The Toyota pickup has become such a dominant vehicle in its class worldwide, its easy to assume that it was always that way. Not so. It was Nissan’s little Datsun trucks that essentially invented the modern mini-pickup genre, and was top puppy in the US for well over a decade before handing over the throne. In fact, trucks were the only vehicle that Datsun imported for quite a few years, and made its reputation with them. They’re a significant piece of automotive history, and many are still hard at work, at least hereabouts.
The Datsun pickup series started (in Japan) with the Model 120 in 1955. Featuring a new chassis and body, it still had a pre-war 860 cc flat-head four which made all of 25 hp. It shared much of its chassis and mechanicals with the contemporary Datsun 110 sedan.
In 1958, the improved Model 220 arrived, with a new 1000 cc OHV four that was an offshoot of Datsun’s licensing agreement with Austin. But the new C-Series engine wasn’t just a direct copy of the Ausitn B-Series; it was substantially improved by an American engineer, Donald Stone. These “Stone engines” quickly developed a rep for being extremely rugged and hard to kill.
There were a number of minor evolutionary steps from the original 120 to the red 1964 320 that I shot here, and there were other body styles that never made it to the US. One of the more interesting ones is the double cab U Series, which looks more like a precursor to a SUT/Avalanche/Baja type vehicle tha the more typical double cab small work trucks.
Datsun trucks were first imported to the US in 1959, the 37 hp 1000cc Model 220. Although slow, Nissan’s (then) legendary build quality helped find a foothold in the American market, as there was no other vehicle quite like it. Not surprisingly, import friendly Southern California was where the bulk of these early trucks were sold.
In 1961, the Model 320 appeared, with a number of improvements. It now had a torsion bar independent front suspension that replaced the solid beam axle on early models, and a 1200 cc E-Series engine that was a further development of the “Stone” engine.
Its badges proudly proclaims 60 hp! That actually was pretty good for 1961, considering VW buses/pickups were still laboring along with 36hp that year.
The Datsun engine’s Austin roots are apparent with those distinctive head bolts. These E-series engines are pretty legendary, especially in places like Australia which took a shine to little Datsun trucks very early on. Consider it a contender for the ubiquitous slant six comparison.
Obviously, these old 320s are cuteness embodified. The used to be fairly common in CA, and were especially popular with the surfer crowd.
Their one shortcoming was shortness…in terms of cab length. They were not sized for tall Americans, and I’ve never been able to make myself comfortable in one. But I love that simple dash…now that’s right up my alley.
In 1965, the new 520 Series Datsun trucks appeared. They still had the rugged height-adjustable torsion bar suspension, but the styling was new, as well as incorporating a number of other significant changes. It was a handsome truck for the times,with a distinctly Italianate flavor. Not surprisingly, as the Nissan designers used the work Pininfarina did for the Datsun 410 sedan and adapted it for the 520 truck.
In addition to a slightly roomier cab, the 520 had another evolutionary development of the “Stone” OHV four, now called the J-Series and sporting 1300 cc and a whopping 67 hp. This engine was also used in the 410/411 sedan, and helped give it its sporting reputation.
For a truck engine, it was pretty sporty: check out the fine swept cast exhaust header; you wouldn’t find that on an American straight six truck engine.
This 1300 truck is still hard at work earning its living. There’s a lot of these early Datsun trucks in Eugene, but not the 1300s are pretty rare, especially in front-line duty.
For 1969, the Datsun pickup received a restyled front end, and for the US anyway, a big boost in power. The new L-series 1600 cc OHC four that was developed for the legendary Datsun 510 was also dropped into the 521 series pickup. With 96 hp on tap, the Datsun was now a genuine ‘lil hustler, as long as the rear wheels had enough traction. Weighing some 2100 lbs, the power to weight ratio was excellent for the times, and another legend was made.
By this time, Datsun was selling over 30k of their little trucks per year, and not just in California anymore. They created a new market, and soon Toyota and a slew of other Japanese competitors would all pile in.
I had seen a few of them in Maryland and Iowa in up to 1972, but they were not common. It wasn’t until I went to CA the first time in ’72 that their popularity hit me. As I first approached LA in the spring of ’72, in a Datsun 510 no less, there were swarms of these on the I10 out in the fringes of the desert heading into San Bernardino, many of them hauling the the other hot vehicle of the times, a Yamaha DT Enduro bike, in the bed. They seemed to be made for each other.
Datsun pickups and VW Beetles (modified to some degree or another) were probably the two most popular cars with kids in LA at that time. Like so many trends, they foreshadowed the huge import tsunami about to wash ashore and flood the whole country. Datsun maintained the number one sales position for some ten years or so, but eventually Toyota pulled ahead.
Not surprisingly, these were pretty primitive little trucks to drive, for better and for worse. The Datsun 1600 engine pulled well, and was now geared so that it could keep up easily with freeway traffic. The ride was harsh, and the brakes were decidedly mediocre, the weakest link in the package. But their elementary goodness and simplicity endeared these trucks to a whole generations (or more) of Americans as an alternative to ever larger or increasingly more complicated cars. It’s truly hard to believe that the whole segment has essentially died out. But then these old Datsuns, and the generation that followed these are still plentiful, should one really wish to relive the experience.