Every commercial is a fantasy, but car commercials are more fantastical than most. Just look at the settings, with their roads, whether remote or urban, completely empty of not just other cars but obstacles of any kind: stop signs, street-crossers, speed traps. This leaves the heroic everyman behind the wheel free to take on the straightaways and curves alike just as he sees fit. But what the standard car commercial offers in driver wish fulfillment, it lacks in drama: how to tell a story, after all, about a featureless character who faces no obstacles, subject to no desires beyond those for comfort and speed? Commissioned to direct a commercial for Nissan’s 300ZX Turbo, Ridley Scott found a way.
“I’m in a Turbo Z,” says the narrator of the resulting spot “Turbo Dream,” first broadcast during Super Bowl XXIV in 1990. “These guys are after me, but they can’t catch me.” These mysterious pursuers first chase him on motorcycles, then in an F1 race car, and then in an experimental-looking jet. (We’re a long way indeed from Hovis bread.)
But “just as they’re about to catch me, the twin turbos kick in.” Those twin turbochargers constitute only one of the cornucopia of features available for the 300ZX, then the latest model of Nissan’s “Z-cars,” a series acclaimed for its combination of sports-car performance, luxury-car features, and high technology. The lineage goes all the way back to 1969, when the company introduced its Japanese Fairlady Z in the U.S. as the 240Z.
For most of the 1960s, “Japanese sports car” would have sounded like a contradiction in terms. But by the 1990s many once-loyal American drivers had been enticed to defect, not least by the promise of the Z-car. Taken by surprise, the colossal U.S. auto industry did not react charitably to its foreign competitors, and the 1980s wave of economic anti-Japanese sentiment swept America. Hollywood wasted no time capitalizing on these feelings: countless action movies began featuring corporate-raiding Japanese villains, and one of the least shoddy among them was Black Rain — directed by a certain Ridley Scott, who in Blade Runner had already realized one vision of a thoroughly Japanified America.
Black Rain had come out just four months before the broadcast of “Turbo Dream,” and anyone who’d seen the film would surely be reminded of its opening motorcycle race. The spot did draw a backlash, but the anger had nothing to do with Japan: “The commercial was protested by groups like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of Governors’ Highway Safety Representatives and others,” writes Jalopnik’s Jason Torchinsky. “The issue was that the ad was thought to glorify speeding,” and the commercial never aired again. The 300ZX itself would go on for a few more years, until the American SUV trend and the rising yen-to-dollar ratio temporarily retired it in 1997. When they bring the newly unveiled Z Proto to market, Nissan could do worse than enlisting Scott to come up with another turbocharged fantasy.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.