The Datsun 200B was an immensely popular if humble, mainstream Japanese family sedan during its 1977-81 run in Australia: a Camry before there was a Camry, if you will. But while the history of the Camry reveals a car that rose to the top and stayed there, the tale of the 200B and its successors shows a different and distinctly downward trajectory.
In high school, I had a classmate who inherited from her father a banana yellow 200B wagon. I jokingly called it “the Daaaaht-sun” – closer to how Americans pronounce the name than the Aussie pronunciation of “DAT-sun” – and it was easily the most distinctive car in the student parking lot. Everyone else had a Hyundai Excel or a Mitsubishi Mirage, and here was this bright yellow, 1970s station wagon. Well, suffice it to say, this 200B looks a little edgier than my classmate’s old wagon. The owner of this particular 200B has made some minor modifications – lowered suspension, bigger wheels, JDM mirrors – and the result is rather appealing.
The 200B was the Australian market version of what North American Curbsiders would know as the 810, and other Curbsiders may know as the Bluebird. While the 810 was powered by a straight-six and positioned as a more upscale offering, the 200B was targeted directly at Aussie fleet and family buyers. As the name suggests, it was powered by a 2.0 four-cylinder engine, producing 97 hp. Initially, the 200B range – coupe, sedan and wagon – was imported from Japan and featured an independent rear suspension. However, when the 200B made the switch to local production, the IRS was ditched in favor of a live axle with coil springs and trailing arms to meet local content targets; the wagon always had a live rear axle with leaf springs.
Although it initially received a frosty reception from the press, Datsun’s Australian operations made some meaningful improvements during the car’s run. Even the new rear suspension was regarded by some automotive journalists as not being the retrograde step it appeared on paper. The slow-selling, imported coupe was axed in 1979, and the sporty SSS – sporty in suspension tuning, but offering no extra power – was replaced by the locally-developed SX, which followed a similar formula. I don’t know how many SX models the company sold but trust me: the 200Bs remaining on Australia’s roads look a lot more like my old classmate’s wagon than the tape-striped curiosity pictured above.
The 200B dominated the mid-size sedan segment, outselling the rival Toyota Corona. But its glory was short-lived: Mitsubishi had launched their crisp, Galant-based Sigma in 1977 and it became the segment’s best-seller. Each of the offerings from Mitsubishi, Datsun/Nissan and Toyota continued to follow the same conventional formula long after it had become passé in Europe and North America. The 200B was replaced in 1981 with the Bluebird which – déjà vu – may have looked like the 1981 810 Maxima but lacked the six-cylinder engine, IRS and most other especially desirable features of that model. Underneath the more angular and contemporary sheetmetal was the same basic car as the 200B, with the same engine. Again, a “sporty” trim level was offered, the TR.X; unlike the featured 200B, this TR.X appears to be entirely stock.
Mitsubishi and Toyota, too, offered “sports” models like the Corona SR and Sigma GSR. But as the 1980s progressed, these Japanese intermediates didn’t – any revisions were predominantly cosmetic. Sales remained strong, owing to the conservative nature of many Australian buyers. The Bluebird was the stodgiest of the three Japanese models by far: it still offered only a carburetted 2.0 four-cylinder, while the bland Corona at least had an optional fuel-injected 2.4 and Mitsubishi had the torquey Astron 2.6 and, briefly, a turbo four. Anyone seeking driving excitement probably wasn’t cross-shopping these mid-size models, however.
By the mid-1980s, Mitsubishi replaced the Sigma with the thoroughly modern and well-packaged Magna, Toyota finally embraced the front-wheel-drive Camry and Nissan entered the modern era with a daring, advanced, stylish front-wheel-drive model.
Just kidding. They launched the rear-wheel-drive Pintara.
Nowadays, rear-wheel-drive is revered as the most desirable drive format. That may be so but I can assure you there is nothing especially dynamic about a Bluebird TR.X or a Pintara. While Nissan had a front-wheel-drive Bluebird, Stanza and Maxima in other markets, they chose to stick with their old formula in Australia. The boxy RWD Pintara/Skyline proved to be a disappointment for Nissan. Its replacement was a version of the FWD U12 Bluebird/US Stanza badged as the Pintara, which helped kill Nissan’s Australian manufacturing operations. The first Altima was imported here for a few years and badged as the Bluebird, right as the yen soared and Japanese cars’ MSRPs followed suit. At that point, Nissan simply gave up and went without a conventional mid-size sedan for 17 years. That’s the story of Nissan’s Aussie intermediates: from soaring like an eagle, to dead as a dodo in just two decades.