Vintage Reviews: 1978 Datsun 510 – Right Number, Wrong Car: Japanese Edition

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The first car to really put Datsun on the map in the U.S. market was the 510, introduced in 1968.  With crisp, clean styling, sprightly performance and top-notch quality control, the 510 earned a stellar reputation as sort of a budget BMW.  However, like so many automakers in the 1970s, Datsun replaced the 510 with larger, softer models: the 610 and 710, both featuring over-styled designs that looked more Michigan than Munich.  However, by the late 1970s, Datsun seemingly changed direction and brought back the 510 for 1978.  Did they recapture the magic?

Reintroducing the 510 name was an interesting move by Datsun, no doubt intended to recapture the continuing enthusiasm for the original.  After all, the first 510s were enjoying almost cult-like status among small car enthusiasts in the 1970s.  The 510 was easy to modify for more performance, and became a favorite of SCCA racers.  Resale values were also very strong, adding to the allure of the name.

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Plus, some model clarity was in order, after Datsun had developed a case of Detroit-itis starting in 1973 with the launch of the 610.  Looking like a ½ scale version of a reject from the Mopar drafting tables, the 610 chucked many of the attributes that had made the 510 an enthusiast hit.  While still very well assembled and quite reliable, the 610 was also heavier and less engaging to drive, with overwrought styling replacing the clean-cut, efficient look of the 510.

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The 710 followed for 1974, offering still more shrunken Mopar (or AMC) styling on a slightly smaller car.  Wait a second, the 710 was smaller than the 610?  You bet!  In spite of the higher number, which would indicate a “better” car, the 710 actually slotted below the 610 in Datsun’s lineup, and was arguably more of a “true” successor to the 510.  A look at the specs tells the story:

510 2-door Sedan 710 2-door Hardtop 610 2-door Hardtop
Wheelbase 95.3” 96.5” 98.4”
Length 165.4” 169.3” 174.2”
Width 61.4” 62.2” 63.0”
Weight 2,105 lbs. 2,214 lbs. 2,313 lbs.
Engine Displacement 1.6L 1.8L 2.0L
Horsepower 96 @ 5600 97@5600 110@5600
Torque 99.8 @3600 102@3600 108@3600

 

Confused yet?  So were buyers.  In 1973, sales for the sole remaining 510 model—a 2-door sedan (the 510 4-door sedan and wagon had been dropped to make way for the 610)—sold 30,688 units in its last year as a lame duck model.  In contrast, for 1974, the full range of 710 body styles (2-door, 4-door and wagon) sold 33,366 units, while the same 3 body styles in the 610 lineup sold 32,916 units. However, most years since its arrival stateside, the 510 had easily sold 60,000+ units annually.  So, Datsun’s two new models with a full range of body styles couldn’t beat the historically popular 510.  Uh oh.

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Simplification was the answer.  For 1978, among Datsun’s “main line” non-sports/specialty cars, the B210 was the entry point, while the 810 took top honors as the fanciest.  The middle range was once again covered by just one series wearing a familiar favorite name: the 510. A 2-door sedan, 4-door sedan and 4-door wagon were on offer, along with a groovy new body style—that 1970s favorite, the 2-door hatchback.  This was the model Car and Driver tested in the December 1977 issue.

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All the right ingredients were present and accounted for, but somehow the final mix was uninspiring.  The new 510 was competent in most every way, but truly memorable in none.  That special brio, which had made the original 510 an object of desire for enthusiasts on a budget, was extinguished.  In its place was an economical transportation module in the best Consumer Guide tradition.

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Indeed, in the 1978 CG Auto Test, the new 510 was ranked #2 in its subcompact class.  Receiving the top score was the talented Honda Accord—a car that presented excellent engineering with a youthful, fun-to-drive flair.  Nipping at Datsun’s heels the were the fresh, front-wheel-drive Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon. Datsun’s archival Toyota ranked surprisingly poorly by CG in the subcompact class for 1978 (tied for 5th with the Dodge Colt), but the Corona was in the final year of its 5-year cycle.  For 1979, the Corona would be revamped once again, a reminder that stalwart Toyota, the King of Good, would be relentless in their quest for dominance by building bullet-proof, up-to-date, well-priced family conveyances (who would have dreamed in 1978 that Toyota would one day snatch that market position away from Chevrolet).  Still, in spite of Datsun’s high ranking among subcompacts, this blandly efficient 510 would soon be forgotten, regarded as nothing more than cheap, reliable transportation.

So Datsun seemingly took a page from Detroit and wasted a good name on the wrong car.  Enthusiasts looking for a rebirth of that old 510 magic were disappointed, while thrifty shoppers seeking a straightforward, high-quality Japanese car couldn’t have cared less what it was called—it could have been a Violet, as named in Japan, and import-hungry Americans would have snapped it up anyway.

Additional reading:

Curbside Classic: 1979 Datsun 510 – Revived In Name If Not Spirit by Dave Saunders