Curbside Classic: 1977 Datsun 200-SX (Nissan Silvia) – Not All Shots Hit The Target

Datsun’s 1st generation 200-SX found itself in the right place at the right time.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite the right car.  Sold in the US from 1977 to 1979, the SX joined a marketplace that seemed tailor-made for it, since Japanese imports, sub-compacts and bargain sports coupes were all hot items.  Yet an awkward design and mediocre performance meant that the 200-SX ran far behind the leaders of its market segment.  Largely forgotten today, this SX serves as an interesting example of a Japanese import missing the mark.  The car’s relevance, though, lies not so much with itself, as with Nissan’s ability to learn from its missteps and hit the target with this model’s follow-up.

Among the reasons that Datsun entered the sports coupe market in the late 1970s was that its own Z car inched further upscale every year, eventually abandoning the quickly-growing affordable end of the sports-oriented market.  Additionally, many carmakers at the time considered the affordable sporty car niche important because buyers were often young, and capable of being molded into future loyal customers.  This was too important of a niche to ignore.

In the early 1970s, Datsun’s 240-Z revolutionized the US sports car market.  But by 1977, the 240-Z had transformed into the 280-Z and had doubled in price.  Meanwhile, other manufacturers poured effort into the lower end of the sports/sporty car market, and tens of thousands of Celicas, Mustang IIs, Monzas and Sciroccos rolled into customers’ driveways annually.  Many of these cars were more “sporty” than “sports cars,” with actual performance taking a back seat to racy looks — but they sold well anyway.  Not wanting to be left out, Datsun brought forth the 200-SX as a value-oriented sports coupe.

Upon its 1977 US introduction, Datsun’s sports coupe (known in-house as the S10) was not quite a new car, having been sold in Japan for two years as the Nissan Silvia.  All Nissans were sold as Datsuns in the US, and regrettably Nissan’s expressive, Anglicized model names gave way to alphanumeric designations – hence the Nissan Silvia became the Datsun 200-SX.

Nissan officials wanted a design that would set their car apart from the rest of an increasingly crowded sports coupe field.  They got it – for better or for worse.

The SX’s styling followed few trends.  Over the years, some observers have seen traces of the Citroen SM, Lancia Fulvia Sport Zagato, Buick Skylark, and various AMC products.  But if there was one single styling inspiration, it has remained hidden after all these years.  Let’s just say the SX’s design is… an eclectic mix.

The front end, with its relatively long hood, sharply creased fenders, and assertive grille, is conventional enough.  But that’s where convention ends.  Aft of the front fenders, the SX’s shape descends into a cacophony of lines.  A crease line slopes downward from the middle of the front fender to the squared-off rear wheel well (whose top end follows this crease) – then the same line rises up again to finish off above the rear bumper.

Conversely, the car’s window line sweeps sharply upward with the triangular-shaped quarter window, and then an observer’s eye is drawn back downward by the long rear vent.  Meanwhile, the car’s main beltline continues horizontally.

Other parts of the car were unabashedly futuristic-looking, such as the wrap-around tail lamp bar, the disc-style wheel covers, and aero mirrors.

While Japanese-market cars received subtle (and probably useless) bumpers, US exports were fitted with hefty chromed bars bracketed by 2-inch-thick plastic corners.  With the slimmer JDM bumpers, the SX’s grille has a protruding appearance, while for the US cars it’s the bumper that protrudes, in a way that’s unhelpful to whatever qualities the original design could muster.

As opposed to the somewhat discordant exterior, the Datsun’s interior was harmoniously designed.  This holds particularly true for the dashboard, with recessed instruments set into an elliptical-shaped panel.  This was cutting-edge in the 1970s, and would seem perfectly at home in a car made 20 years later.

Our featured car’s seats are finished with the standard “breathable vinyl” in a pleasant burgundy color.  Standard equipment was impressive for the Datsun’s day, and included cut-pile carpeting, AM/FM stereo, full instrumentation, an electric clock, rear window defogger, etc.  This particular car also features two significant options – an automatic transmission and air conditioning (whose insufficient cooling was the source of many customer complaints).  Other available options included cloth seats, a cassette player, and a “sports accent package” that included exterior tape stripes and upgraded wheel covers

Although standard and optional equipment was plentiful, room was not.  Front seat passengers faced cramped accommodations, particularly in headroom, and the bucket seats suffered from thin padding and minimal support.

Conditions were even more confined in the back, where the high front seatbacks and wide C-pillars meant that rear seat inmates could scarcely see outside.  The rear seat was more usable as a storage area, which the Datsun needed because the trunk itself was small.

With the SX, Nissan did a sports coupe on the cheap, as the distinctive design was wrapped around a familiar package – actually two familiar packages.  While the 200-SX looked like no other car, it shared its wheelbase and suspension with Datsun’s price-leading B-210 and its engine with the 710.  This approach had advantages in controlling costs, but there were drawbacks.

Handling and comfort weren’t among the B-210’s most endearing qualities.  Featuring a solid rear axle with leaf springs, the SX inherited the B-210’s choppy handling characteristics, and its tendency to hop while cornering.  Road tests measured cornering at 0.67g – unimpressive even by 1970s standards.  While reasonably confident in around-town driving, the suspension could hardly be described as sporting.

The SX borrowed the 710’s L-series 2.0-liter OHC 4-cylinder engine, which developed 97 hp at a buzzy 5,600 rpm (the red line was a whopping 7,000 rpm, though it was pointless to push it that far).  Coupled with the standard 5-speed manual transmission, the SX could accelerate to 60 mph in 13.2 seconds – the optional 3-speed automatic (ordered by one-third of SX buyers) slowed the car down by several seconds.  While sluggish by today’s standards, such performance was acceptable for new cars in 1977, and the archrival Celica’s performance was similar.  Well, at first.

Any hopes of the SX taking a lead in the sports coupe market sunk when the new 1978 Celica arrived.  Suddenly Celica – arguably the class’s standard bearer to begin with – advanced buyers’ expectations with a sleek modern design and greatly improved performance.  Celica outsold the 200-SX by a ratio of 5-to-1.

While US sales were less than what Datsun had hoped for, the 200-SX sold enough units to avoid being an embarrassment.  Just over 30,000 SXs found buyers in each of the car’s three model years – about 9% of total Datsun sales.  Like all Datsuns of the era, the cars were shipped from Japan aboard one of the company’s own ocean freighters.

So, with bizarre styling, choppy handling, and a barely-adequate engine, what was the SX’s appeal?  Value.  Ads emphasizing value were spot on – at a base price of $4,399 with a healthy dose of standard equipment, the SX was, in fact, a very good value.

Source: 1978 Datsun buyer study, reprinted in “Nissan/Datsun: A History of Nissan Motor Corporation in U.S.A.” Respondents could choose multiple categories.

 

A 1978 survey of Datsun owners (conducted by the company itself) revealed that about half of 200-SX buyers listed value as a reason for their purchase, with 30% listing styling and 21% fuel economy.  At the other end of the spectrum, only 3% bought the car for its engine or for interior roominess, and 6% for its handling.

In short, the SX’s market appeal was as a distinctive, value-oriented small sporty car for buyers who didn’t want or need sports car performance.

The appeal of small sporty cars went beyond simply wanting to compete in a growing market segment.  Such cars commonly appealed to young, often first-time buyers who were prime targets for developing into loyal future customers.  Indeed, 12 percent of 200-SX customers were first-time buyers – a greater proportion than any other car in the Datsun lineup save the bargain-priced B-210.

But Datsun didn’t do the SX any favors by surrounding it with an overpopulated model range.  Just where did the 200-SX fit into Datsun’s late-1970s lineup?  Datsun itself probably couldn’t have answered that question.  US-market consumers looking for a small 2-door car had their choice of the B-210, F-10, 710, 510, two different Z cars, and the SX – all within a fairly narrow price range.  Though internal competition was not the 200-SX’s only source of sales struggles, a better-defined role for the car would have boosted its prospects, particularly from buyers who were already perusing Datsun showrooms.

Though the 200-SX wound up being a footnote character in Nissan’s US story, it did benefit from one piece of auspicious product placement.  A yellow SX landed a leading role in the 1979 movie Sunburn, even making it onto the movie’s poster – seen above emerging from Farrah Fawcett’s legs before being gored by a bull.

Judging from this 4-minute chase scene through Acapulco, it’s hard to tell that the SX wasn’t particularly admired for its performance.  Yet despite the Datsun’s best efforts, Sunburn didn’t receive enthusiastic reviews.  Some reviewers seemed unimpressed by the film – interesting scenery wrapped around a thin plot – and wondered whether the movie was a serious effort or not.  That critique is a fitting parallel to the 200-SX itself.

The 200-SX could be viewed as an interesting concept wrapped around an insubstantial package.  Datsun did hit several notes just right with the 200-SX: It was priced competitively, offered excellent value, and embodied the durability for which Datsuns had become known.  However, it was condemned to mediocrity in the sales race by lacking the power, handling and comfort of many of its competitors – and by a peculiar design that was as strange as it was unique.

Datsun, though, was a fast learner.  In 1980, the 2nd generation 200-SX took Datsun’s sports coupe game to a higher level.  Featuring a wedge-shaped design, larger dimensions, a fuel injected engine, and an improved suspension, the new SX addressed nearly all of its predecessor’s deficiencies.  Sales nearly tripled, and the Celica got some tough new competition.  SXs would remain in production – and competitive – through the late 1990s.  Nissan learned its lesson, tried again, and succeeded.

It’s easy to forget about the 1st generation 200-SX.  After all, it didn’t set any trends, sales records or precedents.  But it is an ancestor of what became a very successful product line that long outlasted its own remembrance.  Perhaps most importantly, the 1977-79 200-SX can serve as a case study of how manufacturers can learn from their products’ shortcomings and hit the target on their next attempt.

 

Photographed in Fairfax, Virginia in December, 2016.

 

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1977 Datsun 200-SX — The Many Faces Of Silvia   Paul Niedermeyer