of original documents, so please ask, before you copy anything, including the pictures. thanks!
Big Thanks to Marcel from the Bettelbrünneli Collection, Gerard from Zonedatsun, Heiko from Datsun.ch, Lara from the Central Library of Zürich and the ETH Zürich team behind the E-Periodica Archives and the historic Archive of the Verkehrshaus Luzern. Without all of you, this posts wouldn’t have been possible!
I also was in contact with some people at Nissan switzerland, but still waiting for some information until today. If i get anything, i will update these posts immediately.