Cohort Classic: 1979 Datsun 210 (Sunny) – The Many Identities Of A Nissan Sunny; A Gallery Of Curbside Finds

Datsun 210 images from the Cohort by Jerome Solberg.

It’s no surprise to Curbside readers that some car models have different lives, all depending on what market they are sold at. Renaults were trouble-prone little cans in the Americas but proved trustworthy companions in Europe. Kia Prides were quirky little boxes in the Western world but served as faithful family haulers in developing countries. And so on.

And that’s just the case with the ’77-’81 Datsun 210 (4th gen. Nissan Sunny). In many places, an accessible economy car. In others a second family car, for Jr. to attend college. In other places, a sensible family sedan to do full-time duty. And in my case, an object of lust and desire. At least for a short while.

What fate and identity a car has depends on when and where it was purchased. We’ll start with this outstanding find from California, which I peg belongs to 1979-80; sold originally just as a new energy crisis was simmering. Talk about perfect timing. For the 210, that is.

Nissan had gone global way before the 4th gen. Sunny appeared, and the company had placed great effort in turning the model into an appliance suitable for many needs. It came in a multitude of variants and packages; sedans in 2 and 4 doors, sporty-looking hatchbacks, and station wagons. All were available in different trims, from the basic to the fully loaded. And this nicely trimmed 210 shows that even as an economy car, one didn’t have to abstain from niceties such as a sunroof.

In all honesty, I looked into CC’s vault expecting to find rather unflattering comments about these. I assumed most were looked upon as punishment rides, the ‘obligatory’ economy car to survive another energy crisis. Instead, most comments and posts referred to these as decent, humble, and loyal appliances. Cars that performed their duty well, and ran decently in an age when that wasn’t quite guaranteed in the economy class.

In the case of the US, I think the term humble is rather fitting for the 210. Loyal too. After all, Nissan could add all the options in their book, but I doubt anyone in California bought one to impress the next-door neighbor. Sensible, reasonable, and ‘good value,’ seem appropriate terms for a 210 Sunny roaming California’s streets. And when it comes to this surviving one, remarkable is another fitting term.

Look at that interior. It’s almost in stock showroom condition. Memories of my childhood are reawakened just by its sight. And I wonder, has this 210 been restored? And who would bother? Economy cars may do their jobs well, and may even last a good amount of time, but most eventually succumb. After all, ‘economy’ is in their name, a word that doesn’t mix with preservation and much less restoration.

Yet, this interior is almost perfect; I almost feel like I’m visiting a Datsun dealership, circa 1979. Those seat and door panel patterns just scream late ’70s, and this car is so intact, it’s as if CC’s Tatra87 had found it in the streets of Tokyo.

I mentioned cars can have different identities, sometimes by fate, sometimes by design. And sometimes a parent company can share those traits as well. Like in the case of Nissan, an unsteady and ever-changing player, on many occasions much to its detriment. From daring and whimsical risk-taker, to dull-transport purveyor; the ups and downs of Nissan are rather memorable ones. And while I’ve told the story before, I’ll go over it quickly for those unfamiliar with it (The next 5 paragraphs appear in more detail in my Datsun Cherry post).

Part of an early industrial consortium dating to the late 19th century, Nissan has claims of being Japan’s first carmaker (A claim that it’s in a bit of a quarrel with Mitsubishi’s). Rearranged into a new entity after WWII, the company moved quickly to car production. In soon enough time, it was Japan’s main car producer, though not for long. Pesky Toyota would take over the crown by the mid-60s and Nissan would never quite recover.

Toyota rose by diligently assessing customer needs, thanks to carefully listening to their dealers’ feedback. Nissan lacked such qualities, the result of opposite management and production realities. Toyota kept a steady ship with long-term planning at its center, thanks to lower operational costs and stable management. Meanwhile, Nissan carried a lot of baggage from its pre-WWII days; a large and spread-out industrial complex with costly operations, and a roster of managers with changing priorities. It was more ‘response’ than planning in Nissan’s case.

Toyota surpassed Nissan for good with their T40 Corona in 1964. To consolidate its hold on the market, Toyota was preparing a new model: the 1966 Corolla. It was aimed at a new market segment, the so-called ‘popular car,’ placed in a sweet spot directed to Japan’s rising middle-class needs. If the model succeeded, Japan would no longer be a bipolar world stuck between bubble cars and commercial fleet models. Not that Nissan was caught flat-footed, as it was aware of Toyota’s impending ‘popular car.’

With a knack for trendy pop stunts, Nissan launched a public contest to name its new ‘popular car’ by mail-in ballots. With over eight million submissions, the ‘Sunny’ moniker was the winner. Conveniently, the chosen name nicely tied Nissan’s new car with Japan’s rising sun flag. With such logic, Nissan could argue that the Sunny was not only a new car, but a matter of national pride.

In 1966, Toyota and Nissan launched their ‘popular cars’: the Corolla and the Sunny respectively.

The Sunny sold well, make no mistake. But the Corolla did better. Toyota knew its customers well, and the Corolla offered more of what they wanted. Nissan’s luck didn’t improve much in the next few years, and by the early ’70s, its whole lineup went for outré styling and attention-grabbing advertising in order to upstage its rival.

Most who have seen Nissan’s mid-70s models remember them well, mostly for the wrong reasons. A lot of Pentastar styling, lots of Kabuki mask detailing, and even a bit of space pod feel. It was a bit much, even for the Japanese public. No amount of funky advertising or swinging / flying models could sway buyers toward Nissan’s showrooms. With sales underperforming, Nissan quickly reprieved to safer grounds.

As it’s their wont, Nissan over-corrected and their late ’70s models were as safe as they could be. The new 4th gen. Sunny was launched in Japan in November 1977, and after its out-of-this-world interlude, it was now a sensible and sober vehicle. It had lines that recalled Nissan’s late ’60s models, chiseled a bit for the late ’70s.

While the Corolla still surpassed it in sales, these sensible Sunnys recouped lost ground in their native Japan. It was a model that wasn’t meant to have too much character, but that instead offered a good balance between performance, style, and price. And even if its character was a bit bland by design, the Sunnys came with multiple options and body variants. Ideal for the many markets it was to reach.

In the developing world, the multiple possibilities of a 4th gen. Sunny turned it into a rather versatile vehicle. Most of its variants are still found in Central America, in various states of service and condition. And in these lands, the Corollas and Sunnys of the ’70s are the equivalent of an Impala or a Fairlane in the US; family cars that could be optioned out to offer an ‘upscale’ feel. On top of that, for many families, these were their first vehicles ever. A reason the models -both the Corolla and the Sunny- are revered and have a loyal following to this day.

Mechanically speaking, the Sunnys were rather traditional and safe. It had the conventional FR layout, with struts and coils up front, and a revised rear suspension with coils that finally got rid of the ancient leaf springs (which the wagon still retained). A 4 or 5-speed manual was available, as well as a 3-speed automatic. Sturdy and basic was the Sunny’s mechanical mantra, ideal for developing nations with rough roads and poorly trained mechanics.

As can be seen above, locals can keep these Sunnys running forever regardless of condition. While decades have passed, these old cars are still rather common. Even if most are in barely-there running shape.

The Sunnys were powered by Nissan’s well-proven 1.2L and 1.4L A-engines, available in most markets. The UK and New Zealand got an additional 1.6L L-engine. It was technology Nissan had learned to build and refine since their Austin-assembly days. Friendly, efficient, and serviceable.

The Sunny’s basic underpinnings mean many local owners turn these into little racers. Some in appearance, some for real. I suppose this 2-door is more for show than for real, but its owner is certainly proud of it. Those rims alone are probably worth as much as the car itself.

This is the station wagon variant, better known as ‘Van’ in Nissan-JDM-speak. In its native market, these were mostly intended for commercial use, with a 3-door panel van version also available. The wagon’s fate varied elsewhere, and over here most performed as family haulers.

Talking about multiple identities, Sunnys were sold everywhere under a soup of letters few can keep track of: 210, 120Y, 130Y, 140Y, 150Y, 310, and just plain Sunny. Add to that they were sold under the soon-to-be discarded Datsun brand, and it’s obvious Nissan had a lot of identity issues of its own.

A slight body update came for 1981-82, with then-trendy square headlights applied on the Sunny’s fascia. If I’m to trust the internet (Gosh, could it lie to me?), a somewhat risqué campaign was used during that re-launch.

Besides the established Sunny models, a new wagon variant appeared in late 1979. A ‘lifestyle’ product, to attend the changing nature of Japan’s middle class, now looking for more versatile vehicles. Nissan referred to these as ‘California’ style. Fittingly, it was this variant of the Sunny wagon that reached the States.

While this picture was taken in a San Salvador shopping center, it’s a US-spec model. This one not only carries the restyled 1981 front but also features US bumpers and labeling.

As I mentioned early on, there was a period in my youth when I lusted for this generation of Sunnys. When did the mundane become desirable? When out of the blue, one afternoon in 1979, Mom decided to change our family car and drove to a Datsun dealer. Then, I was left alone for a few minutes in the showroom, where I looked over the new Sunnys, all shiny and ready to go home. Not only did I prance around those Sunnys, I also took a few brochures for later study.

It all ended poorly though, with Mom being duped into buying a 1978 F10 no one dared to purchase. A story I’ve told and referred to often.

I spent the next few years with those Sunny brochures at home, thinking of ‘what could have been.’ I cut some of them up, drew on some, and kept playing various ‘Sunny’ (yes, pun intended) scenarios in my head. The hatchback fastback was -of course- my favorite. After all, what kid doesn’t like fastbacks?

So in my case, there’s one more identity to the Sunny; it was a kid’s dream. In unlikely circumstances I grant you, but a dream nonetheless. Yet, I know the model means something different to many of you, wherever you may be, as this was pretty much a global car. Such is the reality, of the many fates and identities of a car model.


Further reading:

Curbside Classic: The Humble But Well-Travelled Datsun 210

Curbside Classic: Datsun B210 Bit O Honey

Curbside Classic: 1980 Datsun B210 – The Curbside Manifesto

Curbside Classic: ’74-’77 Datsun 100a (Cherry E10) – Cherry Picking