By on December 15, 2009

a true curbside classic

There were three key ingredients that that made the Datsun 510 fly: the BMW 1600, “Mr. K”, and a certain sharp rise taken flat-out on Bunker Hill Road.

CC 12 040 800In the history of affordable enthusiast cars, there are obvious milestones. Pre-war Fords created the genre by yielding a seemingly infinite source of frames, bodies and drive trains to keep hot-rodders busy, even yet. The tri-five (’55-’57) Chevys combined a trim and sturdy body with the ubiquitous small block V8. The MG roadsters birthed the whole sports car genre in the US. The VW was the closest thing to a Lego-mobile, a source of building blocks for seemingly infinite possibilities. And the legendary Datsun 510? It changed the low-bucks performance equation forever, and spawned the whole ricer scene. It’s earned its beatification and immortality, and now sits exulted at the right side of the holy trinity of ’55-’57 Chevys.

The little boxy Datsuns that Nissan was pushing in the US during the sixties were a modest effort. The 410/411 (Bluebird) was still a dyed-in-the-sake Japanese-market affair, too small and weak-chested. Yes, the SSS version was a zippy little number, if you were vertically-challenged enough to actually climb in, but only very limited numbers found their way here. Datsun’s early success was heavily dependent on their pickups, which pretty much had the mini-truck market to themselves.

Let’s start with the first two pivotal ingredients that made the 510 the high flier it became: the BMW 1600 (later 2002) was a revolutionary car in its own right, and one we’ll look at in CC soon. Its formula of a small, light, boxy body; a rev-happy 1600cc OHC four; and all-wheel independent suspension took the market by storm and spawned the 3-Series legacy that took BMW from obscurity to the head of the class.

CC 12 035 800

Yutaka Katayama, known reverently as Mr. K and “the father of the 240Z”, was a rebel outcast of hide-bound Nissan. Exiled to the US, he became the founding father and president of Nissan USA, and fought tirelessly for more competitive and sporty product. Certain aspects of the 510, especially the size and performance level of its engine, were the direct result of his back-door lobbying, inspired by his admiration of the little BMW.

So it wasn’t exactly coincidence that both the BMW and the Datsun had 1600cc SOHC engines with 96 horsepower, and front strut and rear semi-trailing arm IRS. While the 510 was just a tick above VW Beetle in price ($1996), the BMW was a whole notch dearer, and zoomed even higher as a consequence of exchange rates. The 510 quickly established itself as the bargain Bimmer.

CC 12 037 800That’s not to say it was its equal. But you had to drive both of them to appreciate the BMW’s substantially more refined ways, especially in the suspension department and general quality of materials and finish. In unadulterated form, the 510 was nevertheless a blast, but the limits of its handling could be a bit abrupt, and adrenalin-inducing.

My high school buddy Nick came by a new 1970 510 when the family Volvo 122S spun a bearing. I will never forget our first effort at “getting lost” in the 510: heading out into the endlessly undulating and windy country roads of north Baltimore County at night without any plan of action or map, never knowing where we would end up, just as long as it wasn’t in the ditch.

The 510 was a rite of initiation and an eye-opener after the VW Beetle, Dodge Dart and other fine machinery I was used to flaying around these facsimiles of English country lanes. The little Datsun four spun its heart out, redline-cheating shift after banging shift. Nick was a naturally gifted driver, and we were immortal anyway, so exploring the 510’s somewhat unpredictable limits on blind, narrow curves late at night was just the counterpart to the somewhat unpredictable psychotropics whose limits we also explored regularly. Sometimes at the same time, other times not. The Datsun was entertaining either way.

Enough of the psycho-brabble. But I assure you that catching air on that rise was not a hallucination; we confirmed it for ourselves via the scientific method: repeat and verify the results. Nick went on to take ownership of the 510, and embark on that series of suspension, brake and engine mods that became so typical of the enthusiast owners of these cars. I had moved away by then, and he eventually moved on to bigger and more expensive flying toys, but he still pines for that 510. I know why too: he now lives near that rise in the road, and it’s calling for him to relive that first flight.

ready to fly

Well, there’s plenty of old 510s in Eugene. I’ve gotten familiar with at least a dozen or so. My friend Mike, who owns the ’51 Caddy, has three of them. I picked this orange four-door because it reminds me of the low-budget mildly-modded 510s typical of the seventies or so. I’ve got a nice well-worn original two door in the can too that we’ll look at some other day: it’s a fairly rare find; it seems the two-doors have all been heavily redone by now. And a wagon (which has a solid rear axle) is coming too.

The beauty of the 510, and its oft-repeated similarity to the ’55-’57 Chevys, lies in its interchangeability with later Datsun/Nissan engines and parts. The L-16 engine was just the first step of the long evolution of that family, so that the 1.8 and 2.0 liter engines drip in as easily as swapping SBCs. The popular the Z series, which were produced through 1989, are also based on the L-engine block. Then there’s Nissan’s later hot DOHC fours. And from there, the sky’s the limit, like this rotary-powered 510. It seems pretty typical for 510 enthusiasts to get carried away.

CC 12 038 800Let me quickly just add that the 510 had a spectacularly successful career in racing too. The hot 2.5 liter class of the Trans Am series was pretty much owned by the Brock Racing Team’s 510s. Bob Bondurant started his racing school with 510s, and Paul Newman got his start in one of those abused Datsuns. It was terrific advertising, and Datsun rode the tails of its racing/sporty image way longer than it deserved to into the seventies.

The 510 was like an automotive mayfly: it seemingly went as quickly as it came. By that I mean, it successor utterly lacked the 510’s qualities, and the 510 became a frozen moment in automotive time. The bigger, heavier and bizarre-looking Datsun 610 was the ’58 Chevy to the ’55. But the 510 had done its job, propelling Datsun from relative obscurity to a very competitive number two behind Toyota. Datsun went on to wretchedly ugly cars and a confused image, allowing Honda to pass it by forever. The pathetic Datsun/Nissan 510 revival in the early eighties certainly wasn’t successful in recapturing the magic of the original. There’s only one way to do that: buy one. Are you listening, Nick?

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43 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1970 Datsun 510 (Bluebird/1600)...”

  • avatar

    Not sure but I don’t think the 4-door or wagons had the IRS. These made great track cars since they lacked the added comfort build that made them livable, like a good race car they were tin cans with a great engine and suspension.

  • avatar

    My girlfriend’s Mom learned to drive stick in a 510 wagon owned by the man who would become her one and only husband.  You reminded me I need to ask him how he got his hands on a Datsun 510, we have a Nissan dealer now but as I was under the impression that the dealership had only been part of Gallup, NM for a decade or two.  The nearest Datsun dealer back when those two were  courting would have been 150miles away.  This is GM/Ford country and it would be interesting to know how he got his hands on a Datsun 510. 

  • avatar

    It’s too bad  that after the 510 – Nissan/Datsun came out with the 610. Talk about lost momentum.  The 2 door 610 looked like a miniature Ford Torino and the 4 door was damn homely.

  • avatar

    My father bought one of these when I was 13 so that my mother would have a car during the day (her Dodge Polara was a Nimitz-class carrier in comparison) . It was the same gold color, but the wheels were not as nice as the ones in the photo. When I turned 14, I was able to get my learners permit and began to drive stick for the first time (well, not counting tractors at my uncle’s farm…but that’s another story).  Three years later, with a year of driving alone under my belt, Dad sold it to me for $1.o0. I had big plans – I was going to make it into a rally car and then slide it around tight gravel hairpins at full speed in no time. But after spending the little money I had on gas, oil, tires, and a rockin’ good 8-track system, there was nothing left for suspension upgrades and the like. Instead, I just drove it like mad in stock form for many years, then passed it on to my youngest brother when the rust started getting too hard to keep up with. I had my eye on that shiny new ’79 Camaro at the Chevy dealer by then. Even after 9 years the car started perfectly, burned very little oil, and just needed the annual points, plugs, and condenser replacement ritual performed. It’s life was cut tragically short 2 years later when my brother stopped for a yellow light but the gravel truck behind him did not. I came home that day to see the trunk bunched up around the rear window like a tin can kicked by a giant. Fantastic crumple zone – my brother was unhurt. Just enough HP to seem fast, without being able to get into much real trouble…a perfect first car for a kid.

  • avatar

    I think the one in the pictures is a ’71 or newer – when I was 17 I got a 1970 2-door for my first car – was $900 in 1976.  The car had been built in December ’69 and it had different side lights and the speedometer was a long horizontal old-fashioned style instrument like my folks old GM cars had, not the twin instruments.

  • avatar

    In the 1970s, I had a four-door 510 which I redid with DuPont Imron international orange paint, Corvair steel wheels, and Mulholland suspension. The rear suspension is indeed independent. A BMW 1600 for a lot less. Lots of fun to drive, but not so nice for long trips, as I discovered. A bargain classic.

  • avatar

    Why am I reminded of Lloyd Bentson in all of this?  If I were speaking to your Datsun, all I could say is, “I knew Mr. 2002, and you’re no BMW 2002, Mr 510.” On the other hand, my ex-wife once owned a B-210 (paint was almost flesh colored in a creepy way), and together we owned various Nissans into the 80s (a couple of Zs and an SX).  They were, more or less, nice inoffensive cars.  It’s why I mostly drive German cars, today.

  • avatar

    Never had one myself, but new a few kids in highschool who did.  Best example was that orange, similar wheels, lowered with the full windshield width rear view that were the rage.  Dude rolled it hooning, but walked away from the accident.  I always thought he was lucky!

  • avatar
    Lord Bodak

    My parents had a 1978 510 that they bought new (although I believe 510s of that era weren’t the same car anymore).  They sold it to some friends in 1989 or so and last we heard it was still running with well over 300k miles on the clock.

  • avatar

    I’m only 30 years old, and I’d love to have one of these little cars.  Where I used to work in Georgia someone had a blue 510 coupe in good-looking condition.  I have yet to see one here in central Virginia.  Seems most have moved on to racetracks in the sky…

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      There is one with a SR20 swap floating around. Saw it at a car show last year.

      As far as I can tell, those early Japanese cars didn’t make it to the east coast in any quantity before the mid-70s, and didn’t get far from their urban dealerships before the mid-80s.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    Attention automobile manufacturers of Japan, Detroit, Korea, Germany and Italy. The first one of you who builds the spiritual successor to the Datsun 510/BMW 2002, vis-a-vis, front engine, rear wheel drive light weight, fun-to-drive and reliable to keep Sedan, at a reasonable price, for sale in The U.S., well, I will buy three of them. I’m certain my neighbor will buy one as well, as will my brother in Florida. And my friend in Rhode Island. And my friend in Indy…

  • avatar

    This was the car I was hoping the new 1-series would be. Sadly not.

    Now I can just hope that the FT-86 and new rumored Silvia get it.

    I think the closest thing right now are the WRX/Lancer sport variants, but even they could lighten up a bit and be a bit cheaper in competition trim.

  • avatar

    I’ve always liked these cars.  I wanted my parents’ to buy one in the mid 70’s but instead they got a CVCC Civic.  The Civic was a car looking forward.  The 510 was a car looking back IMHO.

  • avatar

    I owned several of these when they were still plentiful, including a 37,000 mile 8 year old two door example. The L-16 motor left a bit to be desired in the power department, and the gear shift was quite rubbery, but otherwise a lot of fun. Sadly they weren’t very rust resistant. I could see the Pacific Ocean from my living room, and on a quiet night, I could hear my Datsun rusting.

  • avatar

    We rented a brand new bright red 510 sedan in 1972 when a trip to a cousin’s wedding came up unexpectedly and we were between cars. That was a while ago…he’s separated now, playing the field in the Santa Ynez Valley as a fifty-year-old, and his son’s living a more settled lifestyle than he is. I had no idea that the 510 would catch hold as it did.
    Rod Panhard, lotsa luck. Cars like this are darn near impossible to get past the Federal requirements to be sold in the United States – the high cost of that insures that not much but mass-market stuff gets by, and then they’re too heavy. Hell, it’s getting hard even to find anything but a Mustang GT with a manual transmission.

  • avatar

    Sadly the day of small, lightweight coupes and sedans is long gone. There is far too much additional kit to be added to every new car these days to make it possible. Safety features like airbags, ABS, traction control, and convenience features like power windows and keyless entry add weight. Lots of it. And most people these days won’t live without it. It would be tough for any automaker to make business sense out of a car like this just for a few enthusiasts out there that are actually willing to cough up the dough, and probably impossible regardless because of safety regs that must be passed. Unfortunately if you crave a small, nimble car like this 510, a 2002, or even an AE86, then you’ll have to come to grips with the fact that these are the only choice. There will not be cars like these ever again.

    • 0 avatar

      All those items you just mentioned do not add that much weight. Most of it is electronic sensors not heavy duty hardware and even the air bags are just that : light weight bags.

      No the trend over the past 110 years is for every car to get bigger. The engineers and designers always think “bigger is better”, more weight is just a part of a lack of focus rather than safety. Most of the weight gain over the past 20 years has pretty much been sloth. 5 MPH bumpers added the most weight in the 70s. That whole method of engineering has fallen by the way side. Modern methods of engineering can produce light, but strong vehicles with the same safety and convenience features.

      Ron Panhard: you are correct. That isn’t a lot to ask. Plus the added element that it isn’t just a handful of  “enthusiasts” who would appreciate a car like this any longer, but many people, someone would have a niche all to themselves for awhile.

      Given the fact that these cars were sold as ordinary grocery getters, hardly promoted as an enthusiast vehicle, I believe it is possible there is a market for something like this. There’s no mystery formula here, as you have suggested. I’d be up for something as sensible and fun as this.

  • avatar

    A friend’s son got his grandmother’s well-kept 510 for his first car in high school in the late ’80’s. The kid stripped all the Datsun identifying badges off it and added a BMW badge, double oval grille, buckets and a BMW shifter knob from a junkyard, and told everybody it was his late grandfather’s old 1600. He actually got away with it for several months, until another boy found a picture of a 1600 in a magazine and showed it to everybody.  When he took it to college, his ruse worked again for a couple weeks, until another student with a real 1600 parked it next to him.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    The  orange 510 is  the same color of  the  wagon my BIL put  together for  my  little  sister.  I had  a 1.6 PU . It was  a great slow  car  to  drive  fast.  The PU rode like it  had  no  suspension and  it  was woefully under  braked. But  it  was  a fun  little  truck.  And  it  could  carry  a  load too.

  • avatar

    these things are well sought after now… by the rally brigade and the enthusiasts who want to drop SR20DETs and other motors in them…
    if i have the opportunity in the future i’d grab one… it’s a solid investment

  • avatar

    I must confess the best part of curbside classics is reliving my time in Eugene in the 1970’s when I attended the University of Oregon.

    The backgrounds in the images are unchanged and when combined with cars that may have literally been in Eugene when I was, and I might have even sat in, is priceless.

  • avatar

    Not to nit-pick, but I’m not aware of any DOHC Z-series engines?

  • avatar

    I sold these cars new in 1970. I worked for Datsun selling the 510 as well as the 1200 sedan. I remember that neither was available with a rear window defroster and the 1200 sold for around $1800.  The 510 was a great looking car for Datsun, while being super reliable. They did have very wierd color combos (orange exterior and blue interiors). As a new car salesman, I had to be very careful not to lean on the car as it would easily dent due to the super crappy sheetmetal used.

  • avatar

    @ PN
    Great work!
    These cars were a mainstay of dirt rally driver training in many countries. I started with one. Since those days I’ve never felt the need for anything more than light-4 or 6-cylinders (OK, turbo’d) in any car.
    All my friends had V8s that couldn’t go around corners.

  • avatar

    Well a relative got one of the 1970 Datsun pickups.  Great little truck.  Not much power, not much brakes, but simple, reliable and could really haul a load.  Of course those heavy duty springs and 16 ply tires rode quite stiffly.  However, because of that truck a 1972 510 was purchased in the same orange color with ivory interior.  That was one of the all time junkiest, lousiest, most unreliable cars I have ever known.  Maybe it was  an unusual lemon.
    Both were purchased new.  Transmission problems, electrical problems, carb problems, brake problems, two blown head gaskets etc etc.  Evenutally, you didn’t bother to drive it to town without letting some friends and relatives know.  Because you needed to know if they would be home to come get you if, and usually when you broke down.  After several years, still looking pretty much new, as it had been garaged and very low mileage (because it wouldn’t run many miles at a time) it was sold.  That fellow did one of the swaps to a later Datsun engine.  Maybe that fixed his  problems.
    As for the  semi-trailing rear independent suspension, well yes.  But to compare it to a BMW is quite the insult.  It wasn’t very good that I could tell.  I wrote it off as an overly ambitious marketing feature.  Then again, my opinion of the whole car was pretty much that.  Knew a neighbor with a 1973 in that lime green color.  His wasn’t quite so bad as the orange one, but it was pretty unreliable.  Blown head gasket, transmission and brake problems.   I think some of you guys have let nostalgia cloud your memories myself.  For a long time this gave me the impression of Datusn I have with GM now.  Datsun made a two seater that was good (240z), a truck that was reliable, and pretty poor cars otherwise.  GM has the Corvette, some darn good trucks, and pretty poor vehicles otherwise.

  • avatar

    Owned a 1970 Datsun pickup in the 70s. It still runs at or near the front of the pack for worst vehicle I ever had the misfortune to purchase without a gun to my temple.

  • avatar

    I fixed up a ’70 2 dr. and autocrossed it for a while ~’76.  Also used Corvair wheels(5.5″by 13), with springs, shocks, sway bars, and Delrin steering bushings.  Quickly found out what a crappy driver I was, but what fun anyway!  This car had it all over the BMW 1600 in toughness and reliability, and it looked better I think. Even with an actual 84hp,  this thing was able to get to 50mph or so pretty quickly, and mine took terrible abuse and never complained.  It deserves the honors!

  • avatar

    Ah yes, ’twas Xmas of 73 when my Caldwell Idaho living and sadly long departed Uncle Buzz desired fresh oysters, crab, clams and salmon from yonder shores of SW Washington Coast. At the tender age of 18, fresh back from my first quarter from college with an ahem, buxom lass in tow, I was selected to deliver said seafood and lady, the first to my Uncle’s farm and the second to her friends in Sun Valley and the vehicle of choice? My sisters’s sweet red 510. The car hauled some damn sweet ass at speed, through fog and ice and snow and never missed a beat..except the windshild washer pump froze first day along I84. I remember smoking along that section of highway between Ketchum and the interstate, over ice patches around curves with that sun shining bright with comely company and by God I thought, will it ever get any better?

  • avatar

    Overrated in my opinion. 
    They were well liked mainly because the opposition was so poor.

    The IRS chewed up the rear tyres and the ride on the 200B (live axle) was actually better.
    It wasn’t very fast ; Wheels maxed it out at 90 mph. (A B series Marina would get 101 mph).

  • avatar

    More history of the 510, if anybody’s interested:
    Side note: the Nissan L16 engine that went into these cars, and the L20 and L24 in the Bluebird/240Z and Skyline, were designed by Prince, another Japanese automaker that Nissan acquired in 1966. Prince at one time had had a relationship with Mercedes, and the L-series engine was a knock-off of the Mercedes M127 six. So the German connection is more than just the BMW 1602, although that was definitely an influence on the 510.
    Side note B: Uninspiring as it was, the 410 was actually styled by Pininfarina. Go figure…

  • avatar

    Nice piece, but it does not match the clue! Is that a different 510?

  • avatar
    Facebook User

    Still miss my bumble-bee yellow 70 Datsun 510 with weber carb, L18 crate engine and 240Z 5 speed tranny – and that is after a string of BMWs including an e30 convertible, an e36 sedan, an e53 and an e36/7 and one Miata. All cars in the same rare class of “fun to drive” vehicles. Wore out the brakes one evening taking the 510 down “Mosquito Road” in Placerville California and enjoyed a brakeless, breathless careening ride down to the bottom where we finally coasted to a stop on a wooden bridge crossing some fork of the river and were instantly engulfed in billowing asbestos scented smoke from the brakes. Another time ended up spinning multiple times across two lanes of oncoming traffic on Greenhaven Drive in Sacramento to neatly parallel park the car facing the way I had been coming along a side street (Some guy indicated he was turning one way then pulled out in front of me in the other direction as I tried to pass him on the outside). By the end, I could drive the 510 with almost as much control has I had rode a skateboard as a teenager – something I can’t quite say about any of the vehicles I have owned since.

  • avatar

    Overrated. Yes, I understand the 510’s role in launching the Asian performance sedan market, but regardless of its fine qualities, it’s still emblematic of the era of Japanese emulative engineering, before they began actually improving upon the cars they imitated. My beat-to-crap 2002tii was still a better driver’s car than my friends’ built 510s, and easier to work on to boot. I can’t think of one single thing they did better.

  • avatar

    Your 2002tii cost twice as much to buy and service. The 510, derivative as it was, enjoyed decades of popularity as a racer for a reason; it made a faster race car than the  2002(see Car & Driver archive).

  • avatar

    The 510 was a great car. Sadly, there are practically none left in Canukistan due to their proclivity to rust at break neck speed. As a child, I remember seeing rust bucket 510s until about 1980 and there is here on the salt free West Coast.

  • avatar

    Hey, next time you’re in Portland I will take you out to Lake Oswego where there resides a factory 510 2dr hardtop fastback. It is even a left-hand drive model. I have never gotten a straight answer as to its origins, but I guarantee it isn’t a chop of a factory 2dr.

  • avatar

    Inexpensive mechanics, a stagnant economy (chronic and acute), and a recycle or die attitude keeps cars on Eugene roads that would have been retired decades earlier anywhere else. Great to see gems like this one. Keep up the good work.

  • avatar

    Completely underrated.  In the top 5 in the list of most significant Japanese cars of all time.  The 510 and the 240Z made people take Japanese cars seriously in the U.S., paving the way for the all that would follow.
    I have one.  In the garage, impatiently awaiting an SR20 or SR20det swap with the close ratio 5-speed.  For all the naysayers who compare this car unfavorably to the BMW, bear in mind that the 510 was a far more gifted racer, winning everything from the 2.5 championships in North America and back to back wins in the East African Safari rally.  BMW’s history head to head against the little 510 does not compare favorably.
    As for reliability, the downfall of these cars were rust.  Everything else was straightforward to repair, and parts were cheap, unlike the 2002s.
    Interior build quality was nowhere near BMW, if that sort of thing is important to you. But the 510’s chassis was much stiffer, as evidenced by a comparison by Road & Track in 1971 of roll cages installed in racing versions of both cars.

  • avatar
    Nick Danger

    So nice. The endorphins flow, pumped by the 4 wheel parabolic arc into memory lane. It’s really true that you don’t miss what you have until it’s gone. You got me going. Even to the point of immediately searching online for one to replace my old friend. It was such a blast to drive. If one shows up soon . . . Pardon me while I wipe the corner of my eye. Thanks Paul.

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