COAL #16: 1978 Datsun King Cab – King of Space Mountain in the Small Truck Sandbox

The 1977 Datsun King Cab pickup revolutionized the small truck market in the US, and pointed out a new direction for truck makers that still exists today.  As archaeologists of the future dig through the rust flakes of junkyard time, they’ll deduce that the King Cab represented an epochal shift in truck design.  Similar to how dinosaurs are marked as before & after the mass extinction event, or calendar years are categorized as “BCE/AC” or “BC/AD”, historians will view truck design as BKC (Before King Cab) and AKC (After King Cab) as markers in their world.

In today’s world where it’s increasingly difficult to find single cab pickups, it’s hard to remember that at one time single cab pickups ruled the land in the US, and no one knew that a tidal shift was about to occur.

So what was the big deal (pun intended) with the Datsun King Cab?

The 1970’s brought dramatic change and upheaval in the US automotive landscape.  The freewheeling 60’s zeitgeist of daring style and innovative technology was choked off by US automakers lazy responses to increasing emissions controls and rising insurance premiums.  US manufacturers focused on making their broughamtastic cars even broughmier, as everyone knows that landau roofs and opera windows make the man.  For “performance”, automakers also knew that consumers didn’t really need fuel injection, overhead cams or other fancy stuff.  Instead, just take these 440/460/500 cu in engines with all of 195/197/190 horsepower.  Oh, and gas mileage?  You’ll take your 11 mpg and you’ll like it because … ‘Merica!

Imported cars provided a different answer, as they went from 8% of US sales (mostly VW) in 1966 to 29% of sales in 1980.  Southern California had always been a hot bed of import activity, and represented the largest market for imported vehicles during those years.  Growing up in that place at that time, I took for granted the bewildering variety of imports available as daily drivers.  Although I was aware of some of the differences between Southern California and other parts of the country, it took a trip to my sister’s house in Rock Island Il. really to drive the point home.  On one such trip it suddenly struck me that during my five days out there, I saw – literally – only a handful of imported vehicles.  That would certainly change with time, but in the late 70’s/early 80’s those disparate automotive worlds might as well have been on two different planets.

Automotive data junkies can visit (“Imported Automobiles in the United States: Their Rising Market Share and the Macroeconomic Impact of a Proposed Import Restriction”) to get a sense of what was happening and to feed their data nerd habit.  It’s OK, go ahead and take an hour if you’d like; we’ll be here when you get back.

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Datsun competed with the best imports in sales volume and actually led in some market segments.  Its 510 was viewed as a mini BMW 2002, even if its sales didn’t match Toyota’s more conventional Corona.  Datsun’s 240Z set the automotive world on its ear and beat all competitors for much of its early life.

Datsun trucks made their US debut in 1958 at the Los Angeles Auto Show and began sales in the US shortly thereafter.  Datsun handily beat Toyota in US trucks sales in the 60’s and early 70’s, finally swapping places in the later 70’s when Toyota really came into their own.

Mini pickup sales took off in the 70’s in Southern California, much of it due to rising gas and vehicle prices and a desire to express some type of active individuality versus traditional US cars.  Domestic manufacturers quickly jumped into the market with captive imports, with Ford bringing its Courier ( a rebadged Mazda), Chevy with its LUV (rebadged Isuzu), and Chrysler bringing its Arrow/Ram D-50 (rebadged Mitsubishi).

With limited room, note that the rear window in this Datsun 521 is also the occupant’s head restraint

All of these pickups shared reasonable size & fuel economy, surprising load carry ability and affordable pricing.  They also shared a somewhat cramped cab experience that worked well enough if you were of average size (5’ 9”) or smaller, but six footers and above quickly ran out of room.  It was easy to spot those of larger stature that drove mini pickups in those days, as they developed a hunched over praying mantis like pose even when they weren’t driving.

Unfortunate that the smiling model has no legs, as normal humans couldn’t sit up that far

That all changed when Datsun introduced its King Cab pickup in 1977.  Datsun heavily advertised the space behind as holding all kinds of stuff, but drivers soon discovered that its greatest utility was in providing enough room for them to finally stretch out and enjoy the truck.  Bucket seats were the only ones available (versus the bench seats standard everywhere else) and they could be slid back and reclined to accommodate those of larger heights and statures.  Suddenly, the praying mantis pose was passé as drivers actually exited their vehicles with a smile instead of a grimace.

Both Datsun & Toyota introduced longer wheelbase lengths to allow for a second choice in bed length – over seven feet versus the standard six.  Datsun took this longer frame, put on the shorter bed and used the rest of the wheelbase for its enlarged King Cab model.  They also introduced a five speed transmission in 1978, which made for more relaxed cruising to go with the more relaxed space.

It was 1983, and my wife and I purchased our first home – a foreclosure fixer upper in Huntington Beach for only $100,000.  We got an excellent interest rate (for the time) of only 13%!  Interest rates like that didn’t leave a lot of extra cash, and this house needed a whole lotta work.  But it did have good bones, a good location and a swimming pool (which needed work as well).  A pickup truck would be supremely helpful, and a small one would also help with high gas prices.

I had previously owned a Datsun 521 truck (with a flat bed no less) and well-remembered the praying mantis pose my body took after enough time.  And I still had PTSD from driving a Ford Courier with three people for six hours to Kings Canyon National Park.  That type of experience has since been banned by the Geneva Convention as cruel and unusual punishment.

I had always liked the looks of the Datsun 620 pickups, and the King Cab versions just looked right and offered the promise of stretch out comfort.  Their softer curves somewhat reminded me of GM’s “Glamour/Action Line” series of C10/20/30 trucks of 1967-1972; another truck that looked right without a bloated size.

My trusty Auto Trader search eventually found a good condition sample in Kermit the Frog green topped by a camper shell.  I called it “Kermit the Frog green” as Datsun’ actual paint color was called “Green” – highly evocative on the imagery those Datsun marketers.

Camper shells were all the rage in the 80’s and gave great protection for additional stuff you might have stowed in the bed.  Now, although that previous sentence is completely true, I found that the real reason to keep the camper shell on was to tame the punishing ride these small pickups gave.  Owners really had a choice – either keep weight in the back (300 pounds of beer kegs, sandbags or whatever) or say goodbye to your kidneys due to all the jarring motions.  Some mini-pickups even offered “soft ride” packages, but the empty, jarring ride was the price you paid for over ½ ton of carrying capacity.

That’s not a stock steering wheel, but otherwise King Cabs were well equipped as shown.

The interior of the King Cab pickup was a relatively pleasant place to be.  The instrument panel was functional, clean and far more car like than previous iterations.  The bucket seats actually reclined (something not available on the bench seat models) and visibility was excellent.  Carpet was standard (versus a rubber floor mat), but sound insulation was nonexistent, so these would never be confused for an LTD.  Being a Japanese vehicle, everything was screwed together in a way that Detroit could only dream of at that time.

These trucks were light at only 2286 pounds, so a King cab could carry about 50% of its unladen weight – hence the rough riding kidney comments above.  This lightness meant that power steering wasn’t needed, and also meant the insulation and AC were luxuries left to other vehicles.

The L20B engine was part of Datsun’s “L” series Overhead Cam engines in four and six cylinder guises.  The four cylinder was used in many of its cars & trucks, while the six cylinder powered the 240/260/280Z and Nissan Maxima.  Emission controls consisted of the typical spaghetti mess of vacuum lines, but the OHC goodness and revability was still there, generating 110 hp @ 5.600 rpm.  Redline was at 7,000 rpm, but anything above 6,000 rpm generated more noise than actual thrust.  Again, this was a whole different world compared to contemporary US engines.

With 110 hp and about 2300 pounds of weight, a King Cab pickup easily kept up in the freeway races.  The 5 speed transmission shifted well, and the ratios were nicely spaced with no large gaps.  0-60 came up in about 15 seconds (due to limited traction), and gas mileage was in the mid 20’s.  Steering was on the slower side since it wasn’t power assisted, but handling was relatively nimble and it certainly didn’t wallow given the stiff springing.

The stiff springing could make driving an adventure however, since suddenly braking on a less than smooth surface could set up a bouncing pogo stick type motion that was guaranteed to grab your attention the first time you experienced it.  Braking was aided by the disc brakes Datsun added in 1978.

Although the camper shell could be removed, I normally left it on as it helped smooth out what was an otherwise jittery unladen ride.  The more kegs things that I put in the bed, the smoother the ride.  Although these were tough little trucks, rust protection was pretty skimpy, so many areas saw these dissolve before they reached collector status.  Fortunately, Southern California is a very low rust environment even with its proximity to the ocean.  If you were more than a quarter mile away from the beach then your vehicle would be just fine.

As I said before, the foreclosure house needed a lot of work, and the well sized bed came in very handy for the numerous things required to make the house a home.  I bought the house knowing that the furnace didn’t work and wasn’t repairable.  This isn’t something you can typically do today when getting a loan on a property, but this was the 80’s and lenders had an “anything goes” attitude back then.  I’d budgeted money to replace the furnace about 18 months down the road, so heat would be an issue until then.  Although Huntington Beach is certainly not Buffalo, NY, winter could still get chilly, so until the furnace was replaced, the wood burning fireplace would have to do.

One extended weekend, my wife and I took the camper shell off and headed up to see friends in Chico, CA, about nine hours north.  Our trip up was a bit bumpy but fine, as we had two adults and luggage for ballast.  Once up there, we bought a half cord of firewood and loaded that little King Cab up.  The ride smoothed out immensely even as our acceleration slowed.  Though perhaps a bit overloaded (OK, there was about 2,200 pounds of firewood…), the truck swallowed the load and ran without complaint.  Our speed was definitely lower heading up the grapevine, but we got home in one piece with no damage done.  That was one tough and forgiving little truck.

Most other manufactures picked up on the King Cab concept, including the domestic small trucks introduced in the 80’s.  Datsun/Nissan eventually lost its pickup sales leadership in the mid 70’s, and Toyota never looked back.

The King Cab was an excellent vehicle during my years of ownership, and reflecting on it reminds me how far modern trucks have come in terms of size and height.  The King Cab had generous space for two, over half a ton of carrying ability, decent ground clearance and low loading height.  I do wonder sometimes if there might be a market for something like that today – trucks that are just trucks without the height and pretense of size.  I realize that market forces and costs impact what type of vehicle is produced, but it seems that there could be a niche for an honest, easy to park and right sized pickup, as even today’s midsize trucks stretch those definitions.

The King Cab gave dependable service for years while in the household, carrying everything necessary to take a house from a forlorn foreclosure property to a pretty nice home.  By 1987, the need for the little King Cab was reduced, and I started thinking of something else for my wife to run around in.  I already had the Audi 4000S and the two Datsun Roadsters, and no children were in the picture yet, so a two seater would still work.  This next two seater though, was about as far from a Datsun pickup as you can imagine, but that’s a story for our next COAL…