Michael Hunt, a multi-millionaire who helped milk his company of nearly pounds 140m and cheat the Inland Revenue of just over pounds 55m, appeared taken aback by the sentence at Southwark Crown Court in south London. His wife Shirley and daughter Wanda burst into tears. His son Chester held his head in his hands.
Mr Justice Gatehouse told Hunt, 59, found guilty last Saturday of a nine-year corporation tax conspiracy, that 'on any view' his offence was in a 'category entirely of its own'.
'You realise that this is an offence which is so serious that only a custodial sentence is appropriate. An immediate custodial sentence which is bound to be a long one.'
Hunt, of Hove, East Sussex, was the second-in-command at the former importers and distributors of Britain's best-selling foreign-made car.
The judge banned him from serving as a director or liquidator of any company under the Directors' Disqualification Act 1986, part of the penalty for his involvement in removing pounds 139m from Nissan UK. In addition, he must pay the entire cost of the two- month trial and other prosecution expenses totalling pounds 513,512.
'The Revenue stated at the outset of this case that this was the largest fraud they had ever investigated and prosecuted, and even on the count that you have been convicted it must still be the largest fraud ever investigated and prosecuted,' the judge said.
Also jailed was Frank Shannon, 60, the former financial director and company secretary of Nissan UK, based in Worthing, West Sussex.
Imposing a three-year prison sentence, a 10-year director's disqualification and pounds 131,410 costs order, the judge said he was giving him credit for his guilty plea and the co-operation he gave the tax authorities.
He told Shannon, from Brighton - who earlier admitted one charge of cheating the taxman between November 1985 and October 1986 - that his crime was less serious than Hunt's. During his involvement, said the judge, a total of pounds 17m was swindled from the taxman.
During the trial - estimated to have cost pounds 2.2m - Peter Rook, for the prosecution, said Hunt had been part of a team of 'sophisticated fraudsters'. He said they included Octav Botnar, Nissan UK's former chairman and the 'prime mover' in the swindle, two Swiss bankers and other businessmen. Botnar, 80, who suffers from arterial disease and is convalescing in Switzerland after surgery for reported stomach cancer, is thought to be too unwell to answer an arrest warrant and stand trial in Britain.
The prosecution said the fraud started in 1976 and lasted 16 years. Bogus invoices and 'sham' shipping agents in the Netherlands and Norway were used to inflate the costs of shipping Nissan vehicles from Japan to Britain by as much as 50 per cent, to conceal an extra profit averaging pounds 115 on each car and van.
The money was laundered through a Bermudan company and secret Swiss bank accounts. The cash then disappeared into a black hole - the term used by tax investigators who have failed to trace a single penny.