It was 1979. I was still in Vermont and after almost a year with last week’s Dodge Dart I was ready for something that could better scratch my driving itch. The human mind is resilient. Any psychic scars associated with the dependability of cars I had owned prior to the Dart had faded. The Dart had proven to be Xanax on wheels.
I admired the BMW 2002 but financially it was not to be. I was someone who bought off-brand macaroni and cheese for 17 cents a box because Kraft was too expensive at 33 cents a box. A BMW, even a bad BMW, was out of my league. Enter the poor man’s version – the Datsun 510. After a little looking I found a ’71 two-door with a four speed manual transmission, and blood shot MOON eyes painted on the hood…
I don’t remember the seller’s name, let’s call him Mountain Man, but I do remember where he lived. There was a failed condominium development in the Mad River Valley – the Fly-In – conceived as a vacation residence for private pilots. There was a runway and near its end was a small shack, maybe five by ten feet. That was Mountain Man’s home. When I saw the Datsun there I knew I had a responsibility to take it home and care for it.
The Datsun had originally been orange, a common color for the 510, but at some point Mountain Man had painted the car black – with a brush – and added the blood shot eyes. I’ve never been much for aesthetics, but I quickly invested in a small can of black paint and eradicated the eyes. There was a little bit of rust at the tail end of the front fenders à la unrestored ‘60s Porsches and under the driver’s floor mat a hole which I covered with an old plastic laminate sign. Overall the little sedan was stylish despite the visible brush marks. Its design was reminiscent of the boxy but sensuous Italian sedans produced by Alfa, Fiat and Lancia. It was a common misconception that the 510 was designed by Pininfarina but it was actually its predecessor, the 410 Bluebird, that had these Italian roots. The 510 itself was designed in house by Nissan.
Yutaka Katayama, best known as Mr. K – the father of the Datsun Z car, was president of Nissan USA during the 510 era. He loved sporty cars and thought they were a key component to success in the US market. He insisted the Japanese moniker for the 510, the Bluebird, was not appropriate for the States. He also made sure the 510 used a larger engine than in Japan – a 1.6 liter inline four cylinder that produced 96 horsepower.
Independent suspension at all four corners assured crisp, contemporary handling, but I set out to improve it. I added nylon suspension bushings in front and KYB shocks all around along with plus sized tires. The Other Michael even hooked me up with a MOMO steering wheel that had been only slightly bent in one of his numerous accidents. Night driving was always a challenge in Vermont so I also added J. C. Whitney driving and fog lights.
A few weeks into ownership a burning smell in the engine bay led me go looking for an electrical short. Under the hood I noticed that the heavy gauge wire that carried juice from the alternator to the fuse box was wrapped with electrical tape. Removing the tape, I discovered that at some point a ten-inch stretch of this wire had been replaced with a coat hanger. It was time to learn about wiring.
The wiring project ended up being bigger than just replacing the hanger. I was still working at the ski area and the mountain operation guys had grown fond of me that summer as I was responsible for keeping them supplied with dynamite and blasting caps. Consequently, I was able to work on the Datsun in the maintenance shop after hours. Many evenings were spent replacing wires and crimping on new connectors.
The final touch for the 510 was vanity plates, a new thing at the time, which cost an extra $10 per year in Vermont. The first year I went with my last name – IONNO. The second year I went with my name upside down – ONNOI – so that if I ever flipped the car anyone driving by would be able to more easily identify me.
That summer and fall were the glory days for the Datsun. After several months of blissful driving in the Valley it was time for a road trip to the Watkins Glen Grand Prix where I met up with the Other Michael. It was our sophomore visit to the Glen and through circumstances that shall not be revealed we both had press and photo credentials that allowed us to go anywhere. Despite the rainy weather we thought it ideal to stand at the Armco barrier at turn nine, the exit of the Glen’s fabled Boot. Other highlights of the weekend included planting a kiss on the cheek of the Penthouse Pet of the Year at a press party and seeing Datsun 510 race car driver and occasional actor P. L. Newman walk by (such blue eyes!).
By far the best part of the weekend was meeting our hero Rob Walker who, in addition to his Road & Track writing duties was the official lap timer for 1978 champion Mario Andretti’s Lotus team.
The Sunday night drive from the Glen back to Vermont was memorable for a couple of reasons. Leaving the Glen, I fell in with a pack of real sports cars and we drove “spiritedly” east on the New York Thruway. As darkness descended I noticed my headlights were growing dim and the alternator light had come on. In Albany I found that last open gas station and bought a new and freshly charged battery. It provided just enough juice to make the last 100 miles home and with headlights again fading I made it to my apartment where the car immediately stalled and did not have enough power to restart. Getting the disabled car to the mechanic the next morning was actually easy. I was lucky to live near the top of the Sugarbush Access Road while the repair shop was at the bottom – two miles but all downhill so I could coast all the way.
My spidy-senses told me more trouble might be ahead. I had the opportunity to pick up a four-door automatic 510 for $100 and it became my parts car. At some point that winter I swapped the engines on the two Datsuns. I also installed a block heater which proved its worth when the temperature on Christmas day dropped to 30 below zero Fahrenheit. Few cars started that day but it was no problem for the preheated Datsun. I was persuaded by a visiting skier to go to his condo and try to start his car. No dice. Other stranded vacationers in the same complex then poured out and each had me try to jump his car. Ultimately none of them started, but each owner slipped a small gratuity into my gloved fist. A family of five had dinner reservations so they all piled into the Datsun with me and I shuttled them to and from their swanky restaurant.
Fast forward to January of 1981. I ended my four-year semester off and returned to school in Philadelphia. Amazingly the Datsun had been relatively dependable and thoroughly enjoyable in the interim. To pay the bills I had a part time job and three mornings per week I commuted out from Philadelphia to Chester County where I would grab huge rings of keys and then travel around Pennsylvania and New Jersey harvesting quarters from laundry machines in down market apartment complexes. Fortunately, my company provided a car for this activity meaning I would not be at risk of a break down in the 510 and would be relatively safe at least when I was driving between sites. The sites themselves could be a little scary as this was in the early days of the crack cocaine era and I was frequently carrying twenty pounds in quarters.
During my commutes to the suburbs I began to notice that the rear brakes of the Datsun were failing to engage fully. The adjusting screws for the drums were frozen so the rear brakes were going to require a full rebuild. In the interim planned braking was the solution so each stop was proceeded by an extra pump or two of the pedal.
The semester was coming to an end after which I would be returning to Vermont for the summer. The reading days prior to finals seemed a good time to undertake the brake project. I rationalized that studying for finals was cheating as any last minute knowledge gained distorted the measurement of what I had actually learned during the term.
The Other Michael was now living in a Victorian house in a small town in South Jersey about an hour from Philadelphia. The defining feature of the property was a large carriage house that could easily hold four cars and their many detached parts. It was our automotive playground.
After a pilgrimage to Manny, Moe and Jack for discs, brake shoes and rebuild kits I headed to the carriage house where the Other Michael and I undertook an afternoon of brake renovation culminating in a brake bleeding session that was so successful it would have made a medieval physician envious. The brakes worked perfectly. The pedal was firmer than it had ever been and the car tracked straight and true in simulated panic stops.
After finals I packed up the Datsun and began my drive to Vermont. Did you know that there is actually a town named Catskill in the Catskill mountains of New York? I didn’t either until the 510 engine gave out near the picturesque hamlet. Sadly, Catskill became the final resting place for the Datsun. The economics and logistics of finding another engine for the Datsun and getting it repaired in a town far from home did not square. I hitchhiked to Vermont, borrowed a car from my old boss, Bob, and drove back to Catskill where I collected my worldly goods. I also removed the MOMO steering wheel with its Datsun logo center hub and it remains hanging in my workshop to this day – a fitting reminder of the many good times and mechanical challenges associated with the Datsun 510.