Curbside Classic: 1972 Datsun 1200 – Two Door Sedan, Size XS

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Once upon a time, the two-door sedan was essentially the default body style in much of the world. It was a bit cheaper, and cars were often very small, and they looked better, although I doubt that had much to do with it. Fitting a rear door on small rear wheel drive cars, whose rear axle line was typically substantially further forward than on front wheel drive cars, made for an awkward design. This little Datsun 1200 is representative of so many two-door sedans of its type built all over the world from the twenties through the seventies or so. But its time eventually passed, mostly for the better.

RR silver ghost 1915

Lets take a quick little tour back in time to put the two-door sedan into perspective. The earliest closed car bodies were typically on large, expensive chassis, like this 1915 Rolls Royce with a Sedanca de Ville, a body style that kept the driver in the open, and the passengers inside, as in a fine carriage of the same name.

Ford Model T

The overwhelming percentage of low-cost cars like the Model T were open cars, in the first two decades of the century. The bodywork consisted of little more than two bench seats, and flimsy little doors between them. It was light and used technology that had been used to build horse-driven buggies in large scale production for decades.

Ford 1923 T fordor

Closed sedan bodies, like this 1923 Model T “Fordor” saw a rapid rise in popularity during the mid 1920s, as incomes rose and costs dropped. The Model T was not originally designed for the significantly heavier closed bodies, and their unexpected rise in popularity put it somewhat at a disadvantage to the newer and more powerful Chevrolet. This contributed to the Model T’s demise and replacement by the larger and more powerful Model A, which carried its sedan body more elegantly and effortlessly.

Ford 1923 Model T

The two door version (“Tudor”, in Ford-speak) of the Model T shared the same basic dimensions and roof line with the four door, and these two examples essentially define the two-door sedan, as compared to coupes, which traditionally had a shorter roof (“close-coupled”), or in more recent years, a lower or more sweeping roof line than the sedan version.

austin 7

In Europe and other countries, the significantly smaller cars that were the mainstay of the low price sector, like this Austin Seven, provided a challenge in fitting closed bodies, as this two-door sedan shows. The front door requires a cutout to clear the rear wheel. These, like so many cars of the early 20s, were originally designed for light open bodies, seating two. But the demand for closed sedans was relentless, as folks were eager to get out of the rain.

datsun -12-phaeton-1933

I used the Austin Seven for another reason, because it had a profound influence on Datsuns, going back to1932. That’s when the Datsun Type 11 appeared, which had a lot of similarities to the Austin in terms of its technical details. To this day, there is disagreement as to whether the Datsun was a blatant copy or a was built with a license from Austin.

In 1929, Austin’s Chief Engineer gave a paper in Tokyo called “The British Light Car”, which included many details on the Seven. The argument that suggests it was not licensed points to Herbert Austin importing a 1935 Datsun and inspecting it for possible infringement. But no action was taken, perhaps in part because the Datsun quickly started to deviate from the Seven in a number of details. The Datsun’s engine was considerably smaller, among other things. Case dismissed.

Datsun 1952 105 A40

In 1952, Datsun officially became an Austin licensee, and began production of various Austin models, like this A40.  And Nissan used its Austin license and patents to develop cars and engines that soon spring-boarded beyond their origins.

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The two great Nissan achievements of the mid sixties were the legendary Datsun 510/Nissan Bluebird (CC here) in 1968,

Nissan 1966 Sunny

and the smaller Datsun 1000/Nissan Sunny from 1966. The 510 had a huge impact in the US, but the Datsun 1000 was not imported.

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In 1970, the second generation Sunny appeared, slightly larger in every dimension. And this time it was sent stateside, to compete with the madly successful Corolla, which had jumped into the number two import spot by 1969, in its second year on the market. The 1200 was very similar to the Corolla in almost every way; they were both utterly pragmatic RWD sedans, of the type also being built in Europe by Opel, Ford, and others.

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Under the hood was perhaps the final and ultimate expression of Nissan’s Austin roots, their A-Series OHV four. Built in sizes ranging from 988cc to 1487 cc, this rugged and economical engine has powered a variety of Nissan cars and small vans, and as of 2009, was still in production in the Malaysian Vanette. Certain visual similarities to the Austin/BMC A series engine are apparent.

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In this Datsun 1200, the A Series had 1171 cc and developed a pretty healthy 68 gross hp at 6000 rpm. Still, once Toyota dropped their new 1588 cc 2-TC engine in the Corolla 1600 beginning in 1971, the Datsun 1200 became relegated to strictly economy-car status in the US.

Datsun 1200 saves_gas_1973

That wasn’t such a bad place to beat the time. Not only was the Datsun 1200 the cheapest car in the US in 1970 ($1736), it had the highest mileage as tested by the EPA (28.7 mpg overall; 37.9 highway). I’m assuming those are old, unadjusted numbers, but it was hard to get less than 30 mpg in one of these.

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The dash and interior are representative of the times, which means clean and simple. By the 70s, Datsun dashboards (and exterior styling) were becoming anything but that. Comfort? What does one expect from a car that weighs less than 1700 lbs and doesn’t have a suspension system like the Citroen 2CV? Speaking of, and digressing again, the French never cottoned to two door sedans. In fact, they just plain shunned them, at least until the little FWD hatches appeared, but even then, the four door versions were generally preferred.

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If you’ve noticed that this Datsun 1200 is in pretty nice shape, the odometer helps explain that. With 37,461 miles , this might well be the nicest original 1200 in the US. I shot it two summers ago, and have forgotten the details of how the owner came to have it, but he clearly is enamored of it.

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He’s even named it. Rocinante is Don Quixote’s horse in Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote. There are several takes on the meaning of that name, because it is also a pun. Rocín in Spanish is a work horse, or low quality horse, which is an apt description of this little Datsun. But with the suffix ante, the meaning becomes rather complicated, and can be interpreted to imply a change of status, from “old nag” to “foremost steed”. Is that a road too far in terms of describing this Sunny?

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But hey, this is not just any Datsun 1200, but a Deluxe! Maybe that explains the name. Or not.

Datsun Sunny 4 door

I let myself get a bit carried away about turning this post into a mini-history of the two-door sedan, having forgotten that this car was also available in Japan and some other markets as a four door. Oh well. But those two doors per side do look a bit cramped.

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Yes, this little two-door works quite well, with the classic proportions of the genre. Now it’s high time we gave it’s successor, the B210 its day in the CC spotlight. It’s two door sedan wasn’t quite as nicely proportioned.


Related reading:

1972 Datsun 1200 Coupe

Datsun 510 (Nissan Bluebird): How To Fly