By on December 18, 2010

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.

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34 Comments on “Curbside Classics: The First Mini-Pickups: Datsun’s 1964 320 1200; 1967 520 1300; 1969 521 1600...”

  • avatar

    Paul, this is a very interesting CC. My story: When I arrived in Marysville, Ca late one chilly, rainy night in Novemver, 1969 on my way to Beale AFB just out of basic training. I’m dropped off at the Greyhound atation on 5th Street around 10:30 p.m. and looking at what passed for “sunny California”, I was very tired and full of anticipation on what that night and my life then on would bring.

    As I stood outside waiting for the base shuttle, this littl;e green pickup truck went screaming by, disappeared down a side street, came sreaming back from a different direction over and over. Kind of like a Loony Tune when the characters go in and out of doors in a hallway! He was clearly having fun! Of course being from St. Louis, I had never seen anything like this truck and I managed to read “DATSUN” on the tailgate. I was only familiar with VW, Mercedes, Citroen and very few others, didn’t know that Japan built cars!

    Anyway, that was my welcome to California and introduction to what would turn out to be an auto wonderland for my whole four years! My avatar would come along the following June!

    Great memories, all! Thank you for making me feel 18 again for a brief minute or two!

  • avatar

    With 96 hp on tap, the Datsun was 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
    Actually, even today that’s pretty good for Nissan “compact” trucks.
    96 horsepower over 2100 pounds translates into 0.0457 hp/lb. The new Frontier XE has 152 horsepower and weighs 3,684 pounds at the lightest. That’s 0.0412 hp/lb.
    Yes, the old Datsun 521 had a higher power-to-weight ratio than today’s base Frontier.
    And the 521 probably got better mileage too.
    And yet Nissan wonders why the Frontier doesn’t sell.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Just keep in mind that was gross hp back then; I’d guess that 96 hp equates to about 82 hp or so in today’s net ratings.

    • 0 avatar

      Assuming 82 hp, that still equates to 0.039 lb/hp, which isn’t bad for a truck of its age.
      I will admit that the newer truck’s airbags, air conditioning and other niceties are a good incentive.
      Still, if Nissan built a smaller, lighter truck, it would get better mileage, much better horsepower-to-weight ratio, and make more sense to people that need a truck but don’t want the enormous weight and size of a full-size.

    • 0 avatar

      My 1993 Chevy C-1500 short bed FULL SIZE pickup, with a V-6 (160hp net), auto and A/C was only about 3700lbs Unladen. All that bloat on a “compact” truck cant just be due to exploding gas bags, can it?
      In 1972 I was one of those California college kids driving a VW Beetle.

  • avatar

    I really enjoy these older, smaller pickup trucks. Great lines and overall styling. Unfortunately, they do not make them like they used to.

  • avatar

    I’d love to have a reliable, efficient, genuinely-compact truck again.
    I moved to norcal from western New York three months ago, and I am still astonished by the awesome old iron I see on the roads, including relatively-old Japanese trucks.  It really warms my heart to see those little guys doing, well, truck-stuff every day.

  • avatar

    They are indeed still plentiful, at least here in rust-free Oregon. To wit:

  • avatar

    David Halberstam’s, “The Reckoning” (which, I’m sure, many of us have read) spent a chapter or two on the entry of Datsun (Nissan) into America and the methods that Katayama used to get Datsun dealerships up and running – specifically with these trucks. 

  • avatar

    Nice find!  Love the old Datsuns.

  • avatar

    My dad had an old 520 Pickup, which he bought new in the mid 60s and quite literally drove into the ground, destroying it’s suspension after the umpteenth time hauling far more than it was ever designed for. After a brief and fruitless time with a Chevrolet, he got another Nissan in 84, which was a nice truck until it blew a coolant hose, warped the head and never ran right again. That was one of the changeover years between carb and fuel injection, so it had some bizzaro computer controlled carb that was impossible to find parts for.
    I actually learned to drive stick in that truck, although by the time I did (We’re talking 2000s here) it was a farm truck with more rust than paint.

  • avatar

    My introduction to one of these little pickups happened when my wife, who was still in real estate, asked me to go out and check out a piece of acreage. I happened on the next-door neighbor, who drove me all over the land in his 1971 (I think) Datsun pickup. It had a big advantage in that it was narrow enough to fit between trees where few vehicles could go, and in general seemed to be a good trail-runner. Later I rode on the highways with a co-worker in another one, but the main thing I remember about it was the brown haze on the insides of the windows – he was an incessant smoker. There were a lot of Datsun / Nissan pickups in western WA too, and I’m kind of surprised that I didn’t have more experiences with them.

  • avatar
    Jerry Sutherland

    Wow-where to begin.My brother owned a 71 Datsun pickup and while I try not to Monday morning quarterback old iron the memories are too fresh-even after 35 years.
    Things like…
    The seized up steering box-it was so stiff it forced the driver to seriously consider steroid abuse just to parallel park it.
    The rust that seemed to happen overnight-it migrated along the truck bed quarter panel seam until it found a lethal opening where it could inflict severe structural damage to the integrity of the box itself.
    The way the truck would refuse to start at 32 F or lower, then pull the same stunt when it was warmed up-that sure made it hard to sell because he had to keep it running when a buyer dropped by after the ‘for sale’ ad hit the newspaper.
    The best part about this truck was the manual transmission-not because it performed flawlessly (it didn’t,it was jerky and hard to shift from day 1). It was just easier to start with a push…
    This was a 5 year old vehicle so while these Datsun trucks evoke strong memories for me, they’re not Hallmark card memories.

  • avatar

    Everyone should head on over to (founded by a bunch of Oregonites) for some great examples of Datsun’s trucks.

  • avatar

    There is a museum grade late 60’s Datsun pickup truck for sale at the Nissan dealer in Edmonds, Washington.  It’s on the showroom floor – just sayin’

  • avatar

    A friends stepfather had an early 60’s model similiar to the red one.  He had dropped an engine in it from a late 70’s 210.  Damn i loved that truck and would have bought it from him when he decided to sell, if i hadn’t lost track of him.

  • avatar

    Very cool write up. Back in 2009, while inspired by Muralee Martin’s old DOTSO posts on Jalopnik, I went out and did my own version, but here in Seattle and no sooner than I began when I spotted a bunch of cars from the 80’s to early 1990’s (I stopped around 92-93), at least a half doz within a couple of blocks from my apartment on one street.
    Like Eugene, cars don’t rust up here much, if at all in their first 20 years of life.
    On my way back after taking a bunch of car photos and stuff, caught this blurry shot of a vintage Datsun truck from the early 70’s, they all went into a post I did on the DOTSOS (Down on the Streets of Seattle).
    Seems at least here in Seattle, late 70’s, early 80’s Datsun/Nissan trucks and Toyotas don’t stick around as much as their older variants but even there, they don’t roam the streets like they once did however. Someone has that interesting green Chevy LUV truck from around ’73 or so here on Cap Hill that still looks pretty fair all these years later.
    Older Ford Rangers and Bronco II’s are popular still, there are at least 3, if not 4 of the ’89-92 vintage trucks in and around where I live, and one of them is mine. :-)
    So without further ado, here is the Datsun 520 I think it is that I took. Sorry, not the best shot, camera for some reason didn’t fully focus.

  • avatar

    here is another great little truck for sale in Portland Oregon!

  • avatar

    Didn’t the 1600 come out with the 1971? My 1969 L521 had the 1300.

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    I’m saddened that no one makes a real subcompact truck any more.  Yet that fits the pattern of American automotive history, where it invariably takes an upstart to come out with a vehicle that defies the industry norm of “bigger, glitzier, more powerful.”
    When the Koreans first started making inroads into the US I hoped that they would fill out the bottom of the market.  Unfortunately, they were too focused on copying the Japanese.  I assume that’s what the Chinese will do as well.  So are we left to the Indians?  Mahindra’s track record to date hardly follows in the footsteps of the early VW or Nissan.
    So we are left with the usual half-hearted, bloated suspects.  What’s the point of a Nissan Frontier?

    • 0 avatar

      Mahindra talks a lot about coming to America but does nothing about it. They seem to follow a pattern of every 10 or 15 years, talking about entering this market and even making an effort to enter. Yet, each time, something holds them back. In other words, I will believe it when I see it.
      I am not sure why companies have left this segment. Nonexistent margins? Segment too small?

    • 0 avatar

      Probably they’ve done the market research and decided it wasn’t worth the effort.
      I’ve noticed that it’s hard to convince any number of gearheads that just because they really want A Specific Configuration, that doesn’t mean that it would be profitable to produce.
      Even if it had been previously at some point…
      (Heck, I’ve put a quarter of a illion miles on a Toyota compact truck, the kind you think is already oversized… and I’m thinking it’s too small for me now.
      Perhaps most people who would be in the market for an even-smaller-pickup are just buying a Subaru wagon or something?)

  • avatar
    Andy D

    I  had  a ’71 in the  same   light  blue  pictured  in  the  article. Great  little  truck.

  • avatar

    Very soild little trucks. Rust did them in salted regions though, and most were gone by the 1990’s.

  • avatar

    Untill 2008 the Nissan 1400 “Bakkie” was the favourite pickup of South Africa.

  • avatar

    When will Detroit wake up and start making useful pickup trucks again?  Today’s F150 with a pickup bed as tall as the roof line of a passenger car just doesn’t cut it.  Not practical at all.  A pickup box should be low enough so that you can have access to the bed from the side as well as the tail gate.

  • avatar

    I was going to call out the Toyota Stout as a contender but official US imports didn’t start until 1967 and it’s about the size of a late 80s-early 90s Hilux.
    When you see those old Datsun  trucks or the Ford Courier/Mazda trucks today, it’s astonishing how small they look.

  • avatar

    The subcompact truck market had it’s heyday back in the the early mid 70’s.  Although I was too young to drive, I had a keen interest in everything small pickup.  Where I lived (suburban New Jersey), the most common small trucks were Toyotas and Ford Couriers.  The Datsuns and Chevy Luvs were slugging it out for 3rd place.  As I recall, the Chevy (a rebadged Isuzu) sucked something powerful.  I really liked the clean styling of the Datsuns, but road salt would cause them to dissolve after a couple of Northeast winters.  The Fords (Mazda) was OK, but in the end, the Toyota won out based on it’s rep for bulletproof mechanicals.

  • avatar

    Dr. Lemming asked “What’s the point of a Nissan Frontier?”  Simple.   It fits in my garage.  A full size X cab doesn’t.

  • avatar

    these early datsun trucks were a common sight on the east coast by the mid 70’s. the japanese steel of that era just couldn’t stand up to our salted roads… i think on some level, nissan is the only company that still gets simple vehicles in the states. the current xterra is the closest decedent to the cherokee and the versa 5 door hatchback is probably the ford falcon / chevy nova of our times.

  • avatar

    “The Datsun pickup and the Yamaha DT Enduro… belonged to each other”
    And Nissan realized that and used it as advertising! Check this cool ad out:

  • avatar

    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

    Nitpick:  the Datsun engine was more likely derived from the BMC A-series as used in Austin A30/Morris Minor/Spridget/Mini and so on.  This engine was made in displacements from 800 to 1300cc.

    The B-series had a significantly larger block and was used in MGA/MGB/Austin Cambridge and so on and ran from 1500 to 1800cc.

  • avatar

    The Datsun was not the first mini-pickup by a long shot. Bantam and Crosley were.

  • avatar

    I think we have the Ford version. We have a 1979 Ford Courier that I drive when my ’72 VW is in the shop. The first Couriers were actually Datsun’s or at least the engines were. You will know better than I if ours has a Datsun engine. All I can say is I love driving both our older vehicles. Wouldn’t trade them for anything else! :)

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