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Celebrating 35 years of Sunderland manufacturing

Nissan is celebrating 35 years of production at its Sunderland plant in style, with a one-off commission called ‘Newbird’. The mash up of the first model to roll off the line and the Leaf’s EV powertrain is described as “all that is great” about the factory.

The Nissan Bluebird was the earliest car manufactured in Sunderland, back in 1986, while the Leaf was the world’s first mass-market electric vehicle, and has played a large part in kicking off the switch to battery electric models. Manufacturing boss, Alan Johnson, 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.”

Nissan GB managing director, Andrew Humberstone, added; “There’s a huge pride in our dealer network that so many of the cars we sell have started life right here in the UK. Nissan’s Sunderland plant has produced ‘home-grown heroes’ for millions of UK customers with models like the Juke, Qashqai, and Leaf amongst the country’s best-sellers. This ‘Newbird’ project is a wonderful tribute to the enduring presence of high-quality manufacturing that Nissan has enjoyed in the UK for 35 years.”

Extensive modifications were required to transform the Bluebird into the ‘Newbird’. Once its petrol engine and gearbox were removed, engineers had to find a way to shoehorn the electric Leaf motor, inverter and 40kWh battery pack into the 1980s model. A decision was taken to split the battery modules between the engine bay and boot for the best weight distribution. 

It wasn’t a case of ‘job done’ at that point, because the power steering, braking system and cabin heating all had to be modified or upgraded to work with electric power, instead of taking their energy from the missing combustion engine. The suspension has also been swapped for a custom setup to help cope with the extra weight of the battery electric powertrain.

While Nissan was keen to keep the Bluebird’s classic boxy looks, there are a few subtle design changes to hint at the changes beneath its skin. For instance, the original Nissan bonnet badge now has an LED backlight which illuminates when the car is static. Nissan Design Europe, based in London, also created a set of colourful graphics ‘inspired by design cues of 1980s consumer technology, combined with a 21st Century aesthetic’ and there’s an acid green ‘Newbird’ badge on the rear.

Although not officially homologated, Nissan estimates that the ‘Newbird’ can travel for up to 130 miles on a single charge. It should also be able to get from 0-62mph in less than 15 seconds, and likely to feel faster off the line than the original petrol-powered car.

Topping up is via the original fuel filler flap, where the charging port is now located. The battery can be replenished at a maximum rate of 6.6kW, and in a neat trick, the original fuel gauge now shows the battery state of charge.

The conversion was project-managed by Kinghorn Electric Vehicles, which specialises in the conversion of classic cars to electric power using second-life Nissan Leaf motors, inverters and batteries. The family-run companybased in Durham, just 15 miles from the Sunderland plant.

George Kinghorn said; “Electric vehicles are not just the future, they’re the now! Converting older vehicles to electric gives you everyday use of these iconic 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 Bluebird, with the heart of a Nissan Leaf.”

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