Curbside Classic: 1967 Datsun Sports 1600 (SPL311) – My Fairlady’s MGB

It’s true: in the fifties and sixties, the Japanese were famous for their blatant copying. And they were quite unabashed about it, like this Datsun Sports that appeared in 1963, a year and a half after the MGB. The Datsun’s styling may not have been as refined and timeless as the its role model. And in its 1600 cc form, it was no faster either. But playing second fiddle to the classic British sports car would change, all too-soon, with the revolutionary 240Z in 1971. And even before then, Datsun built “a better MGB” by dropping a 135 hp SOHC 2 liter four in this car, creating the semi-legendary Datsun Sports 2000 in 1967. From copying to leapfrogging, all within a handful of years; the Datsun Sports/Fairlady was just another example of the Japanese revolution taking place in the sixties and seventies.

Datsun’s interest in British-style sports cars goes back at least to 1952, with their first shot at it, the DC-3. And no less than the legendary Yutaka Katayama (“Mr. K”) spearheaded this little 860cc 25hp four-seat roadster, the first attempt to bring a bit of open-top flair if not exactly sporty performance to post-war Japan (top speed was 43 mph). In his own words:

“By the time of the first Tokyo Motor Show in 1952, in my role as Nissan’s Advertising Manager I arranged for a sports car body to be designed and manufactured by Yuichi Ohta. This body was to be attached to a Datsun truck chassis. This was the first sports model to be produced after the war by any Japanese company. Although this was largely my private project, Nissan agreed to build a production version, and this became officially named the Datsun Sports DC-3. One of the first production models is still proudly shown in the entrance hall of Nissan today.”

The DC-3 was a commercial flop, selling only fifty units, but the seeds of Datsun’s (and Mr. K’s) sports car program were planted.

And they sprouted again in the form of the S211 of 1959 (above). It’s similar to that of many others sports-car efforts of the fifties: a limited-production fiberglass body sitting on a frame, in this case again from a Datsun pickup. All of twenty of these were built. Sort of a Japanese Kaiser-Darrin, or 1953 Corvette. But Datsun was not deterred.

The next version. the SPL 212, appeared in 1960, and was the first to bear the Fairlady moniker, a reference to the popular Broadway show My Fair Lady. Stylistically similar to its predecessor, it now had a steel body, but still shared truck underpinnings including its 1189cc four. That mill had a decidedly Austin-ish look to it, fruit of Datsun’s license to build several of their models, and engines. These cars were built for export only, in two series, the later one now sporting 60 hp. These cars are very hot collector items, should you be so lucky as to stumble into one in a barn. Not too likely.

That brings us to 1963, when the original version of our featured car was built. The first series (1963 – 1965) were called Sports 1500, and borrowed the Cedric’s 1500 cc engine. And it no longer sat on pickup platforms, sharing its underpinnings with the Datsu 310 sedan. The definitive Sports 1600 appeared in 1965, and was built through 1970, until the 240Z/Fairlady replaced it. I’m not certain of the exact year of this one, but it lacks 1968’s side marker lights, so we’ll call it a ’67. That was a good year for sports cars anyway, the last before smog controls started to take their bite away.

It’s difficult to find confirmation of it, but the Datsun Sports sports the unmistakable hand of Pininfarina. It is well know that the firm styled the 410 sedan, which appeared in 1964. And the similarities to the Fiat 1500 Spider/cabriolet (above)are too obvious.

But details, like on the front end and rear end are not quite obviously Pininfarina, so it leaves a bit of a question as to who is ultimately responsible.

But then that applies to the very clean MGB too (picture flipped for comparison), which too shows lots of Pininfarina influence, but is not directly credited to the firm (the MGB-GT’s roof and rear hatch are).

Lift up the Datsun’s hood, and it does look properly British there, with the dual SU carbs. The R16 engine was rated at 96 hp, which matched the MGB’s quite closely, even if it lacked a bit of the low-end punch the B’s bigger 1800 cc engine. But that was seriously rectified in 1967, when Datsun dropped in the 2000cc SOHC U20 motor, which was rated at 135 hp (150 hp with a competition package). Suddenly, the Datsun roadster was in a class of its own.

“Brrapp,; snick; brrapp, snick; brrapp, snick…”  I remember vividly the description given to the 2000’s lusty engine and new five-speed stick by Car and Driver. Everyone swooned over it; there was no other roadster for the money that could touch it. The Datsun 2000 found its day in the sun, even if it was a bit short-lived.

I’m 99% certain this is a 1600, as only very few 2000s were imported in 1967, and by 1968 an unfortunate tall windshield was intalled, in order to meet some ridiculous federal rule about a minimum area the wipers had to sweep. It was the only way the MGB beat the Datsun: it simply added a third wiper, and kept its handsome low windshield. The 1968 and up Datsuns looked like they were built for giraffes, or really tall folks.

But then this example does have a five speed transmission, which the 1600s did not have. Probably a later upgrade. I didn’t have a chance to look under the hood. And that wood trim is an upgrade too.

The Datsun Sports enjoyed a successful career on the tracks, as part of Mr. K’s efforts to get the brand out in front of the kind of buyers he coveted. Bob Bondurant’s school had a fleet of these along with the 510s. It was an exciting time for Datsun, which reached their pinnacle with the 240Z. But pinnacles, by their nature, imply a descent as well as the ascent to the top. We’ll take one on in a companion piece later today.