(first posted 6/14/2013) There were three key ingredients that that made the Datsun 510 fly: the BMW 1600, “Mr. K”, and a certain sharp rise taken flat-out on Bunker Hill Road.
In the history of affordable enthusiast cars, there are obvious milestones. Pre-war Fords created the genre by yielding a seemingly infinite source of frames, bodies and drive trains to keep hot-rodders busy, even yet. The tri-five (’55-’57) Chevys combined a trim and sturdy body with the ubiquitous small block V8. The MG roadsters birthed the whole sports car genre in the US. The VW was the closest thing to a Lego-mobile, a source of building blocks for seemingly infinite possibilities. And the legendary Datsun 510? It changed the low-bucks performance equation forever, and spawned the whole ricer scene. It’s earned its beatification and immortality, and now sits exulted at the right side of the holy trinity of ’55-’57 Chevys.
The little boxy Datsuns that Nissan was pushing in the US during the sixties were a modest effort. The 410/411 (CC coming soon) was still a dyed-in-the-sake Japanese-market affair, too small and weak-chested. Yes, the twin-carb SSS version was a zippy little number, if you were vertically-challenged enough to actually climb in, but only very limited numbers found their way here. Datsun’s early success was heavily dependent on their pickups, which pretty much had the mini-truck market to themselves.
Let’s start with the first two pivotal ingredients that made the 510 the high flier it became: the BMW 1600 (later 2002) was a revolutionary car in its own right. Its formula of a small, light, boxy body; a rev-happy 1600cc OHC four; and all-wheel independent suspension took the market by storm and spawned the 3-Series legacy that took BMW from obscurity to the head of the class.
Yutaka Katayama, known reverently as Mr. K and “the father of the 240Z”, was a rebel outcast of hide-bound Nissan. Exiled to the US, he became the founding father and president of Nissan USA, and fought tirelessly for more competitive and sporty product. Certain aspects of the 510, especially the size and performance level of its engine, were the direct result of his back-door lobbying, inspired by his admiration of the little BMW.
So it wasn’t exactly coincidence that both the BMW and the Datsun had 1600cc SOHC engines with 96 horsepower, front struts and rear semi-trailing arm IRS. While the 510 was just a tick above VW Beetle in price ($1996), the BMW was a whole notch dearer, and zoomed even higher as a consequence of exchange rates. The 510 quickly established itself as the bargain Bimmer.
That’s not to say it was its equal. But you had to drive both of them to appreciate the BMW’s substantially more refined ways, especially in the suspension department and general quality of materials and finish. In unadulterated form, the 510 was nevertheless a blast, but the limits of its handling could be a bit abrupt, and adrenalin-inducing.
My high school buddy Nick came by a new 1970 510 when the family Volvo 122S spun a bearing. I will never forget our first effort at “getting lost” in the 510: heading out into the endlessly undulating and windy country roads of north Baltimore County at night without any plan of action or map, never knowing where we would end up, just as long as it wasn’t in the ditch.
The 510 was a rite of initiation and an eye-opener after the VW Beetle, Dodge Dart and other fine machinery I was used to flaying around these facsimiles of English country lanes. The little Datsun four spun its heart out, redline-cheating-shift after banging shift. Nick was a naturally gifted driver, and we were immortal anyway, so exploring the 510’s somewhat unpredictable limits on blind, narrow curves late at night was just the counterpart to the somewhat unpredictable psychotropics whose limits we also explored regularly. Sometimes at the same time, other times not. The Datsun was entertaining either way.
Enough of the psycho-brabble. But I assure you that catching air on that rise was not a hallucination; we confirmed it for ourselves via the scientific method: repeat and verify the results. Nick went on to take ownership of the 510, and embark on that series of suspension, brake and engine mods that became so typical of the enthusiast owners of these cars. I had moved away by then, and he eventually moved on to bigger and more expensive flying toys, but he still pines for that 510. I know why too: he now lives near that rise in the road, and it’s calling for him to relive that first flight.
Well, there’s plenty of old 510s in Eugene. I’ve gotten familiar with at least a dozen or so. My friend Mike, who owns the ’51 Caddy, has three of them, two of which are wagons, which came with a solid rear axle.
The beauty of the 510, and its oft-repeated similarity to the ’55-’57 Chevys, lies in its interchangeability with later Datsun/Nissan engines and parts. The L-16 engine was just the first step of the long evolution of that family, so that the 1.8 and 2.0 liter engines drip in as easily as swapping SBCs. The popular the Z series, which were produced through 1989, are also based on the L-engine block. Then there’s Nissan’s later hot DOHC fours. And from there, the sky’s the limit, like this rotary-powered 510. It seems pretty typical for 510 enthusiasts to get carried away.
Let me quickly just add that the 510 had a spectacularly successful career in racing too. The hot 2.5 liter class of the Trans Am series was pretty much owned by the Brock Racing Team’s 510s. Bob Bondurant started his racing school with 510s, and Paul Newman got his start in one of those abused Datsuns. It was terrific advertising, and Datsun rode the tails of its racing/sporty image way longer than it deserved to into the seventies.
The 510 was like an automotive mayfly: it seemingly went as quickly as it came. By that I mean, it successor utterly lacked the 510’s qualities, and the 510 became a frozen moment in automotive time. The bigger, heavier and bizarre-looking Datsun 610 (above) was the ’58 Chevy to the ’55.
But the 510 had done its job, propelling Datsun from relative obscurity to a very competitive number two behind Toyota. Datsun went on to wretchedly ugly cars and a confused image, allowing Honda to pass it by. The pathetic Datsun/Nissan 510 revival in the early eighties certainly wasn’t successful in recapturing the magic of the original. There’s only one way to do that: buy one. Are you listening, Nick?