In the early eighties, the North East was seeing shipyards and coal mines shut in a time of industrial decline.
In the early eighties, the North East was seeing shipyards and coal mines shut in a time of industrial decline. With so many skilled workers jobless, it was the Japanese brand that helped to turn it around and took over a 799 acre, former airfield, building the largest car plant in the UK. In 1986, the first Nissan Bluebird was produced. Twenty-six years later and the plant is the most productive in Europe.Nissan kindly invited me up to witness this for myself in their Rising Sunderland event. Arriving at the factory and you are greeted by 10 wind turbines, feats of mechanical engineering that get me every time I see one. If you’ve ever had the chance to see one on the back of a truck, it is a visual phenomena. Anyway, these provide 10% of the energy required for the plant. Back to the cars and first stop of the day was the factory tour. Barry, who showed us around had worked at the plant for a long time and was a fountain of knowledge. To see if journalists can do anything other than write, a ‘skills test’ was in order. On the site itself is part of Gateshead Community College, where the future employees of the company are trained up on all things manufacturing and innovation. Now I’m not adverse to a bit of DIY and am quite good with a hammer, but on the workbench in front of us was a metal plank with holes. Our task was to put four plates over these holes, screw in some bolts and do it in the fastest time possible. Easy, I hear you say. There were also various rules: that we had to do the right side plate first, a specific hole had to have the bolt in first, but then had to be the last one tightened. And there was also a time to beat of 46 seconds. So quite a bit to remember, no pressure! Armed with my drill, it was time to get the stopwatch going. It seemed a straightforward task and at 46 seconds I only had one plate left. I was determined to get under the minute mark and did so at 56.72 seconds. The girls beat the boys out of our group, maybe something to do with multi-tasking helps? But imagine how happy we were, to then find out that Barry could do it in 38 seconds. And we’d all fail at working in the factory because it took us so long. So with that in mind, we donned hi-viz jackets and headed into the plant to see how it’s really done. Entering the assembly line and it’s a visual feast; cars on your left, right, straight-ahead, up above. It was like a Yo! Sushi restaurant conveyor belt. I’ll have a bowl of Chicken Yakisoba with my blue Qashqai please... Workers, all in matching Nissan uniform were diligently moving from one car to the next on the line. Whether they were fitting in rear windows, adding the dash, or the engine, the attention to detail was amazing. With a car taking three and a half hours to be built and using just under 5000 parts, you can see why there are 60 rolling off the line every hour. Now I mentioned I was good with a hammer and there would be a role just for me. Making sure the doors and boot sit flush. If not, then a bit of adjustment and hammer time. Whether I could do it quickly would remain to be seen, but if the line stops at anytime, then it’s costly for Nissan. 480,000 Qashqai, Juke and Note models were built there last year and the electric LEAF and Invitation are due to join them. So after seeing how they are put together, it was time to sample a few of their most talked about cars on their test track. First up the GT-R. I’ve always been a fan of these, maybe due to the fact I’ve loved the Fast and Furious films (but don’t hold that against me). The 2012 model has an extra 20bhp, bringing it to a whopping 542 from the 3.8 litre twin turbo-charged V6. It may not have the ‘look at me’ characteristics of a Lamborghini or a Ferrari, but at a fraction of the price you’d be leaving them trailing in your wake. Driving this is a dream, especially for somebody like me who has never driven on a track before. Foot to the floor and you’re off. It was as easy as driving a Nissan Note, maybe somewhat cooler... Everything about it is responsive; handling, brakes and gripping the track like velcro, there was no chance of making an error. A 0-60 test in it was amusing, only because it makes your head do strange things and once you get your foot off the brake, it almost feels like you’re being catapulted out of a rocket launcher. It actually goes to 62mph in just 2.8 seconds, something I wasn’t exactly going to replicate. So after a few laps in that, it was time to get out in the utterly bonkers, JUKE-R. With only two cars produced of the concept, the brief at Nissan must have been as simple as a cooking recipe. Take one Juke and add a liberal sprinkling of GT-R. Coat with an aggressive matt black trim and then leave to cool. A Transformer on steroids and with a chip on its shoulder if you will. So with the same engine as the GT-R and 485bhp, it’s a crossover that I reckon anybody could drive. Just remember it’s fitted with a roll cage. Sitting beside me was Jann Mardenborough, a winner of the Nissan Playstation GT Academy. For any gamers out there, it’s a chance for them to go from playing on their games console to actually racing around a circuit as a professional racer. Having taken part in the Dubai 24 Hours in January and making history by being the first all gamer team taking a podium position, he will contest the European Blancpain Endurance SeriesChampionship this season in a Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3. The JUKE-R is not surprisingly just like driving the GT-R. You sit further back and lower than in the standard Juke, something that hampered me in the test that Jann had me doing around the handling circuit. To see the vast amount of cones and because I made it my aim not to knock any over, I kept trying to lean forward out of my bucket seat. Novice mistake when you have a four point harness to contend with! Jann wasn’t just there to sit beside us, he was there to show us how it’s done. I have never laughed so much in a car and once out on track Jann showed how completely crazy the concept is, why you can jump on the brakes at the very last second and why he’s also a name to watch out for. Nissan put on a hugely interesting and entertaining day and my lasting memory is seeing the 3.30pm shift head home. There were Nissans in queues everywhere around the factory perimeter. A company where the workers are so loyal that they’re driving them too!