Curbside Classic: 1980 Datsun 210 Sunny

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic 1980 datsun 210 sunny

With what words shall I express my overpowering feelings toward this tin can wrapped in vinyl wood appliqué? Jeremy Clarkson once called the Sunny “the worst car in the world ever” (probably not for the first or last time). To show he meant it, he hurled one to its death from a trebuchet (sorry, I couldn’t find it on You Tube). Richard Hammond piled in on the flame-fest too, incinerating another Sunny in the scorching business end of a rocket car. If graphic language is going to offend your delicate sensibilities, better skip the jump:

I love you, little woody-wagon Datsun.

Obviously, I’m feeling a bit emotional; male menopause, perhaps. More likely, my feelings for the lil’ woody were heightened by shooting a superb original ’55 Ford Fairlane yesterday. The owner’s son happened to be in town to visit his ninety year-old father in the nursing home. The father bought the Ford new, and the son, about my age, had learned to drive in it. And now he was preparing himself to say goodbye to both of them.

That’s how it often is with old cars. They’re like sponges, dripping with the human emotions we’ve invested in them. As the unofficial chronicler of old cars in Eugene, I feel like I’m taking a lot of it on, like a shepherd watching over his flock. I’ve photographed over five hundred in the past six months, and in the process we become intimate. When I see them coming and going, or just sitting on the streets, it’s a little like running into an old girlfriend: is your driver treating you well? Has he noticed your balding front tire and your oil leak? I have no choice but to internalize all this; it’s a heavy burden.

I’ve already lost several old friends to the jaws of the crusher. Two days ago, I walked down the street to re-shoot a 1975 Ford Granada coupe, because I wasn’t happy with the shots I had. I had heard it calling to me for days, but I procrastinated. Sure enough, it was gone; the wrecker had just picked it up a couple hours earlier.

So why the big love for this particular Datsun? Well, it was a perfect golden summer evening, and I was biking around the Whiteaker district. The Whit is by far the most colorful neighborhood in Eugene: a mixture of aging hippies, meth heads, hip young adults, idealistic families, the Nikasi Brewery, recent Mexican immigrants, the Pizza Research Institute, and the Arcimoto EV start-up. You get the picture.

It also has a unique zoning status that allows small business and residential housing to mix. My mechanic’s busy little three-bay shop is attached to his house. Instead of a waiting room, you can sit in his wife’s rose garden. Some of my best finds, like the Vega wagon, were found lurking around here. In fact, I had just discovered the 1950 hot-rod Cadillac down the street before running into this Datsun. Very anti-climatic, and I almost decided to pass on it. It’s hardly the only 210 around.

But it called out to me; the setting sun reflecting off the bright yellow house, the lush garden, and the way the vinyl wood appliqué was deteriorating, like alligatored paint on an old house. And just as the paint on a house flakes worst on the sunny south wall, the “wood” on this Datsun was clearly worse on its south-facing tailgate. It’s obviously been living here for a long time.

As I was shooting it, a bright and delightfully engaging girl of about eleven came riding out the driveway on a unicycle. I told her I was a unicyclist too, and we struck up a conversation about the pros and cons of 16” versus 20” unicycles. She confirmed the Datsun’s status as a reliable but little-used long-term family member, due to the family’s primary transportation being pedaled devices, one and two-wheeled.

As I stood there talking to her, I suddenly had the sensation that I was in a different country, perhaps Mexico, or Cuba. I felt thankful to live in a place where the old cars and the kids aren’t all hidden away in three car garages or McMansions in gated “communities”. Where an old Datsun wagon can live out a long and useful life hauling gardening supplies when needed. In a different mood, I might have thought about Clarkson’s catapulted Sunny and chuckled. But not that day.

It probably won’t come as a shock if I tell you that most new cars don’t do a whole lot for me these days. The exception to this are the developments in new technologies and propulsion systems. Well, that and the Alfa 8C that haunts my dreams. But there’s no doubt that we’re in the early days of a transitional period. It’s like the end of the steam locomotive era, or the horse and buggy. So I find myself with one foot in the future, and the other in the past, documenting and reveling in the era when cars were far less perfect, but had character, and are now sitting decoratively at the curb in front of a vintage house. Being an optimistic futurist as well as a nostalgic historian is my way of coping with the muddle of the present.

Transportation wise, the Whiteaker is a melange of bicycles, at least one unicyclist, pedestrians, old cars, trucks and a few EVs. Newish cars? Except for Priuses, not so much. Is it a sneak preview of our future? Works for me, especially when I get to meet a hot rod Caddy, a fellow unicyclist, and a Datsun 210 woody wagon within the same two blocks.

Thanks for tolerating my middle-aged digressions; I’m feeling better already. And I promise you a slew of truly awesome vintage Datsuns to come. Speaking of which, I’ve barely said a thing about this Datsun; my apologies.

It was a primitive but fundamentally rugged and cheap workhorse of the era. It really hadn’t changed much since its origins in 1966 as the Datsun 1000. RWD, the simple little A-series push-rod engine, the same old tired formula that the European FWD hatches and the Honda Civic made obsolete. By the early eighties, it was a rolling relic. Deadly boring. Maybe even the worst car in the world.

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2 of 61 comments
  • on Oct 27, 2009

    [...] hometown of Eugene, Oregon. He writes about the same sort of well-worn and well-loved cars we tend to gravitate toward here at Car [...]

  • Civarlo Civarlo on Nov 29, 2009

    A typical find on a Willamette Valley street, right up there with some bicyclist in a rain poncho. Love it. Glad to see that some of these are around. Reminds me of my brother's 1978 Datsun B210; the predecessor of this model. The Iron Cockroach: ugly as sin, but wouldn't die. Had a hardy character that's rather hard to describe in much depth. Seems like the mechanicals on these things last long after the surrounding body panels have rusted to pieces.

  • Damon Thomas Adding to the POSITIVES... It's a pretty fun car to mod
  • GregLocock Two adjacent states in Australia have different attitudes to roadworthy inspections. In NSW they are annual. In Victoria they only occur at change of ownership. As you'd expect this leads to many people in Vic keeping their old car.So if the worrywarts are correct Victoria's roads would be full of beaten up cars and so have a high accident rate compared with NSW. Oh well, the stats don't agree.
  • Lorenzo In Massachusetts, they used to require an inspection every 6 months, checking your brake lights, turn signals, horn, and headlight alignment, for two bucks.Now I get an "inspection" every two years in California, and all they check is the smog. MAYBE they notice the tire tread, squeaky brakes, or steering when they drive it into the bay, but all they check is the smog equipment and tailpipe emissions.For all they would know, the headlights, horn, and turn signals might not work, and the car has a "speed wobble" at 45 mph. AFAIK, they don't even check EVs.
  • Not Tire shop mechanic tugging on my wheel after I complained of grinding noise didn’t catch that the ball joint was failing. Subsequently failed to prevent the catastrophic failure of the ball joint and separation of the steering knuckle from the car! I’ve never lived in a state that required annual inspection, but can’t say that having the requirement has any bearing on improving safety given my experience with mechanics…
  • Mike978 Wow 700 days even with the recent car shortages.